Every bookstore in Ireland is well stocked with accounts of growing up on a remote Irish farm, but Tom Phelan’s memoir of his boyhood is exceptional. Phelan looks back on his world — County Laois in the 1940s and ’50s — with a certain amount of sentiment, but this tone is hardened by detailed descriptions of the staggering amount of work all members of his family were expected to do.
“We Were Rich and We Didn’t Know It” is divided into 42 brief chapters, and I confess that I sped through the book (yeah, just one more chapter before bed). Phelan’s prose has an unpretentious beauty as he describes the farm, its routine and the people he remembers.
Like many Irish memoirs, the heart of this book is the son’s conflicted relationship with his father, but this is no “Angela’s Ashes” tale of alcohol and dissipation. JohnJoe Phelan’s work ethic comes across as superhuman, and his never ceasing worries about the weather, animals, tools (no tractors or electricity), market prices and children’s duties fill the air that everyone breathes.
Moreover, both parents took the pledge when they were young and have little patience with drinkers. The result, the author recognizes as he grows up, is that his family was indeed “rich,” drawing sustenance from the land, the labor and one another. If Tom sometimes disappoints his father or draws his volcanic anger, he is likewise awed by this uncommunicative man — and we can feel the undercurrents of love.
The Phelan family is also locally distinguished in that Tom’s Aunt Theresa is a nun. So it seems natural in his town that locals should predict Tom for the priesthood — when he is 4. Fortunately for him, he is struck by the beauty of his church — “it was the angels who had splashed the colors all over” — and later, at age 10, loves learning the Latin responses of an altar boy from Sister Carmel. He falls in love with her, too, “with the sweet voice, beautiful face, and slender fingers.”
But his education in town opens him to the jeers and bullying of town boys — he is a “rich oul farmer.” Much later, he comes to understand that the boy who stole his lunch of a bread-and-jam sandwich was likely more hungry than cruel.
Such a faraway lifestyle that Phelan describes! Catholic children never saw Protestant children. No one in the family ever rode the horses they owned, and Tom’s Mam never ate at the table with the rest of the family. And we see JohnJoe trading cattle, uprighting a downed horse, bringing in wheat from a wet field and shaving himself with the straight razor he uses to slit the necks of turkeys — as his children look on in terror. Afterward, he quickly washes and dries his hair, “a whirlwind towel chased by two hands full of impatient fingers.”
With rich detail and sensitivity, “We Were Rich” translates for us a rural world that has disappeared. And to assist townies like me, he appends a glossary.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It
By: Tom Phelan.
Publisher: Gallery Books, 210 pages, $24.