‘If I could go back to being sixteen again, I’d do things differently.’
‘Everyone over the age of forty feels like that, you total gom,’ says my best friend Lizzie Magee.
Oh my goodness, my heart did break for the intelligent, spirited and strangely beautiful Mary Rattigan. She is a character who will stay with me, especially the childhood Mary and her battles with Mammy – a woman who I hated so strongly it was as if she was a real person! The Rattigan’s life on her parent’s farm in Ireland is at odds with her romantic and wild nature. She wants to fly. She will not be satisfied until she flies out of her dirty and dangerous surroundings, leaving ‘The Troubles’ behind her. She doesn’t care where she goes, as long as she’s free and lives happily ever after. However, life has a way of grounding us and Mary is no exception. In a life punctuated by marriage, five children, bombings, a long peace process and endless cups of tea Mary learns that a ten minute decision can change a whole life. These lessons are hard won and she’s missed a hundred chances to make a change. Can she ever find the courage to ask for the love she deserves, but has never had?
This book really did play with my emotions and there were times I felt completely wrung out by Mary’s life. It was emotionally and physically exhausting. Her Mammy is physically and psychologically abusive. Not above a slap, when hateful words aren’t having the effect she wants, Mammy is a ‘bitch’. Often turning up at the tea table with a bruised face or black eye, Mary longs for her father to intervene. However, he never opens his mouth, unless it’s to smoke his pipe. She loves him but at the same time, hates him for his silence and his cowardice. Mammy is a hypocrite, playing the perfect Catholic matriarch on the surface – always loving or feeding her sons, cooking perfect chicken roasts for her family and getting out the best china when the priest comes for tea. It broke my heart when she left Mary without tea, then next morning as the boys all line up for their lunch boxes Mary is given an empty one. I felt so emotional for this girl, who doesn’t expect any better. There are two women she can rely on for a little bit of maternal support and love, her Aunt Eileen who ruined herself and now lives with her illegitimate daughter Bernie and Bridget Johns who lives at the next farm across and is always ready with a cuppa and a shoulder to cry on. Both know what’s going on at Mary’s home and have taken her under their wing. Eileen goes as far as bringing the priest down to the farm when she feels Kathleen has gone way too far in disciplining Mary.
I was desperate for Mary’s eventual flight from the farm, following in the footsteps of her brothers. Sadly, she doesn’t get to fly as far as she expects; it seems she swaps one imprisonment for another. The emotionally gutting thing about Mary is that she always has a tiny kernel of hope. She underestimates her mother’s capacity for evil – but as long as everything looks ok to others and the parish priest, then her daughter’s happiness is Mammy’s top priority. There’s a point where Mary knows she’s done wrong, she expects to be punished and is willing to take it, but she hadn’t banked on giving up everything – her dreams, her education, her future. She doesn’t dream that her Dad would let that happen even if she does expect it from her Mammy. As a result she’s more angry with him than anyone. I don’t want you to think that this book is a drag to read. It really isn’t. There are some passages that are hilariously funny. Mary is irreverent, mischievous and has a few sayings that made me laugh out loud. I loved her description of her Mum backing out of the room so she didn’t ‘show her backside to the priest’. I went to a Roman Catholic primary school, but when we moved to a different area for my Dad’s work there wasn’t a school close enough and I went to the local school, followed by a grammar school when I passed my eleven plus. My mum was worried that I wouldn’t have the same teaching I did at primary, so I did lessons at the convent after school. Then I got to go on a Catholic kid’s retreat, in Derbyshire. We did loads of outdoor activities and had mass every evening at 6pm, with a young monk called Declan who everyone fancied and a rather bohemian priest who played guitar and had us singing every night. I remember being very proud that when the bishop came for tea, I was chosen to sit next to him. Our idea of fun was pretending to baptise each other in bed! So, Delaney’s description of Mary’s school holiday felt very familiar and made me laugh.
‘The groups would be mixed so we could hear what boys our own age, from the same religion, and the same class background for the most part, had to say about the Troubles and how they affected life in Carncloon, and what we had to say back. Fascinating stuff. Then after dinner, when we’d settled the cons and cons of people blowing ten bags of shite out of each other on a daily basis for twenty years, we were going to have a sing-song. Hymns and popular folk songs as Father Kevin, apparently, was a dab hand on the guitar’.
There’s a blasé tone to Delaney’s writing about ‘The Troubles’, but it’s clear from Mary’s narration that they have a huge impact on those that live alongside the unpredictability, hate, protests and rising violence. It comes very close to home on a couple of occasions and Delaney describes historical events that I remember vividly, particularly the murder of two undercover police officers who drove into an IRA funeral. I remember the headlines, the pictures and the descriptions of violence that no one could condone and how they caused friction in our family, between the Irish Catholic background of my Mum and the loyalty to the British Army instilled in my father. There were subjects we didn’t venture into or talk about. The hunger strikes were something I was very aware of and the conditions of the Maze Prison. I had a huge amount of admiration for Mo Mowlam who negotiated a peace process despite her cancer diagnosis. I am probably a similar age to Delaney so I felt an affinity with her and understood her. Mary’s need to be loved is so raw she can’t even articulate it. How can she understand or recognise love when she’s never felt it? She has been told she’s nothing, so nothing is what she deserves. Delaney writes about love and the realities of marriage with such wisdom and tenderness that I was rooting for Mary Rattigan till the very last page.
Meet The Author.
Tish Delaney was born and brought up in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Like a lot of people of her generation, she left the sectarian violence behind by moving to England. After graduating from Manchester University, she moved to London and worked on various magazines and broadsheets as a reporter, reviewer and sub-editor. She left the Financial Times in 2014 to live in the Channel Islands to pursue her career as a writer. Before My Actual Heart Breaks, her debut novel, will be published by Hutchinson in 2021.