My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die

by Kevin Toolis, Weidenfeld, £16.99

As a reporter and film-maker, Kevin Toolis “hunted death” for much of his adult life. He knows the “vinegary blood smell” and “bowelly meatiness” that hang in the air of mortuaries. He has visited a Malawian hospital where Aids sufferers, two to a bed, “lay together befouled in their own diarrhoea”. In Gaza, he has looked down on “a bundle of rags buried in grey dust”, the body of a boy called Ayman. He has interviewed fathers of young men killed by the IRA. He has watched a Sudanese mother use her bare hands to dig the grave of her famished baby.

From his own life story, he recounts, in miniature masterpieces of searing candour and intelligence, his boyhood tuberculosis, when, like an innocent child in a fairy story, he “passed unscathed through a dark wood full of monsters”. He also recalls the early loss of his brother, Bernard, to leukaemia – the catalyst for his career roaming the world in continual pursuit of death. Eventually, however, Toolis found that all his searching through “dozens and dozens of destroyed lives” had led him into a “wilderness”, where death had lost all purpose, and so had he.

Then his father, Sonny, developed pancreatic cancer, ending his days as “a starved, skeletal husk”, a sight that “scalded the eye”. Yet Toolis concludes that nothing else he has ever done or will do was more important than the days spent at home in County Mayo, first in vigil around Sonny as his life ground towards its end, and then in waking and burying him, swept slowly along by the ancient rituals surrounding death in rural Ireland.

This was an occasion for “mortal solidarity”, where formulaic condolences allowed everyone to say “out loud together that the world had changed, my father was gone and there was no going back”. The burden of death is “shared out, talked over and tamed”. The rituals – people calling by to take part in the vigil, the open coffin in the family home, the lamentations of grieving women, the quorum of watchful men, even the endless rounds of sandwiches – encourage “unselfish concern for stricken strangers, a reaching out to dress another’s wound”. When it comes to how to die, Kevin Toolis concludes (and I tend to agree): “It will be much easier if we copy what the Irish do already.”

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