DEATH IS one of the very few experiences everybody will have. It is looked on with fear and suspicion, and is rarely, if ever, welcomed as a subject of conversation.
It comes as some surprise that, when a book entitled My Father’s Wake - How The Irish Teach Us To Live Love And Die should appear in our bookshops, it would catch the eye, especially when the covers are bordered in black. On the front, there is a striking black and white photograph of an old man sitting outside a house, looking to his right, at a young boy on a tricycle, while on his other side another young boy is looking defiantly at the camera.
“In the narrow room the old man lay close to death” is the book's opening line. The old man is the man of the photo - the author Kevin Toolis’s father - and his death, wake, and burial, all of which takes place on Achill Island, is the main subject of this fascinating book.
The deaths of some family members shook Toolis. As a result he sets out to find a meaning for death and for 20 years, as a journalist, “hunted death in famine, war, and plague across the world before finding the answer to his quest on the island of his forebears”. Despite its apparent morbidity the book is positive and uplifting. It “celebrates the spiritual depth of the Irish wake and shows how we too can find a better way to deal with our mortality by living and loving in the acceptance of death”.
The book is written with a tremendous energy which is infectious. The narrative is rife with highlights such as the following: "Sonny was a very ordinary man and his life passed unnoticed by the wider world. But Sonny did have one advantage over most of us: he knew how to die. And he knew how to do that because his fathers and mothers on the island, wake after wake, had shown him how. They had trained Sonny all his life to die by giving a voice, a place, in their daily lives for the living and the dead. And in showing Sonny how to die, these Irish fathers and mothers taught him other more important lessons. How to live. And how to love."
Strong words indeed, but backed by generations of indigenous wisdom. Probably one of the more curious and refreshing elements of the book is that religion of any doctrine or creed rarely lifts its head, the driving forces behind the positive energies the book exudes are nurtured by human dignity and love.
My Father’s Wake is a positive powerful statement and gives a strong potency to the rhetorical question “Death where is thy sting?”