Saturday, February 4, 2012

Review: O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen

O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen is an engaging memoir about the couple's first year in County Clare, Ireland. They moved to the quiet, rural setting from their busy, urban lives in New York City. The book recounts their losses and their revelations during the year and everything the learned along the way. It almost made me pick up and move to my own little oasis in Ireland . . . almost.

Christine Breen is the American born daughter of Irish parents attending University College Dublin when she meets Niall Williams who was born in Ireland's capital city. Ultimately, they marry and set up life in NY with jobs in Manhattan and a home just outside the city. Christine's family home in Kiltumper, West Clare becomes available after the death of her uncle and a seed is planted as she finds herself inexplicably drawn back there. At the same time, the couple has begun to grown weary of their lives in the city. Niall writes:
It [Kiltumper] struck us as so utterly different from anywhere we had ever been, so remote, so very rural. Each time we shook our heads, and returned to New York. Why then did we change our minds and commit ourselves to the West of Ireland? Because when we walked up the streets of Manhattan too many people pushed too hard to cross the street or squeezed too hard to get into too few subways ...And there would suddenly be the sense of a place far from the rushing streets, a place remote from the extravagant, urgent business of today, an old place growing older in the rain.

Clare Coastline - credit
After wrestling with the pros and cons of such a big move - afterall, the couple were moving to Ireland in the 80's at the height of great emigration from Ireland - they decide to take the leap and head for the West of Ireland. The book recounts their initial shocks and struggles as they try to adjust to life in a very rural, albeit picturesque, rugged West Clare. They arrive to their cottage which is in need of a lot of work and has little furniture and try to make it a home. Something as seemingly simple as purchasing a car becomes an ordeal as they try to navigate the rules of road taxes and licenses; this is made all the more difficult by the lack of direct dial telephone service in their small village. The convenience of picking up the phone and trying to get something "sorted" was not to be had. So the couple waited in relative isolation as they tried to get the many pieces of their life in Ireland in order - home, car, furniture. Niall speaks here to that isolation:
We saw a clearing in the south; the more land we saw from the window, the less isolated we felt. .... to Chris and me the overwhelming gloom of sheer aloneness that hangs in the air in rural Ireland is a potent force. It is at once the greatest positive and negative thing about the countryside
Village, Clare - credit
The people of their village, however, are their salvation. The steady couple next door visits with freshly made food and brings welcome company on cold, otherwise lonely evenings. Michael and Pauline head to the bog to help Niall and Christine with the back breaking work of cutting the turf - turf which is necessary to heat their home and cook their food but requires a grueling series of steps over many weeks and months to get it ready to burn. The story of their first Christmas and the story of the death of a much loved woman in the village perfectly highlights the tight knit farming community they had become part. In both instances, all the families in the village pull together to cook and bake readying themselves for visitors and they go to each others homes to share a bit of food and some stories. It is the neighbors that ultimately sustain Christine and Niall in that first year of adjustment.  

My Thoughts 
I was captivated by this book on many levels. First and foremost, it is very well written - there is almost a lyrical tone to many of the passages. There is a touch of humor as the couple muse at the new world in which they find themselves. Perhaps most of all, however, is the setting. The West of Ireland, although rugged and spare, has a certain draw. As I have mentioned before on the blog, my Mom is from the West and we went "home" to Ireland most summers to visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in a small farming village not unlike Kiltumper. Much of what amazed and frustrated them about the area were things I could relate to and reminded me of the happy times we spent in Ireland. Every time I visit I consider whether or not I could live there and feel pulled to the country; each time, however, I decide it is too big of change. Perhaps that is why the story of this couple seems especially compelling.

