Is £15 too much to pay for a paperback? Not if it is an essential academic text, but perhaps it is a little
steep for the autobiography of an unknown. Self-publishers do their best to recover their costs, and the balance between selling
enough copies and making enough profit on each is a difficult one to achieve. Some get around this by never charging the full
cover price in practice; they sell the book at a "discount" through local societies and businesses, or at personal appearances.
Whether John McGourty makes personal appearances, I do not know. I am impressed by anyone who puts in the
amount of effort he has done to turn out a book like this one, with an attractive cover and a high standard of typesetting
(if not of editing). It is the story of his relationship with the region of Ireland where he has lived for fifty years, and
there is bound to be plenty of interest from a local audience. Mr McGourty recognises his own limitations in his introduction,
describing the book as a set of "melancholy ramblings". It is much more than that.
The first few paragraphs do not bode well, however. Opening a chapter, still less a book, with facts and
figures is seldom a good idea, unless it happens to be a mathematics textbook. The paragraphs that follow include too much
detail, including the names of places and people that are not clearly distinguished. We get there in the end, though.
When the McGourty family arrived on their new farm in County Fermanagh, in October 1946, they were actually
emigrating from the Republic of Ireland to the UK. The farm was a forbidding and sometimes frightening place, completely lacking
in modern conveniences, primitive even by the standards they were used to. One of the first events to befall them there was
the death of one of the younger children, and this was followed by an exceptionally hard winter. With all these misfortunes
crowding the early pages of the book, one does begin to wonder why the author feels inclined to write about the place at all.
It was a hard life, yet there is no self-pity about John McGourty’s account of his childhood. On the contrary,
he seems to have enjoyed it. Evidently the family grew used to their new home.
Hardship was no stranger to the community as a whole. Even the better-off members were poor by today’s
standards. It’s a sobering thought:
"They were always well supplied with their own homemade bread, butter, milk and potatoes. Both Hugh and Francie
smoked and got The Anglo Celt every week, and then Hugh had his accordion. I would have thought then, what more could
Childhood is always a magical time in our memories, and it seems that John McGourty, rather than forgetting
its bad points, recognises them as an inevitable part of life, one we would do better to accept rather than grumble about.
This is no stereotype of a greener Ireland lost in the mists of nostalgia, no sentimental recollection of better times. It
comes as something of a relief to learn that not all Irishmen carry shillelaghs and say "Begorrah" (though the McGourty family
do seem to have gone in for plenty of whiskey drinking, cursing and messing around in bogs). This author is not trying to
impart a moral message. He is simply telling it as it is, and any resulting message writes itself; this is part of the charm
of his not-always-perfect work. I like the way he uses random snatches of poem and song to conjure up the atmosphere of his
youth, and extracts from newspapers to convey the feeling of those times, when none of us were as sophisticated as we now
think ourselves. It is these early chapters of the book that captivate.
Taken as a whole, this is not a story, despite the fact that it charts the progress of Mr McGourty’s
life. It is a selection of snapshots from the past, a past now overtaken by the future and, if missed, not overly regretted.
It could indeed have been a much better-written book, had the author sought help from a professional, but it could hardly
have fulfilled its purpose more effectively.