The Worst of Times: Her ghost followed me to Nicaragua: Joseph O'Connor talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
My mother died in February 1985, killed in a car crash.

I was the first person in the family to hear the news. There was a phone call on the Sunday morning from the priest at the hospital, and he explained in quite matter-of-fact terms what had happened. My mother had been driving to Mass, it was a cold, frosty morning. The car had gone into a skid and she'd been killed. My immediate reaction was one of disbelief, literally, I thought it was some sort of horrible practical joke. So I looked up the number of the hospital in the phone book and rang back; when the priest answered, then I accepted it was true.

My dad had been in church himself, and he came back to the house. When I told him, he looked really awful, grey-faced. I think her death was a terrible shock for him.

My parents had separated many years ago. They were both working-class Dubliners, they met when they were 13, lived in the same street, never went out with anyone else, got married too young.

In Ireland the late Fifties and early Sixties were times of very considerable economic expansion, a time to work hard, move to the suburbs, buy a nice house, maybe move up a class. They did all that, my parents, they did all the things they were supposed to do to have a happy life, and they went to church every Sunday.

Unfortunately, the marriage was unhappy. I was very young at the time, so I'm not exactly sure what happened, but there were a lot of arguments. Most of them, certainly the most extreme and aggressive ones, were about us children. They were both lovely people, but they each held very passionate views, and they clashed.

When I was nine or 10 they separated briefly, came back together, same again a while after that; and then, when I was 12, they separated for good. My dad applied for custody of the four of us, and he won, which was very unusual in Ireland at that time. And after that, my parents spent six years in court battling it out over us. Eventually, the other three kids went to live with my father and I stayed behind living with my mother.

We had a complex relationship. I liked her a lot, and there were things about her I admired, but we just didn't get on. She was an extremely sensitive person, and I suppose a 12- or 13-year-old is not really equipped to deal with the sensitivities of an adult who's been wounded by life.

I always thought that she would live to be 90, and I couldn't get over her death. The violence of it affected me, too, upset me almost more than the death itself. I'd been doing my degree at University College Dublin, where I had always worked hard, but I sort of went off the rails, I didn't go to lectures and I just couldn't concentrate, so I decided to go away.

I wanted to get out of the country for a few months, some place where I didn't know anyone, so I went to Nicaragua. There had always been endless conversations in the student bar about how interesting Nicaragua was, we had all resolved to go to there, although we sort of knew it was just talk.

Ten days later I was there. The incredible navety you have when you're 21.

I thought this would be a terrific place to get over my mother's death - when I think of it now it's almost laughable - what a place to go to escape from death. Death was an absolute commonplace there, the country was in the middle of civil war and, in the odd way of revolutionary societies, death was almost something to be celebrated.

I thought about my mother all the time; in some way her death and the death around me were related in my head. Bizarre though it may sound, what was going on in this country became welded to what had gone on in my family. I kept seeing the two things as metaphors of each other, seeing war in personal terms, and personal relationships in terms of war.

I dreamt about my mother almost every night. I dreamt about the accident, and the unresolved things between us, how the last time I had seen her, we'd had quite a bad row.

There were conversations, too. It was like being haunted. I just knew every night when I went to sleep, she would be there, we'd be sitting in the house I was brought up in, talking about trivial things.

I'm not obsessive about it now and I don't dream about her, I don't even think about her very often, but I still feel her loss. I've come to terms with it, because what's your choice? What's the other option? What is not coming to terms with it? You've got to: it's 10 years later, and life goes on. But I really do wish it hadn't happened. I miss her being around. Anything big that has happened in my life has happened since she died. The night of my 21st birthday, which was the year she died, I really wanted her to be around for that. I've had books published, for instance, which I always wanted to do. I would like to be able to show her a copy of a book and say, 'Have a read and see what you think'.

A friend of mine said to me after my mother died: 'This is the worst thing that will ever happen, the death of the parent is really the worst thing.' And he kept repeating it. I've often thought in the intervening years how true that was.

Joseph O'Connor is the eldest of four children (the singer Sinead is his sister). 'Desperadoes', published next month by HarperCollins, is his latest novel.

(Photograph omitted)

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