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When Irish eyes were smiling, laughing and crying

November 15, 2002|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Rory & Ita''Rory & Ita'

By Roddy Doyle

Viking: 338 pp., $23.95


Rory Doyle is one of the funniest men on Earth, but who would ever know if his novelist son Roddy hadn't written "Rory & Ita"? The younger Doyle is best known for his fiction about the Irish, most recently "A Star Called Henry" (1998), based on the Easter Uprising of 1916.

In "Rory & Ita," Doyle goes straight to the facts in what is, among other things, a portrait of life in Ireland from about 1930 on. His parents are the eyewitnesses; in alternating chapters, Rory and Ita do all the talking. Readers must be patient with this arrangement. No dramatic action or engaging insight by a narrator opens the story or leads us to suggest larger concerns or themes. Instead, Rory and Ita tell stories about their lives, spent in tandem for most of their 70-some years. The effect is gradual but cumulative. Toward the end of their account, it is delightfully clear that Doyle has captured the Essence of Irish and bottled it at the source.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 16, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 11 inches; 415 words Type of Material: Correction
'Rory & Ita' review -- In Friday's Calendar section, the name of an Irish political party was misspelled in the review of "Rory & Ita" by Roddy Doyle. It is Fianna Fail, not Fianna Fial.

Doyle explains his plan in a preface. "The book is about my parents, about the people they were before they became my parents," he writes. His only inserts are to help clarify new developments in their stories. "Her father had married again," he tells us in a chapter in which Ita recalls what life was like after the age of 3, when her mother died. Pearl, Ita's stepmother, enters the scene. A woman of secrets and silences, Pearl has a drinking problem although Ita rarely sees her drink. (What Irish family doesn't have its secrets?)

From the early pages it is clear that these are working-class Irish, born in Terenure, on the outskirts of Dublin. Rory's family moved to nearby Tallaght when he was a little boy. It seems there are no "only" children in Irish stories. Ita is one of three children, Rory is one of eight.

Their earliest memories breathe-in their Catholic tradition as naturally as air. Rory's parents rented the family house from the Dominican nuns. Sunday Mass and a home altar to the Blessed Mother Mary are part of life. Like many of his stories, he recalls one about the altar as if it were a docile vignette.

"We had a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary done up for the May altar," he begins. "A beautiful lace veil put on it and flowers and all and a candle carefully burning. And Aileen it was [one of his sisters] came along and messed with the thing and the veil caught fire. The lace was ablaze, and the screeching and roaring." Aunt Lil rushes in and tosses a bucket of water at the trouble. "She put out the fire and drenched the whole lot of us."

This is Irish storytelling refined to a satin finish. The live-in relatives, the Catholic faith, the children left to their own devices, the lurking calamity; plenty of Irish Americans who have never set foot on the Emerald Isle are likely to recognize the home life Rory recalls.

They are well-educated, these ordinary folks. Ita went to the nuns, Rory to the Christian Brothers. "There was Mother Madeleine; she taught us English," Ita recalls. "She was lovely -- she was tall and slim and very gentle." English, French, religion, literature. School life for Ita was a social gathering. She left at 18 to take a job as a secretary. Rory was more interested in academics. The Brothers raised him on Latin, Gaelic poetry, English literature, all of these committed to memory. After high school, he got a job as an apprentice printer and made a career of it. Their memories of World War II are uniquely Irish. They refer to the war as "The Emergency" -- an oblique reference similar to "The Troubles," which is a euphemism for the current struggle for independence in the North. Ita recalls taking a black pen to the holes in her black stockings, but she says that rations were more a threat than a reality. Rory was far more involved in the struggles of the Fianna Fial, the Irish political party he joined before the age of 20, following his father's lead.

Courtship got off to a rocky start for the Doyles. They give details with a he said/she said difference of opinion, with unmistakably romantic feelings. "I liked the look of her," Rory begins about the Sunday night dance where he first saw Ita. "So I headed in that direction and eventually ended up beside her. I asked her up to dance." Pretty sure of himself, it seems.

"The earth did not move," she corrects him. He'd been drinking: "He was on his way to footloose." She decided to dance once, but no more. "I didn't like him one bit, I thought." That changed at the next dance. Then came the bicycle rides, the family tea, the Christmas Eve engagement, the sisters-in-law to help sew the wedding clothes, a reception crowded with women because men didn't attend such affairs. And, finally, the first house.

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