Harper Collins, £14.99
This collection of stories chronicles life in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 50s through the eyes of a young child. To use the book's own description it is 'a boy's journey towards belonging'. In 'Barefoot in Mullyneeny', Bryan Gallagher reminisces about his life growing up near the beautiful shores of Lough Erne in Fermanagh.
First told on BBC Radio 4's 'Home Truths' series, Gallagher's stories have been immortalised in this poignant and evocative book. The retired headmaster, who has lived all his life in Co Fermanagh, was first encouraged to put his stories into print by the series' presenter, the late John Peel. No doubt, the veteran broadcaster thought highly of Gallagher's work, and rightly so.
'Barefoot in Mullyneeny' brings to life an era far less sophisticated, and arguably more challenging than today. Gallagher's tales, such as 'The Huntsman' and 'Killing the Pig', show the harsh realities of farm life, while 'I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls' and 'Coping the Lea' depict the loneliness which many people endured for decades.
However, this book is not bleak or despairing. Though sentimental and nostalgic, it is uplifting and optimistic. For those, who, like the writer, also remember advertisements for hob-nailed boots and being sent to collect cans of buttermilk, it is bound to stir a few senses. For readers more used to the trappings of modern life, it is a beautifully written account of a way of life, gone but not forgotten.
Gallagher obviously knew his community well, which is shown in his sensitive but light-hearted approach. Customs and traditions are remembered with fondness, such as the formalities involved in being offered a cup of tea or being asked to sing at a country house dance. Extracts of songs and rhymes, meanwhile, help create some vivid characters.
Many of Gallagher's tales reflect the prominence of the parish priest in the homes of 1940/50s Ireland. He remembers the high regard in which they were placed, and recalls his Confirmation and career as an altar boy in an informative yet amusing style.
Towards the book's close, and as Gallagher's youth also comes to an end, he deals with the anguish of emigration. The teenage bitterness depicted in 'Noreen Bawn' and 'Talking To A Ghost' emphasise the effect emigration had on those forced to leave, as well as those left behind, heart-broken.
Predominately, Gallagher appears to mourn the passing of time and there is a sense that he would gladly return to the Ireland of his youth. However, his memories pay tribute to the people that shaped his childhood and provide for a touching and unusual book about a time well worth celebrating.