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Tom Phelan, We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It: A Memoir of My Irish Boyhood (New York: Gallery Books, 2019), 210pp.Tom Phelan, We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It: A Memoir of My Irish Boyhood (New York: Gallery Books, 2019), 210pp.

Tom Phelan (born 1940) had just turned fifty when his first novel In the Season of the Daisies was accepted for publication, prompting one critic in Books Ireland to wonder, "The most obvious question posed by a novelistic debut with as much resounding vigour as this is: Where has Mr. Phelan been?"

Well, after ordination in 1965 at the age of twenty-four, Phelan spent eleven years as a Catholic priest in England and New York. He says that he left that vocation "totally disillusioned." The priesthood was followed by a master's degree at Seattle University, a move back East, and then work as a custodian in the Garden City, NY, public schools system for 20 years. Thank God one of his Seattle professors encouraged him to keep writing, for since the debut of Daisies, Phelan has published six other novels.

And now comes this evocative memoir about growing up in a rural village called Mountmellick, County Laois, in Ireland. Phelan remembers the fifty-two-acre family farm as "marshy land beside the bog," which meant for a very hard way of life. At that time there was no rural electrification, no telephone, no indoor plumbing. At night he piled wet clothes on top of his bed to keep warm. But he also remembers life on the farm as a "playground," and indeed in these thirty-four vignettes you can understand the riches of an impoverished childhood.

Consider the kitchen, "which was also the dining room, the children's playroom, the sitting room, the workroom, the place where turkeys and chickens were plucked, and where new litters of pigs were kept warm in cardboard boxes while Dad broke off their front teeth with pliers to prevent them from biting their mother's teats." Saturday night meant baths for Sunday church, including a rigorous hair combing to look for fleas. Church was a place of overwhelming beauty in an otherwise drab world ("everything beautiful and stupendous about the building seeped into my consciousness"). The Catholics and Protestants never saw each other, and time as an altar boy was filled with "joyous moments." Phelan's short chapters describe castrating pigs and cattle, horses mating, his mother selling her eighty turkeys a year that enabled them to splurge on a bag of coal for the fireplace, and a colorful cast of eccentric figures. This is a bygone way of life; thank God a writer of Phelan's talent has captured it for us.

Dan Clendenin:

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