In Ordinary Time by Carmel McMahon

Imbolc (or Imbolg); the first day of spring in Ireland! Imbolc also marks the publication of this wonderful new memoir In Ordinary Time by Carmel McMahon. While this is the first year we have a public holiday to mark it, this day has long been associated with Saint Brigid, one of the three Patron Saints of Ireland. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain. 

Many of us who grew up in Ireland will remember crafting or seeing St. Brigid’s crosses out of rushes or straw. Hanging the cross in your home is believed to bring the blessing and protection of St Brigid for the remainder of the year. 

I spent the first four days of 2023 reading her brave, fascinating, and searing memoir. This was due in part to the clever structure of the book. Beginning with Imbolc, it uses the Celtic divisions of the year to split the book into four sections (one for each festival) with a chapter for each month. 

Due to some of the heavy topics explored in this book, as well as the exploration of the cyclical nature of time I felt that reading it in four short segments really enhanced my experience of this book. 

Within the past decade Ireland has been experiencing a cultural and literary reckoning of our past, including a re-examination of our complex relationship with the Catholic Church. Women’s voices, their stories, and their way of examining the world are finally coming to the fore. 

There are several excellent Irish biographies have also explored trauma, memory, Irish history and female autonomy; including Sinead Gleeson’s Constellations, Emilie Pines Notes to Self, A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa and I am, I am, I am, by Maggie O’Farrell.

The latest woman to publish a courageous memoir like this is Carmel McMahon. In 1993 aged only twenty, Carmel fled Ireland for New York, dragging along a ton of unresolved baggage. It took her nearly three decades to return, battling an alcohol addiction and gradually learning to articulate the traumas of her past and present to begin the process of healing.

In Ordinary Time by Carmel McMahon is an evocative, powerful, and timely blend of memoir and commentary on Ireland’s fractured social history is told with surprising wit and a candid, lyrical style that made it easy to read and relate to. McMahon explores the multi-layered effects of trauma, time, migration, grief, and addiction through vignettes, intertwining the personal with the scars of Ireland’s history.

Strangely beautiful and compelling, this book explores the pain caused by our disconnect with our past. One of the phrases she introduced me to is ‘uaigneas an chladaigh which means ‘the sense of loneliness on the shore; a haunting presence of people who lived and died long ago’ which she found in a book by Manchán Magan about lost Irish words from the northwest coast of Ireland. 

For a more in depth explanation of how trauma manifests and impacts us on a physical level many people have read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. 

For a further look at Irish folklore you can’t go wrong with John Creedon’s gorgeous Irish Folklore Treasury, and the Irish seasonal festivals are beautifully explored in The Turning of the Year by Eithne Massey. 

Carmel McMahon’s In Ordinary Time: Fragments of a Family History is one of our Dubray Recommended Reads for February.  Shop now…

She/her. Works in the Cork branch taking care of our children's, teen and young adult sections. She loves to read about history, travel memoirs and especially dark, emotional and strange books. Can be found talking about books and her writing on Instagram at @changelingbooks

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