Booking Passage: We Irish & Americans by Thomas Lynch

The poet undertakes a reviving journey home
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Thomas Lynch is well aware of how his dual identity strikes others. At home in Michigan, he says, an undertaker who writes poems has all the social cachet of a dentist who does karaoke. In Ireland or England, though, the eccentricity of these combined careers is a cause of acclamation, given that the second is not only followed against the odds, but followed brilliantly.

The poet-mortician is well to the fore in this spirited book. However, it's not so much professional as ethnic duality that exercises Lynch's imagination throughout his explorations of family and kinship, broken and enduring continuity.

What does it mean to be more-or-less affluent American, but trace your origins to the bleak west coast of Co. Clare, an area once famous for the intensity of its privations? To find out, in 1970, aged 21, the author made the spine-tingling journey from Michigan to remote Moveen. Once back on traditional Lynch territory, he found himself fitting into an unexalted way of life, gaining ties of affection and appeasing ancestral promptings.

Lynch now owns the house in Moveen from which, in 1890, his great-grandfather, having had enough of poverty and disaffection, headed west to America. The house - two-roomed, thatched, two windows and a door to the front - remained in the family, who owned it outright after 1903 courtesy of the Land Purchase Act. It passed to the author, 100 years after his ancestor left, as an inheritance from the distant cousin, Nora Lynch. With her bachelor brother, she had welcomed him in 1970 - not as a returning Yank, but as a cherished relation.

Thanks to them, his visits to the West of Ireland began to seem less like episodes of time-travelling and more like a homecoming. Booking Passage is, as much as anything, a tribute to Nora Lynch, with her catchphrases, unpretentiousness and indomitability.

One of these catchphrases, "the same but different", betokens an instinctive attitude of tolerance for everything from idiosyncrasies of the outside world to local lapses of behaviour. We might do worse, Lynch implies, than to hold it in mind in our dealings with whatever conflicts with our sense of how things should be. Specifically, he's thinking of clashes of religion, race and nationality; but the proposition holds in a general sense too.

Connections between people, between places, between times: this is a notable thread running through Lynch's book. It ties him into a celebration of friendship, with fellow-poets, with his brothers and sisters, with key figures in his life. If everything is connected, it makes for an enlarging outlook. If, for example, the house in Moveen links him to the life of his antecedents, it points forward too, with its up-to-date renovations. It's still the same, but different.

Something similar happened with the benign (in the author's experience) Catholicism imported from rural Ireland into places like Michigan, where exorbitant forms of religious observation and prodigious procreational tendencies gained an expansive American overlay. The family running to 18 or 19 children wasn't unusual. This Irish-American way of life has had to be modified not only by a - hopefully - civilising secularism, but as a consequence of disclosures about priestly delinquency and the awfulness of Irish nun-run institutions like the notorious Magdalene Laundries. But, the author would contend, you can see beyond current derangements to an essential integrity in the Catholic church, though a more flexible integrity than it used to be. He's in a reflective mood here, but his book accommodates more than one mood.

By turns diverting, evocative and provocative, Booking Passage gets to grips with all the muddle and multiplicity of its author's lifelong concerns. It does so, to our enjoyment, in a spirit of discernment and delight.

Patricia Craig's biography of Brian Moore is published by Bloomsbury