Book review: I Remember, I Remember: Galway Stories and Sketches

NOSTALGIA IS defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past.” Tales of bygone years when the sun seemed to shine forever, and childhood days were filled with laughter are always trying to tell the reader some sort of lie.

The lie may lurk in the rainy days and strap happy school teachers conveniently edited out, but we always know, deep down, when we’re being told a story that is simply too consistently upbeat to be true.

Throughout I Remember, I Remember: Galway Stories and Sketches, a collection of memoir pieces by Shantalla native Pearl O’Kennedy, she admirably avoids falling through any nostalgic trapdoors. From the off, the world of which she writes is made real because the warts are not removed for the sake of beautification. O’Kennedy grew up in Shantalla Place, “a little development of twenty-three houses”. The man who built the houses “built a number of houses around Galway, but he ran into difficulties when he was half way through the Shantalla Place houses and landed in jail.” It is good to see that some things have changed not very much.

O’Kennedy saw the main Shantalla estate being built; to paraphrase Harry Enfield, she really does remember a time when pretty much all of what is now the Westside was just fields. This publication includes much unique social history about that part of Galway city and will be of value to historians. However much you think you know about the recent history of Galway city, it’s likely O’Kennedy will furnish you with some interesting new fact.

At times O’Kennedy writes quite gloriously, especially of her childhood days when “every season had its own smell and games.” She tells us, later in the same piece, about “the magic of the open fire”, and the reader can almost feel the welcome warmth of its flames, though they went out more than half a century ago.

Then there is the strange story, so honestly told, of her ‘uncle’ Bernie who, though not a blood relative, was reared by her grandmother: “It was Christmas night and the [Jesuit] church was busy, yet my grandmother spotted two young women in the porch, one of them had a small baby in her arms and she was crying.” O’Kennedy always finds a way of including truths of the less convenient sort.

My favourite of these anecdotes is ‘A Night To Remember’, in which O’Kennedy recalls the night she and another student nurse were given the job of transporting the body of a deceased patient through the hospital grounds to the morgue at 2.30am. During the course of their short journey the man’s body somehow got away from them: “When we arrived at the morgue…The cover was there but no body”.

Retracing their steps O’Kennedy and her colleague found their man: “Sitting up against a tree was our lost body.” After some struggle, during which they inadvertently bounced “the poor man’s arse of the ground”, they rescued the situation without drawing the Matron’s attention. O’Kennedy concludes with the hope that she doesn’t meet this man in the next life. There are, though, worse ends a man could meet. I hope when I go, I go as comically as that man.

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