Ode to Billy O’Callaghan

With the world slowing down and taking time to heal, I’ve decided to continue sharing more books and authors I enjoy in case you’d like something new to read.  And since we just had St Patrick’s Day, it seemed only fitting to talk about an Irish writer.  It’s always wonderful to pay tribute to a writer who has passed, but to tell an active living writer what they mean to you is even better.  My husband jokingly refers to author Billy O’Callaghan as “Cousin Billy” because Billy and I share a last name.  Not gonna lie, I secretly wish it to be true.  I’ve had the pleasure of reading only two of his books so far, but they’ve had an enormous influence on me.

In the spring of 2018, a book review caught my attention because of the title, The Dead House.  I couldn’t find it in my local bookstores and had to order a copy.  It arrived in time for me to bring to my first, and so far only, writer’s residency with Disquiet in the Azores.  Now here is where it gets hinky.  As I was reading the book, the word disquiet kept showing up in the text, not a word you see very often.  In case the word disquiet is new to you, here is how Merriam-Webster defines it – (transitive verb) to take away the peace or tranquility of, (noun) lack of peace or tranquility, and (adjective) archaic.  I was so surprised to see the word in the book; I even did an Instagram post about it. 

And then I took the book to a black sand beach for an outing with the other residence.  One of the writers leaned over to me and asked what I was reading, and when I showed it to her, she said, “Oh, Billy, he’s a wonderful writer and a great man.  You’d like him a lot.”  I believe I told her to shut the f*@% up.  Her name was Robin, and she said that she and one of the other writers Sarah had traveled to Ireland to attend some salons and heard him read his work.  Not gonna lie, still a little jealous over their travels to writers’ salons in Ireland, a place I’ve wanted to visit my whole life.

There are two historical subject matters that I have a deep true passion for, the Salem Witch Trials and The Potato Famine of Ireland or The Great Hunger.  I’m shocked at how much I’ve read and how many lectures I’ve attended about these topics.  Both are a never-ending source of fascination.  The Dead House is about ghosts of the famine that still hang over the country.  The book focuses on one house that is haunted by the past and possesses whoever lives there.  To say it’s a haunting read seems a bit obvious, but that’s the word for it. 

It’s one thing to think about the tragic event itself, but once it’s over, people must continue living in the homes and on the lands.  They learn a way to move on, but how can you without carrying a bit of that forward.  I think of  Cambodia, Vietnam, and other places that have experienced war, survivors of the Holocaust, the residents of Portugal since the dictatorship ended, and so many more who carry these shadows of history.  So often though, the places seem to hold those experiences as well, not just the people.

A well-written essay or book haunts me. We Are All Children Here, an essay by Paul Mandelbaum, which was in the October 2017 edition of The Sun Magazine, is one of them.  Paul discussed attending a Holocaust Survivors convention with his mother in law.  It’s the first time he realized that he carried his late mother’s experience of being a survivor with him in how she raised him.  That the experience doesn’t end because the event ended.  It can be passed on.  The Dead House touches on these ideas in a sensual and tactile way.  It’s a beautiful book.

I was so excited to find a copy of his book My Coney Island Baby at The Strand in NYC for my birthday last fall.  The book takes place over one afternoon with a couple that has been meeting at Coney Island to have an affair for decades.  The characters carry with them so much life and pain and love and loss and disappointment.  A reminder in reading about these two is that you can’t always judge another person’s actions.  There’s more to the story.  After twenty-five years, the couple is growing older, and it has an impact on relationship/affair, but the world is changing around them as well.  Again, Billy does an aching description of a decaying present-day Coney Island on a wintery day along with the changes occurring on the small island of Inishbofin off Ireland where the main character Michael is from.  The descriptions of Michael’s childhood home and father are a stark contrast to New York City.  But Michael knows, much like Coney Island isn’t what it used to be, that he can never go home to his boyhood island again.  Everything changes.

Billy has a style of writing I want to achieve.  He’s lyrical, dark, funny, and his characters are engaging.  His stories look you in the eye, but in the most musical way.  His sense of place is astounding.  I hope to get my hands on more of his books, from what I’ve been told his short stories are quite good. 

2 thoughts on “Ode to Billy O’Callaghan”

  1. Great review, you capture the mood of the book so well but the large context you have placed it in is truely fascinating.

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