Timothy O’Grady. Steve Pyke.
Harvill Press 1997
John Berger, in his introduction to this book, says of it “It’s a bastard. It has been made in the dark, as photos are made in a darkroom … you will find the unsaid all the while here”. And so it is. Perhaps because I know a version of this story personally, I fill in those unsaid things readily. It is a book of photographs -- black and white -- of fairly recent vintage: the early 1990s. But with a timeless quality to them. And it’s a short novel that reads like a memoir. Combined it’s a document about exile and emigration -- interchangeable words in the Irish language.
Emigration is at the heart of the Irish experience. It informs how we think of ourselves and our place in the world. It may be that Ireland has its reputation for hospitality because we know what it is to be in the stranger’s place. There was the huge emigration of Ulster Dissenters in the late 1600s, the Great Hunger that devastated Ireland in the mid-1800s and drove over a million people to foreign shores in a few short years and in the 20th century, short-sighted government policy and harsh poverty have driven further generations abroad, mostly to England. This migration, while better documented and acknowledged, still has a cruel residue. Many of those who went to England seeking work had fully expected to return to Ireland at some time and never integrated fully into English society. They find themselves abandoned there, with few connections back home and lives that somehow evaporated. You will find these experiences documented in the songs of Dominic Behan (and many others) and you will find, in books like Father’s Music by Dermot Bolger or Sudden Times by Dermot Healy, the raw existence suffered by many of those emigrés.
I first went to England in 1969 when I was just short of eighteen years of age. I worked some construction then worked in a car factory. Other jobs included lifeguard and grave digger and a job testing asphalt and concrete. In time, I went to University and then left England for the US. But during my time in England I met many an emigré and tasted that often lonely life. Maybe that’s why this book, I Could Read the Sky had such a profound effect on me.
In elegant (even beautiful) prose O’Grady evokes a rural Irish childhood, the rich tapestry of neighbour connectedness and the awful wrench of having to leave that known place and go into that other poverty of community where drink and distraction are a paper-thin prosperity and grinding labour saps the soul and strength. In the end what’s left are memories and the odd job sweeping up on some desolate building site; the one little room and the nowhere to go. This book tracks the relentless and insidious way that the spirit is ground down. Even the music that evokes the old life becomes harder and harder to play with hands beaten and brutalised by hard labour. Friends and family move on in their own journeys and fall away into their own distance.
But there is beauty in the telling of this book, a prose that is richer than much poetry you will read. There is a love story of great simple beauty and sadness. It’s a powerfully moving piece of work and I cannot recommend it highly enough.