Séamas O’Reilly: My dad loves to read about himself — for Father’s Day I had to do him the honour 

by brittneyrowe

When I ask my father if he celebrated Father’s Day with his own dad, he tells me: “Oh, it’s very much a recent invention.” I pause. 

Since I’ve known of these festivities my entire life, and will be turning 40 next year, I wonder if it’s churlish to query his grasp on ‘recent’. I resist the urge. 

“At least I don’t remember it,” he continues, “but maybe that’s because we didn’t practice it in our house”.

Selective — some might even say suspicious — lapses in cultural celebrations are fairly standard for my father. 

He once told me the reason we never had the Easter Bunny growing up was because “the Easter Bunny didn’t operate in Northern Ireland”.

I now know this was just his overly technical way of saying it wasn’t a tradition he’d grown up with but, as a child, I internalised this as a business decision made by the confectionery-dispensing rabbit himself, presumably at board level, and under the advice of senior counsel in his marketing department: the kind of hard-headed choice, based on regional market share, that means that people in Northern Ireland still suffer without Aldi, Granada TV, or Waitrose.

Where Father’s Day is concerned, however, he’s basically correct.

The celebration we’re enjoying this weekend has only really existed in the UK and Ireland since 1972, when my dad was already an adult and — quite conveniently for him — about to become a father himself. He has, thus, only ever known these festivities as recipient, and not a benefactor.

“Once I was aware of it as a parent myself, I did think about my own father,” he concedes, before adding “but now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever got him anything.”

“Not even a card?” I ask. There follows at least a full minute of wrangling over this, before it becomes clear that the scratchy phone line means he thinks I’m asking whether he was tempted to buy his father a car, followed by repeated confirmation that he never felt the urge to do this, or to buy a card either.

This is how most of my phone calls with him tend to go. A combination of reluctance to impart the information I require, and misunderstandings based on a bad line.

He’s not really one for “back in the day” reminiscing, being from the generation of older Irish men who consider such personal nostalgia tawdry.

He’s not allergic to recollection in general, you understand, it’s just that it will almost always be memories of things you did not ask about.

He will, for example, expound at length about every vehicle he has ever owned — including the license plate and tax details of same — but when it comes to his own childhood, he doesn’t really see why anyone would be interested.

This is not the only reason he is reticent to share. He has long since assumed a guarded stance because he knows I have a tendency to repeat such proclamations in print. 

Personally, I take this as my birthright, so I’m lucky that despite his stated reluctance, he loves to read about himself, and actually complains when I go too long without mentioning him in sufficient depth.

For Father’s Day, it would seem rude to deny him this honour.

His other main claim is that I’m an unreliable narrator. He famously called my award-winning memoir Did Ye Hear Mammy Died — of which he is undoubtedly the star — a “tissue of lies”. 

This was mainly because I got the dates of purchase wrong for two cars, and one caravan, and also because I said he knew “every single priest in Ireland”.

This was, he claimed, a gross exaggeration but after a great deal of wrangling he finally conceded that something like “70% of priests in Ireland” would be accurate.

Another time I wrote a piece for The New York Times about our shared love of Enya, in which I said her music could bring him to tears.

The paper’s infamous fact checkers called him twice to confirm this, and he denied it in the strongest possible terms. When I rang him to remonstrate, he suddenly remembered that ‘How Can I Keep From Singing?’ did indeed induce weeping, but his reflexive urge to deny my claims had overruled his own memories.

“He taught me a lot,” he tells me, when I manage to steer him back to the topic of his own father, a carpenter and cabinet-maker who lived his whole life in rural Fermanagh.

He died in 1976, four years after the genesis of Father’s Day in this part of the world, and nine years before I was born.

“He taught me how to make things,” he says, “what tools to use, how to fish, how to kill a fish.”

This comes as a surprise, since my dad has never shown any enthusiasm for fishing all the time I’ve known him, nor even any interest in eating fish as food.

“You kill a fish by sticking your finger in its mouth,” he continues, as if he were born in waist-height waders, “then you wiggle it to the back of its head and from there, you can break its neck quite handy.”

Reeling from this, I ask why he’d never taught me any of these skills. “Well” he says, “it never came up.”

Fishing, it seems, like the Easter Bunny or broadband internet before them, never made it to our part of the world.

“Did he ever teach you to make a fire, or build camp?” I ask, and he guffaws like I’ve asked if he ever taught him how to breakdance.

“No,” he says, audibly wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, “we didn’t do that kind of thing, that was for Protestants.”

“Camping,” I say, “camping was for Protestants?”

“Yes, camping, marching all that kind of thing.”

“Daddy” I say, kindly, “I don’t think camping is Prot-” but I am cut off at the pass.

“You’re gonna write this, aren’t you?”

“I am, of course” I reply. “I’ll deny every word,” he says.

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