Brendan Hoban: A refreshing book about a remarkable life                      

Western People  20.6.23

Recently, listening to a Sunday morning programme on RTE Radio One, I was captivated by an interview with an elderly Dublin woman. Peig McManus is 84 years of age. She has just written a memoir of her life. Called ‘I Will be Good’, it tells the story of what she describes in an improbable understatement as ‘a life less ordinary’.

And though Peig talked on the radio for just 30 minutes I will never forget how, with a mixture of humour and pathos, she presented with such buoyancy and verve an honest and gripping account of the swings and roundabouts of her extraordinary life. An unforgettable Dublin character, her story makes you laugh and cry.

I couldn’t wait to get the book and when I opened it I couldn’t close it. Sometimes interviews with writers flatter to deceive and the actual book fails to deliver. In this case, the opposite was the case. Hand on heart, I have to say, it’s a wonderful read. I don’t think I will very forget it.  

Peig was born in 1939 in the Dublin tenements to a mother who had tuberculosis but who filled their modest home with smoke from her Woodbine cigarettes, as if ‘daring God to come and get her’. Peig lived through ‘the Emergency’ when food, clothing and fuel were rationed, with her father in England wiring his pay home on Thursdays – and the family surviving, in Peig’s words, because ‘we learned to mind each other’.

Life in North King’s Street was grim. Pneumonia, impetigo, gastroenteritis, scabies, scarlet fever, malnutrition, the sound of rats scurrying around at night-time, a building with one toilet for multiple families.

Redemption came in the form of a new corporation house in Cabra, where Peig as a young girl ran up the stairs to see something she had never seen before – a bath. School was to the Dominican nuns whom she describes as ’kind’; her class had 56 children; First Communion realised two pounds, two shillings and ninepence but her mother took two pounds to buy wool to knit cardigans for her sister and herself; and at her Confirmation day she received ‘a plenary indulgence’ which entitled her to ‘a full remission for sin’, though she didn’t know what the first bit meant though she knew what sin was as ’everything was connected with sin’. Later, as a teenager, in  a darkened cinema, just as Doris Day was singing ’Secret Love’ in the film ‘Calamity Jane’, she gave a boy ‘a sharp dig in the ribs’ with her elbow, as she judged he was ‘off limits’ and ‘a dangerous occasion of sin’ was averted. And later again, she would join The Legion of Mary.

On a trip to Scotland, she fell in love with Alex, a sailor, and they planned to marry but when she became pregnant he changed his mind and went back to sea. A priest, ‘a kind old man’, made arrangements for her to enter a mother-and-baby home where the nuns she encountered were ‘kind and humane’ and where Peig had a baby daughter, Marie. Later she reluctantly agreed to have her adopted, as other possible options, like bringing her baby home to Cabra were ruled out.

On her return to Ireland Peig met Paddy with whom she was previously ‘semi-engaged’ and they later married. She told Paddy about her now adopted daughter, Marie, and while they were happy together, there was ‘an unspoken agreement’ that Marie would not be mentioned again. Later, after Peig had gone into counselling and was told she needed to contact Marie, Paddy agreed that she should contact the adoption society.

It emerged that Marie had been trying to contact her mother, Peig, for seven years. Marie was now in her thirties, was herself expecting a baby, was a highly successful lawyer and happily married. Paddy wrote to Marie welcoming her into the family and asking her to be kind to Peig. Later when they met, in Peig’s words, Paddy ‘fell in love with Marie’, who until then ‘had been the unspoken shadow throughout our marriage’ – ‘Her presence gave Paddy and me an opportunity for acceptance, healing and forgiveness’.

At the same time Peig doesn’t pretend that Marie’s reinsertion into her family was simple. Marie pondered aloud how any mother could give away her baby, a question Peig struggled to answer. And, for Peig, there was no avoiding the difficult truth that her family ‘was a fragile entity adrift in stormy seas, trying to cope with mental illness, tuberculosis, alcoholism and gambling while struggling to present a respectable, acceptable face to the world’.

The rawness and chaos of Peg’s life is not avoided but is presented through an optimistic prism that redeems the trials and celebrates the triumphs. There came a point when Peig could say, ‘Easter came with its promise of resurrection. Now I understood what resurrection meant’. When Paddy died, it was her ‘meditation practice, prayer and friends’ that carried her through – as well as her memory of his soft, gentle voice humming ‘The Rose of Mooncoin’.

This is a refreshing book that charts a remarkable and inspiring journey, a roller coaster of a read that is real and unremitting in its honesty and truth. Unlike other similar memoirs, it doesn’t lament or excuse. It also doesn’t instinctively disparage priests and nuns by applying present day standards to long-lost years but simply recognises and names kindness and gives it its due.

‘I Will Be Good’ is beautifully written, an extraordinary feat for someone who in her eighties every morning lit a candle, asked for guidance, did her qi gong exercises  and for two hours tapped away on her computer with one finger.

The result is a book to be cherished. I promise you that you will not be able to put it down.

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