Call Mother a Lonely Field
SHORTLISTED FOR THE RSL Ondaatje Prize 2013
the gentle particulars of life in Northern Ireland when all one saw from
"A tender, contemplative memoir..." – The Sunday Telegraph
"The touching description of his dying mother and then the loss of his father will draw a tear from the most hardened of readers." – We Love This Book
"...Carson's rediscovery of the Irish language following the death of his parents is truly moving." – The Irish World
Call Mother a Lonely Field mines the emotional archaeology of family, home and language, the author’s attempts to break their tethers, and the refuge he finds within them. Carson confronts the complex relationship between a son thinking in English, a father dreaming in Irish ‘in a room just off the reality I knew’, and a mother who, after raising five children through Irish, is no longer comfortable speaking it in the violent reality of 1970s Belfast.
The author’s Irish-speaking, West Belfast childhood is described through still-present echoes of the Second World War, dystopian science fiction, American comic books and punk rock. At the same time he explores how Irish language, literature and stories are transmitted from mouth to mouth. After years in London and Dublin, the deaths of his parents bring Liam Carson a new sense of community and understanding as he heals his fractured relationship with Irish. His rediscovery of the language as a sanctuary is central to a book exploring the potency of vanishing worlds, be they childhood, a city or a way of life.
“Call Mother a Lonely Field evokes a particular time and dramatic place, as it gets to grips with a society falling apart, all the time making a judicious distinction between archaic loyalties and civilized values. The last are embodied in the author’s father, whose ease of manner and personal integrity are set against the violence and disruption of the times… This short memoir by his son sets off more complex reverberations than its clarity and straightforward approach might suggest. It is written with a vivid economy and understated discernment.” – Patricia Craig, Times Literary Supplement
"Call Mother a Lonely Field is an immensely pleasurable book, and a valuable addition to the canon of Irish autobiography.” – The Irish Times
“Liam Carson has written the most moving memoir… a lyrical prose poem about being one of the first generation of Belfast children to be actually raised - reluctantly at times - with Irish.” – Pól Ó Muirí, IrishTimes.com
Review from The Sunday Times
“Like the city he grew up in, Liam Carson’s memoir of life in Belfast winds like a tangled web of streets, dreams, cultures and philosophies, where every page, pavement and street corner offer another dab of colour to a fascinating picture… Carson’s natural push against his parents in the 1970s coincided with the devastating change in Belfast’s complexion. Its nascent punk scene offered a soundtrack to life in a war zone. While Carson read new-wave science fiction and moved to London, his mother, Mary, drifted away from a language partly hijacked by republican violence. His father, though, retreated to his books. It seems he was living, writes Carson, ‘just off reality.’
“In time, the detached universe William created offered his son profound truths that defined the rest of his life. His father often spoke of tearmann—the idea of the Irish language as sanctuary where the language’s power to shape culture could be celebrated and explored. It is a daunting idea, but Carson handles his journey to accepting the ideas with great skill, successfully conveying the concept of the Irish language as a living, breathing organism without alienating the simplest, most compelling episodes of family life that make this book so moving in parts.
“His description of his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and eventual death are blessed with clarity, gentleness and a heart-wrenching sadness. His memories of shared moments with his father are beautifully rendered… Carson’s greatest achievement is recycling a complex mix of emotions and ideas on language into a deeply moving read.”
Michael Foley, The Sunday Times
Review from The Sunday Telegraph
"A tender, contemplative memoir examining Carson's upbringing in a happy but complex Irish-speaking household during the Troubles; it eulogises not only his parents but the Irish language itself"
The Sunday Telegraph 2012
Call Mother a Lonely Field New Welsh Review
"Amy Mc Cauley discovers language is sanctuary in this memoir nominated for the Ondaaje Prize"
Liam Carson’s Call Mother a Lonely Field is a memoir of a very strange kind. Although it features some of the standard characteristics of memoir: family narrative, the odd humorous anecdote, photographs, etc, the book is much more than the sum of its parts, chiefly because Carson turns the usual chronological format inside out. Time here is fluid; like memory, it doesn’t simply represent the accumulation of events in a sequential manner. Carson instead puts forward an alternative view – one popularised by JW Dunne - which argues that ‘all time is eternally present. In other words, the past, present and future coexist.’ Carson goes on to suggest that ‘we exist on two levels, both inside and outside time.’ This idea is absolutely central: it relates not simply to the philosophical atmosphere but to the structure of the text, which embodies the very concept it proposes.
The book is also about our experience of identity. Carson comes across as a protean character – a man who reads, dreams and wanders. At various stages of his life he adopts different selves, each of which he rejects. But his relationship to these selves is alive with the spirit of enquiry. Carson is careful to resist the monomania of autobiography, however. This is firstly (and most importantly) a paean to his parents, and secondly a love letter to the Irish language.
Carson, who was born in 1962 in Mooreland, part of the Falls area of Belfast, writes lyrically about his parents, ‘the Ma’ and ‘the Da’. He says:
My parents were Falls people, with all that they entailed. Catholic people. Nationalist people. They belonged to a particular world with particular values […] In the ritual of the mass they were bound to their neighbours, to the world, to God. In the incense, the statues, the Stations of the Cross, the rosary, the stained glass, the Latin, they reaches a from of communion and community that held up their daily lives.
He goes on to say that ‘One afternoon [my Da] told me if he’d been in Iran, he would have been a devout Muslim. Perhaps it was not so important to be Catholic as it was to believe.’
‘The Da’, for me, is the most fascinating character. His singular strength is underlined by a story Carson hears only after his father’s death. When the Da joins the IRA in the 1940s, he soon realises he will have to kill. Unable to square this with his strong Christian faith, the Da leaves, only to find himself arrested and jailed. When he is released from prison he returns to work (as a postman) he finds his pay has been docked for his time spent inside. Carson writes, ‘He took a court case, logically arguing that since his employer and his gaoler were one and the same – the Royal Mail and His Majesty’s Prison Service, in other words, the King - then it followed what his employer was the cause of his absence.’ The Da wins the case and sets a legal precedent.
Call Mother a Lonely Field is full of these unrecorded, ‘unofficial’ histories. Personal family mythologies – songs, stories, poems and dreams – stand shoulder to shoulder with violent reality of Belfast’s ‘Troubles’ from the 1970s onwards. Structurally. I is like a home, each chapter is a different room witits own distinctive atmosphere and pressure, while the presence of dreams is a brave and valuable addition. They represent the hidden strand – the inner supports – of a person’s experience, and it is Carson’s unification of physical, human, linguistic and psychic geographies which make this a real stand-out read. If I had to pick a weakness I would say the ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ section of the book (detailing Carson’s love of comic books) felt slightly out of place, but otherwise I found it quite gripping. Most powerful for me was Carson’s suggestion that language is an environment we inhabit - a sanctuary which can be used to represent the various visible and invisible environments we occupy both physically and in our imaginary lives. The hidden places of memory, childhood, identity and dreams therefore become achievement is the meshing of the public and private worlds so often kept separate by the official records of history.
Amy McCauley for New Welsh Review