I'll Tell Me Ma

John Gray is moved by Brian Keenan's memoir of his Belfast childhood

Written as his aged mother lay dying of alzheimers, I’ll Tell Me Ma is not just a conventional ‘rites of passage’ memoir but a moving attempt to understand the difficult family relationships that contributed to Keenan’s own well-documented course. In it he aspires to the facility of a bat to ‘negotiate the dark enclosed passage of time, echo-locating moments of our life history that lie hidden there’.

He was a ‘lonely child’ separated from his sisters by wide age gaps. A miscarriage was one of the scars his mother carried alongside the legacy of a repressive childhood as child minder for many siblings. A hurricane of activity, she was a font of sensible advice for the women of the neighbourhood, but somehow had no close intimate friends.

None of this immediately intrudes on Keenan's early north Belfast childhood in Evolina Street. His father, an ex-air force man, who works for the telephone service, collaborates in the construction of meticulous airfix models, and brings injured birds home, which his mother is frightened of.

His father swims the semi-stagnant pond in Alexandra Park: his son disdains such heroics, and the rough and tumble of the boys, preferring girls’ skipping games. Enthusiasm for Sunday school is cut short when he is asked to leave: his mother throws the minister out of the house and the Keenan’s never return to church.

It is a world bounded by the Duncairn Picture House, otherwise ‘The Donkey’, the Waterworks where old men still talk about the Blitz, and Clifton House graveyard with its tales of body snatchers. Then it comes to an end. They are moving to east Belfast, his parents’ homeland.

Mayflower Street was in what was still palpably Belfast’s industrial heartland. A walrus moustached grandfather saw the Titanic launched and became a ‘hard hat’ or foreman in the shipyard. Curiously in this world of otherwise tough realism, his Titanic scrapbook is much preoccupied with psychic speculation. Keenan is forever torn between the possible fraternity of ‘mates’, and the sanctuary of other escapes.

Mr Robin next door lives in an otherworld of pigeons. Only Keenan is invited in until peer pressure leads to terrible betrayal. The family go on the smuggling run to Omeath in the Republic. Keenan’s father buys him an air-gun. A pigeon is on the roof outside his bedroom window, and his friends urge him to shoot. He does.

Keenan is there in the ‘hut’ built into the foot of the 11th Night bonfire, and his hour of glory comes when, with the fire already lit, he climbs to its pinnacle with the effigy of the pope - yet he feels ‘ empty’. When the Catholic boy in his street is abused Keenan sticks up for him and is assailed as a ‘Fenian lover’.

His father is an Orangeman because it is ‘our culture’. On the 11th Night he goes to a Catholic bar with his new shoes for the Twelfth, and the barman wears them to break them in for him. It is a vestige of old decency as east Belfast becomes prey to the incendiary preaching of Ian Paisley. Keenan knows he is a disappointment as ‘the son who had chosen not to follow’. He roams ever further afield using his school dinner money to take secret bus trips into the countryside. He haunts Smithfield market, and even ends up helping out on a stall.

At Avoniel Primary School he finds Jack London’s, The Call of the Wild, an enduring influence, unlike CS Lewis’s tales of Narnia or ‘toffee-apple land’. He fails the 11-plus and goes to the then new Orangefield Secondary School. He is rescued from his tendency to hide by inspired teachers who show him how words are ‘powerful magic’.

At home all is breaking apart. His father drinks more, and ugly rows with his mother break out. Keenan blames his father and awaits him armed with a carving knife, but then concludes that his mother’s ‘deadly hostility to my father was excessive and irrational’. Exhaustion rather than resolution intercedes. His father is last found as a tragic figure, drinking on his own and preparing for his death at 62.

20 years later, with his mother dying, Keenan is left exploring the relics of his home. Why are there no family photographs on display? He finds them in a box: there is his parent’s wedding picture – a handsome even glamorous young couple – but why no guests? Does his mother’s ‘crinoline lady’ reflect a life she once aspired to? Do the otherwise kitsch prints on the wall suggest his father’s fantasies? These are irresolvable matters.

Keenan’s mother dies on his birthday. Did she wait for him? Again irresolvable, but Keenan is with his own young family in Dublin. He has moved on and we are the beneficiaries.

I’ll Tell Me Ma – A Childhood Memoir by Brian Keenan is available now, published by Jonathan Cape priced £16.99.