Deprived Irish childhoods in the 1930s have become familiar enough. The bed-sheets that Maura McNamee, as she then was, slept on were coarse Odlum's flour bags sewn together by her mother. She was pleased when her family moved to a new house in County Offaly. What she liked best was that it had an outside toilet.
In adult life unhappiness was added to deprivation. She went on to a painful marriage to John Murphy, and long service as a Catholic mother (of nine). She experienced prejudice and poverty as she and her brood added to the immigrant influx into Birmingham in the 1950s. Later came addiction to tranquillisers and - of all things - bingo, followed by a succession of serious illnesses, including two heart attacks.
So far a sad tale, only exceptional in the sheer quantity of misfortune piled on this particular member of the mid-century generation in Ireland which was so corralled by poverty, repression and fear of the Catholic Church. However, Maura Murphy had two qualities that marked her out. One was her extraordinary determination to record this painful story in diaries that she kept on writing, even at her worst moments - and to the chagrin of her husband John.
The second remarkable gift emerged when, in her seventies and living back in Co Offaly in a kind of uneasy truce with her husband, she fell ill again, with cancer of the lung. She was quickly taken to St James's Hospital in Dublin. And it was during her long stay there, visited as she was and, at times, surrounded by her children, that she discovered an ability as a writer to make lively, coherent and ultimately positive use of all her painful experiences - she decided, as she recovered, to write her life story.
The result was Don't Wake Me at Doyles (2004), a gripping, horrifying, often comical 400-page memoir which has been in the paperback best-seller lists in Britain and Ireland since August. What makes it so readable and fresh - in a genre that is already quite heavily populated - is that she provides a vivid chronological account of her life, and then something more.
She's good on Maura the child, born with one leg thinner and slightly shorter than the other; the girl who knew she was intelligent but couldn't - to her shame - do sums at school. She describes her happiness earning money for the first time as a servant in a Protestant household in Dublin; then the joys and pains of the city dance halls of the Forties which eventually led to marriage with the enigmatic and occasionally violent John, who proved to be keener on Doyles pub than the fireside - a natty dresser, a great raconteur, a determined procreator but a careless father who nevertheless seems to be well loved by some, at least, of his children. The coruscating honesty of the portrait of her husband is one of the achievements of Don't Wake Me (the title means, "Don't celebrate my wake").
She is unequivocal about the lot of the Catholic mother:
What happened between a man and his wife was private. It took place in the bedroom and you didn't discuss it with anyone. Having and losing children wasn't spoken of . . . There was no such thing as post-natal depression. Women were treated worse than cattle during these days. We lost the right to use our own minds and lost control of our own bodies.
The extra, novel, element in the memoir is that Maura Murphy adds in the diary entries written by almost all her children as they fly to her bedside in Dublin, expecting the worst as she faces her lung operation. These revealing and intimate confessions add great depth and perspective to the narrative. The children expose their emotional responses to their mother's illnesses and their father's way of dealing with it. In doing so they cast further light on a marriage and parenting process which is full of ambiguous emotions, sibling rivalries and strong feelings of both anger and filial love. A vivid bedside drama is interleaved with the more traditional material - "present" and past interacting in a very complex and revealing way. This is a remarkable achievement from someone who had never published anything before.
Maura Murphy lived long enough to know of the success of her book and when she died - unexpectedly, despite her many illnesses - in Birmingham her husband was at her side.
Bernard AdamsReuse content