THE country of childhood is left behind in a new book of memoir from author, poet and social geographer Dr Pat O’Connor. But in the book, as Pat steps into and travels the unmapped adult world of university, work, love, family life and career, there is also a strong yearning to return – to get back to the physical world of West Limerick which is imprinted into his very DNA. And this longing is captured in the title, So Long to Coolanoran.
In real terms, the journey away from home was a short one. Pat left for UCD, a bright, scholarship boy, in 1965. By 1985, he – now with his wife Esther and children Aisling and John – was back.
And for Pat, faithful son of Newcastle West, there was a delicious rightness to where he finally put down his roots – in Coolanoran, just three miles from town but in the parish of Ardagh. In the book, he recalls how as a seven-year-old, he set off with his brother on a “bird-nest odyssey”.
“We were well beyond our comfort zone and into the world of the lost,” he retells the story. But at the end of the day, his father arrived by bicyle and barred them home. “The encounter was uncanny for marking the spot on the road to the place I now call home,” he writes.
And this concept of being lost and finding home, of going beyond the known to discover the unknown and make it his own, has proved to be a powerful one, knitting together the different times and different strands of his life. “How can you find anything worthwhile if you don’t allow yourself to be lost?” he asks.
Two years ago, Pat published his first book of memoir, The New Houses, a book which explored the country of his childhood – and the heady early days of Assumpta Park. It was a book which captured the hearts of many in Newcastle West, speaking as it did of a way of life that, though recent, is now past and of characters who, though remembered, are now dead.
So Long to Coolanoran is a different book, covering different terrain. It takes us through Pat’s various adult journeys into the unknown and his discoveries there. The stories are told in stand-alone essay form, a handy device which allows the reader to dip in and out of the book – or to read it in sequence.
But like his first memoir, it is Pat’s vivid recall, his extraordinary memory for date and detail that enliven the stories. These come to the fore when he is remembering the men and women who peopled his adult world – whether that world is undergraduate life in Dublin, former teachers, a stint as a night telephonist or, most beautifully, when he reconjures in words the lovely presence that was his father-in-law, Jim McKeon, “The man up from the Lough”. That essay, which is accompanied by a smashing photograph, shows Pat’s spare and apt use of words at their shining best. But lovely gems of words and phrases can be found throughout the book, nestling alongside prosaic domestic details.
And in a life that has had its share of ups and downs, these too are dealt with sparingly - and with understated emotion.
Tantalisingly, the book leaves us both at the end – and at the beginning, suggesting that another volume can be anticipated. So Long to Coolanoran brings Dr Pat O’Connor’s literary output to 18 books – including six volumes of poetry.
The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan will launch the new book at a reception in the Courtenay Hotel next Monday, November 14 at 7.30pm.
The launch is open to the public, Dr Pat O’ Connor says, welcoming all-comers and a formal invitation is not needed.