Under His Roof

Author and journalist Malachi O'Doherty on writing a book about his late father, Under His Roof, set for publication this Christmas. Click Play Audio to listen to audio extracts read by the author

I doubt if my father, Barney O'Doherty, ever thought that a book might be written about him. I doubt also that he would thank me for the one I have written, entitled Under His Roof.

But writing it has brought me to thinking well of him in ways that I hadn't for many years. He was a surly and unhappy man in his later years, and those more recent memories of him clouded my older memories of his playfulness and his hard struggle to feed a big family.

And it was only by trying to see his life through his own experience that I came to discover a perspective that invalidated my often easy criticism of him.

I have often had people tell me that I would not be the man I am but for him. Half of my genes are his. I have reflected on that with aversion. Sometimes I have caught myself sitting in his posture or stroking my hands together the way he did and I have recoiled at the thought that I was turning into him.

My wife teases me about this. When I am rising up in high wrath at some political absurdity or other, getting into a state about things, she will chide me: 'That's Barney talking.' And I suppose it is. Which means that, if I am to like myself, I must like Barney. And that is not easy. He was truculent and righteous.

I have conveyed that in the book and I could have written more about it too. He frightened me and he humiliated me. But he has his story and it is a story which, when reflected on, makes him more intelligible, even more admirable.

When the Second World War ended, Barney was 31 years old. He was single. He had worked in some capacity with 'the Yanks' in Derry. After the war, he went back to being a barman. By the mid 1950s, just a decade later, he had a wife and six children. By the mid 1960s, those children were all teenagers who were not paying much attention to him. Another decade later and they would be mostly scattered, none of them living true to his vision of how they should.

As children we look on the world as enduring and consistent. The reality we perceive is familiar and feels as if it has always been there. A year is a long time. Tell a ten year old you will buy him a bicycle next Christmas and he will feel that he will never have a bicycle. The time span is virtual eternity. But there must have been moments, in the midst of my eternities, in which Barney paused to be stunned by the suddenness of the changes that had overwhelmed him, to consider how different things might have been, how better, how worse.

Writing the book has placed me in his time frame and made me see how hard things were for him too. I was born in March 1951. I am one of twins. My mother had two children that day. She already had two other children; one of them, my sister Brid was only 11 months older than me. The next boy would be along in 20 months. That's four children born in less than three years, and two others, one just a little earlier, one a little later. I presume he left the pub he ran in Muff, in County Donegal, to earn more money to feed this big family he suddenly had.

My mother took the children to Ballycastle, to live near her parents, and Barney went to work in a pub on the Grosvenor Road in Belfast. I remember that in the house in Ballycastle there was a 'good room' that the children weren't allowed into. It stored the suite of furniture being preserved for the house we would ultimately get in Belfast.

In the meantime, Barney would save and cycle to Ballycastle to meet his children twice a week and bounce them on his knees. Could I have done that? Well, perhaps. But I haven't.

Crabbed and disillusioned, Barney in his cups, blustered and snarled about how he was a better man than I was 'any day of the week'. My challenge in life is to be a better man than Barney was, to reach old age without turning contemptuous of everything as he did. But I recognise now that he gave himself for his children and there is no possibility of his loss being restored to him, certainly not by just telling his story; that's not for him but for me.

Under His Roof will be launched at Derry Central Library on December 10 at 6.30pm and the Bookshop at Queen's on December 11 at 5.30pm, with Carlo Gebler as guest speaker.