There was a holy water font beside the doorway
But Anne Forde and Bernard Gannon, who were both born in 1908, met in America. Their long courtship, which dated at least back to 1932, was interrupted by World War II. By the time their youngest, Frank, could even talk they’d both been U.S. citizens for 20 years.
Gannon says that his father spoke about “life back in Ireland” about as often as he mentioned sex — which was never. Bernard finally made a trip home to Ireland in 1968, the year he was told he had cancer. Anne, who went too, had persuaded him that Gannon’s Irish American Refreshment Parlor, which inside had portraits of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jesus Christ on either side of the door, was safe in others’ hands for a couple of weeks. He died in 1974.
At the dawn of the 21st century, his son, a prolific writer and humorist for magazines like the New Yorker, decided it was time “to find out about Ireland.” So he set out with his wife, Paulette, for a journey by car around the country.
Gannon’s project recalls Bill Bryson’s early works. And their styles aren’t dissimilar. Bryson, who was settled down in Yorkshire, wrote a brilliant book, “The Lost Continent,” about traveling home to Iowa and then around small-town America. His publishers thought they were onto a winner with his “unique brand of humor” and indeed he’s a hugely successful writer. But his followup about touring Europe, “Neither Here Nor There,” was much less entertaining and had little soul, proving once again that the best comic material comes from what you know. There are moments when “Midlife Irish” threatens to become another “Neither Here Nor There,” a book in which the humor is derived largely from the adventures of a burly Yank stumbling around a European country.
Luckily though, Gannon remains in familiar territory enough of the time and “Midlife Irish” is a mostly engaging, often very funny book.
And the more familiar the territory the better. Early on, he offers the American view of the Irish in the form of a composite sequence, which might have been directed jointly by John Ford and Leo McCarey. Later, he marvelously transports us back to the mind of his 10-year-old self, who vainly hopes that the rosary might be over in time for him to see at least some of the “The Twilight Zone.”
He discovers that everybody does in Ireland what he thought was weird about his family, so he has plenty of material to work with there. And even as he blandly enthuses about stuff like the 40 shades of green, he ends up at night in digs that feel like home. “Anne Forde, decorator, seemed to haunt the B&Bs,” he writes.
He tackles some of the usual themes. To the age-old question of whether the Irish drink more than anyone else, he replies: “How do you measure a ‘fondness’ for alcohol?” But he isolates the crucial celebratory aspect of the vice in Ireland. “They got together, noticed the problem, and had a party for it. ‘A toast to pathological drinking!’ “
On conversation he says: “The way Irish people use English is always amazing, and compared to a lot of American talk, it’s like listening to guy come in and play something on the piano after you’ve listened to a guy tuning it for an hour.”
One thing non-Americans are probably better at is the use of irony. And people in the west of Ireland are masters of it. Plainly ridiculous things are said with the straightest of faces. It’s a form of humor and commentary; you’re supposed to know that, too bad if you don’t. Gannon seems to be taken in during a bar discussion in Mayo about the supernatural, specifically about fairies. If he’s playing along, he doesn’t tell us. But it works well simply because he’s at his best when describing situations involving small groups of people having a drink, as opposed to one-to-one conversations in the street.
When he finally makes it to Athlone, he walks into a store called Gannon’s. He’s taken back to a living room where there’s a group of people drinking and watching television. It turns out that he “wasn’t even possibly anybody’s third cousin twice removed.” When he emerges into the sunlight, his wife asks him what happened. He replies: “Nothing.” But his brief, subtle description of those 20 minutes of “nothing” is one of the highlights of the book; it captures perfectly a certain Irish sensibility.
Unfortunately, far too much space is given over to Ireland 101, from before the Bronze Age up to the Celtic Tiger, epitomized by booming Dublin, a city he clearly loves. He might more usefully have spent less time on kings, castles and invasions and more on his parents’ story, the early 20th century world they came from and the one they found in America.
In the end he finds that his strong, quiet-spoken father hid nothing other than the pain of grinding poverty on the land. And, it seems, his plan all along from early childhood was to own a bar. His late mother, a very serious fan of the Phillies, was at once more revealing and, it turns out, more secretive about her upbringing, making the trip to Ballyhaunis a more affecting one for him than that to Athlone.
Ireland generally has affected Gannon; indeed, it has changed him permanently, he says, and he neatly wraps up “Midlife Irish” explaining how.