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'Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?' is the memoir of a widowed Irish man raising 11 children


If you're 5 years old when you lose your mother, people with red eyes and hushed voices start to fill your house. But you have never been to a wake. What do you say when they stick out their hands? "Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?" is Seamas O'Reilly's funny and sweet, sometimes scalding and sarcastic memoir, recounting what it was like to be a little boy living through loss and doing that as one of 11 siblings in rural Derry during the times of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Mr. O'Reilly, who a columnist for The Observer and Irish Tattler, joins us from London. Thank you so much for being with us.

SEAMAS O'REILLY: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Your brothers and sisters were between the ages of 2 and 17. Firstly, let me register a wow. What difference did it have to have all that company in grief?

O'REILLY: I suppose it probably made things easier in most ways. So being one of 11 children, even in Ireland at that time, was, you know, quite freakish. We did not consider ourselves normal by any stretch. And in terms of dealing with grief, you're cocooned, I guess. You know, you kind of - the whole it takes a village thing is a little bit easier when you have manufactured yourself a village. As much as it was great and a lot of ways to have that resource in such a trying time, it can also be difficult because you'd get past some part, but you see someone else was having trouble, and then that would make you sad. And so it was certainly interesting. It's also the only way I've ever experienced it.

SIMON: Did you and your siblings finally get an idea how much she had done for you when she was gone?

O'REILLY: We did, yeah. I mean, I think, certainly as I get older now, I can look back and see. I mean, I've got two kids, and every day I think I should, you know, have street parties in my honor. And, you know, the idea of having 11 is, you know, completely insane. But I suppose at an early age, I got a sense of just how much had been done, particularly because I was seeing its shadow reflected in my father, who was left to bring 11 rambunctious children up...


O'REILLY: ...And to do so with just pure hard work. I make fun of him in the book quite a bit because he's a funny character, like I think all dads are when you scrape down to them. But it's - really, it's a love letter to him and to the things that he achieved as much as it is to my mother's memory.

SIMON: Tell us about the O'Reilly family bus.

O'REILLY: We were obviously a bit too large in number to be conveyed by the usual vehicles. So quite tragically and mortifying, we were transported by my father in a minibus. We looked a little bit like a youth group of young offenders who were going off to play in, like, a sports tournament.

SIMON: (Laughter).

O'REILLY: It was - it's like - it looked like a municipal vehicle. It was nicknamed, with some sad inevitability, the O'Reilly mobile.

SIMON: Almost killed you a few times, too, didn't it?

O'REILLY: Yes. He decided he was going to take us to Spain the year after my mum died to see her sister, pulling along a 24-foot caravan. It was basically like driving the Empire State Building from Derry. We just loved it. But we were - we meant go in through the Pyrenees between sort of France and Spain, which, if you have been there, if you've even seen pictures, it's that part where, you know, a donkey pushing a cart could topple over, you know, at any moment. So the fact that we managed to get by without dying is pretty miraculous.

SIMON: For your edification, your father maintained what sounds like one of the world's great private video libraries.

O'REILLY: I find that a lot of people particularly enjoy this facet of my father. Possibly nothing is more impressive than the fact that he amassed, for reasons best known to himself, a private collection of 800 films that he taped off the TV - I think because he liked the machines. He liked to have his machines, to have them working.

He went further, however, because anybody could do that. He decided he would teach himself a rudimentary programming language which allowed him to database all of these films. And so it soon became clear that that was actually the real thing. He liked to keep things orderly. He liked - he was a natural born archivist, I suppose, taping far too many "Police Academy" movies.

He would often try to save a bit of time by putting two movies on the one tape. So if he had 3 hours, he put 2 90-minute movies on. This would result in some truly jaw-dropping double bills. I believe "Pride And Prejudice" was on the same tape as "Highlander," and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" was on the same tape as the last third of "Ben-Hur." "RoboCop" was on the same one as a - sort of a country music performance that had been on Irish television. So you could watch these all those double bills. You'd just have to be in a very specific mood, I would say.

SIMON: I want to get you to read a section, which I think is utterly gorgeous, about your family when you get together now.


(Reading) Telling old stories is a large percentage of what we do when we return home. We sit around the huge kitchen table which contained us comfortably back when our feet dangled inches from the floor. These days, we barely get around it at all. The whole thing creaks when we laugh. We do still fit. But if you need to nip to the toilet or grab another bottle from the garage, it's often easier to scape by slipping underneath and through the hedge-tight bramble of legs shaking with laughter than to inch past all those backs, pressed flat against the wall seats lining either corner. Around that table, no one finishes a sentence, and we delight in each other's misremembered notions, undigested memories, embarrassing acts from its past, recollections of mommy, of each other, of ourselves.

SIMON: That's how we go on, isn't it?

O'REILLY: Hmm. It is. And I think part of the process of writing a memoir is leaning into that impulse to go into stuff that you've told a million times and find the truth beyond the story. I mean, I write humor generally. From certain angles, people might look at those circumstances and think, this is a very sad, tragic story, when actually there's an awful lot of love and joy and fun in my childhood. And I wanted to get that across.

SIMON: Boy, your father's a hero. How did he do it? - not just care for and love you all and look out for you all, but be a source of delight, too.

O'REILLY: I mean, I don't want to go completely nuts because he can be a crotchety fellow. When he heard the audiobook - because my dad has diabetes, so his eyesight isn't good for reading text, so he listened to the audiobook in 5 hours. It took him 5 hours because he had to slow it down, Scott. It was the first thing he said, was that I spoke too fast. But the second thing he said was that I was too kind to him.

And I think to some extent, I knew I was going to have to say a lot of wonderful things about him because this is a man who had 11 kids who was bereaved of the love of his life at 44 years old, brought us all up on a single wage in the middle of the Troubles. But I was just - practically, logistically, how did he do this? He had - six of his seven daughters were teenagers at once for two years. I can't imagine what that was like. And I was there, you know? When did any of us get to use the bathroom? You know, when did he have a moment of peace? That, to me, is as almost as incredible as anything else. Everyone of my family who has now had kids - you know, most of us have - we had the same experience where we just have a wet Tuesday at 2 p.m. We're covered in yogurt, or we've stepped on a Lego, and we rang him up and say, how did you do this? (Laughter) How did you do any of this? And he always answers the same way. He always says, which of these would I give back?


O'REILLY: And that's a very sweet thing, which says a lot about him, but it perhaps says a lot about us that we immediately start suggesting candidates.

SIMON: Seamas O'Reilly - his memoir is "Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?" Thank you so much for being with us.

O'REILLY: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.