Emigration is the theme on which this book is built and that seems appropriate in a country which has in many ways been defined by waves of emigration. This scene described by Niall so perfectly captures the reality of emigration:
To know the real story of the West of Ireland, spend a day in Shannon Airport at the foot of the stairs to the departure lounge. They come in little clusters, farming families dressed in their best clothes, with a son or daughter moving slightly ahead in anticipation of the dreaded moment of goodbye. Mothers' faces are damp with tears, fathers are stiff with emotion, and they all grasp the rails of the moving stairs. It is joyous and sad at once. An old Irish image, the farewell has lived on through centuries of immigration and is as real today as it ever was . . . . Shannon airport is a an emotional place for people in the West. More than an airport, it is an escape hatch to America for the young and the symbol of Ireland's massive unemployment problem.
The image of traveling to Shannon in our best is very vivid for me as I remember seeing my grandfather in his suit when we came through arrivals in Shannon at the beginning of our trip and in that same suit with tears in his eyes as we went back up to Shannon six weeks later to return to NY. I never realized it then but my grandparents had to relive the farewells and departures every year without knowing if we would make it back - or they would be there- the next year. Obviously I felt a personal connection to this book but even without that this is a charming memoir about the bravery to start all over and what you learn along the way. It gives a peek into real Irish country life and all that comes along with it. If you like Ireland or memoirs or stories about starting over, you will find something to love in this book.

I never would have found this book if not for fellow blogger Kristen at Booknaround - I often find gems in her reviews and thank her for introducing me to this book!


  1. Nice review, Colleen. I remember reading this book a long time ago and liking it. Your commentary about the goodbye scenes at Shannon is so well written and so poignant. I have a similar scene in one of my published essays from a few years back. I had to read part of the essay as part of an academic panel I was on this past fall. Imagine my horror when I heard myself gettin' all choked up by my own words--the dreaded Shannon scene. Nowadays, I purposely take the bus from Galway to Shannon. Alone.

  2. BTW, did you ever read John Walsh's memoir, "The Falling Angels?" He's a U.K. journalist/writer. It's about growing up 1st generation (AKA a "shandy") in London. It was fantastic.

  3. The dynamics involved with having family in countries overseas or of immersing yourself into a different culture or way of life are definitely complex. Sounds like this really had a personal impact on you!

  4. I love memoirs like this - they always make me want to change my life too. Then, I wake up and realize that things aren't quite as ideal as they sound in the book.

  5. The setting kind of reminds me of the one in the movie "The Secret of Roan Inish." My husband and I have rented it several times, and we're always ready afterwards to pack our bags! :--)

  6. Hi Colleen,

    Many thanks for your kind review of our first 'Kiltumper' book!
    We are hoping to move it (and the 3 other Kiltumper books) onto Kindle once we can figure out the technology...:~)
    Sometimes living the rural west of Ireland – now being invaded by wind farms east to Lissycasey, west to Doonbeg, and south to the Shannon – is a bit surreal. But we're still there! 25 years later. We have seen many many changes. Ours was a reverse immigration. Today is exactly the same. In our village, the young people between 18 and 28 are few, mostly heading to New Zealand, Australia and Canada. What Niall wrote about departures at Shannon (which is getting harder and harder to get flights out of)is the same today.
    Our own daughter is in NYC. And my heart breaks when I sense it'll be months and months before she can return to our small road with its fushia/whitethorn/blackthorn hedgerow laced with brambles and honeysuckle. It misses her too...
    At least she has Kiltumper solidly in her heart. As James Taylor sings: ' it behind your eyes. Carry it your heart. Safe among your own.'
    Thanks again. And here's wishing you continued inspiration in all you do. (I love your tweets too.) If you're ever in the wescht and need a cuppa give us a shout.

  7. what a well-written review--you've succeeded in enticing me to check out this book. i love memoirs and after our recent trip to ireland, am smitten with the country. i'm not sure i could ever move abroad but would definitely consider long term renting. the airport bit speaks to me, too. next time around we're going to fly into shannon and spend more time on the west coast.

  8. I think I would enjoy this book--reminds me of A Year in Provence, and is roughly the same timeframe, though I looked it up on Amazon because I was curious when it was published (2003) versus when they made the move.

    I fantasize about moving back to the old country (my parents' expression), but I think I'm more of an armchair adventurer than a real one.

    Wonderful review--thanks.

  9. I like how you wove your own personal narrative into your reading of this memoir. My husband and I feel a similar attachment to Devon, which looks like Clare from your image, a place where his parents were raised. We've been lucky enough to move back to England twice for a sabbatical with our children.