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Séamas O'Reilly on bringing Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? to Belfast Festival

Journalist Séamas O'Reilly's memoir Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? has been one of this year's best-sellers. The Derry-born writer speaks to David Roy about why he wanted to pen this tribute to his late mother, Sheila...

Seámas O'Reilly. Picture by Ciara Burke

"IN THE next two weeks, I think I've got about seven live events for the book," enthuses Derry-born journalist-turned-author Séamas O'Reilly of finally getting to take his best-selling memoir Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? on the road.

A moving and frequently funny account of how he, his 10 siblings and their father Joe coped in the years after his mother Sheila's death from breast cancer when Séamas was just five – its title derived from his cheerfully uncomprehending greeting to mourners at her wake – the book shot to the top of the non-fiction charts during the summer.

The author has been in constant demand for press interviews and literary festival appearances ever since – nearly all of which have been virtual, thanks to Covid restrictions.

"I did a book launch in Dublin back in August, which was amazing," explains Séamas (35), who lives in Hackney with his wife and their three-year-old son, the latter providing the focus of his entertainingly humorous weekly parenting column in the Observer.

"I had a crowd and I signed loads of books, much more than I expected actually. But since then I've only done one other live event – everything else has been on Zoom or phone calls."

Having returned home to Derry to mark the 30th anniversary of his mother's death on Sunday, Monday night saw Séamas at Derry Central Library for an event hosted by fellow Derry-born memoirist Mickey Bradley. Tomorrow finds Séamas back in the virtual realm alongside Guardian columnist and author Lucy Mangan for an 'in conversation' event as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival.

The O'Reilly clan

"I'm fairly new to the process of going out and 'stumping'," he admits of these promotional activities.

"I know loads of authors seem to hate it, but I think I'm sufficiently egotistical that I like talking about myself – who knows if that will last, but at the moment it's all a big novelty. It's like going on Mastermind and your specialist subject is 'yourself'."

Obviously, the death of a parent is emotionally tender subject matter to be writing about, particularly when there are the feelings of 10 siblings and a surviving parent who have also been deeply affected by the bereavement to consider.

However, Séamas tells me that he had few qualms about sharing his family's story with the wider world.

"Even before [the book] I was doing a lot of stuff for the Observer, which is obviously very personal," explains the writer, who is the features editor of London quarterly The Fence.

"And my book is really basically a story about me, in all of the arrogance that implies. There are a lot of people in my family who had a different experiences because they were older or younger when the events took place – but they've all been so fully supportive throughout me writing it.

"I was constantly asking them questions about things that I just couldn't know, or was too young to have picked up on or just plain forgotten. And my mum's friend Patricia definitely had all the stories about her, good and bad.

"In some ways the research was more challenging than I expected. It's the old adage about 'ask three people what happened and you'll get three different versions of events'. But in terms of [the family's] reaction, I think they all trusted me to tell a story where, if anyone was going to be 'shown up' or be the butt of the joke, it was always going to be me."

He adds: "The kind of light teasing that other members of the family get [in the book] is fairly mild stuff compared to what we do to each other in everyday life."

Because she passed away when he was so young, Séamas only had limited memories of his mother. Yet, in the writing of the book, he was able to get to know her better through the fond recollections of family and friends.

"I think that was definitely a huge part of it, especially when I started writing the parts that are more specifically about her," he admits.

"Although the book is obviously about me and largely about my dad and everything he did for us, part of it is also me reckoning with something which I think a lot of children who have been bereaved go through.

"You kind of feel that you don't know the person and there's a bit of guilt about that. It's almost like, 'do I have the same right to grieve?' because what does a five-year-old know about their Mammy versus a 17-year-old? Obviously, I was so not used to the concept of death that famously I was going around saying 'did ye hear Mammy died?'.

"When you get a bit older you start to think to yourself, 'I wish I had more than the five memories I have of her'. So the wonderful thing about writing the book was that I got three more, which was great – and I also got to pay tribute to her."

 The O'Reillys

As for Séamas's father, it seems Joe O'Reilly is enjoying his new-found fame as the 'hero' of his family's story, which has earned him at least one famous admirer.

"He was particularly delighted when Marian Keyes said she was in love with him," Séamas chuckles.

"We've been trying to set them up on a wee platonic date. He's also been having lots of lovely phone calls from people about the book.

"I've had well over a thousand people get in touch, including dozens and dozens who knew Mammy and Daddy. I've had people sending me pictures of her from months before she died that I'd never seen before, and there have been some crazy coincidences too.

"Bizarrely, the mother of one of my old Dublin flatmates read the book and then got in touch to tell him that she actually knew my Mammy through my uncle.

"Apparently, every time my mum was in Dundalk to see her sister, who was married to said uncle, they used to all go out for a drink and a dance or whatever it was that people used to do in the 1960s and 70s in Catholic Northern Ireland – although my mum was a Pioneer, so she definitely wasn't drinking. Maybe she just had a little coffee in the corner or something."

Indeed, the fact that his book and the press surrounding it has enabled people all over the world to get to know his mother, who died aged just 43, is something Séamas is justifiably proud of.

"My natural inclination is to speak about myself and, if I absolutely have to, I'll say some nice things about my dad and my family," he says.

"But all joking aside, I felt like I wanted to talk about all the things that people had told me about Mammy. She was a woman who was unfathomably kind, to the extent that people will stop me in the street to tell me that they knew her and how wonderful she was.

"So, even though I didn't have an awful lot of the experiences that those people had because I was so young, hopefully I can still be an ambassador for her memory."

:: Séamas O'Reilly and Lucy Mangan will be in conversation with Marie-Louise Muir on Sunday October 24 as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival. Watch online via Belfastinternationalartsfestival.com. Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is out now, published by Little Brown.

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