Séamas O’Reilly: 12 letters, 10 siblings & the mother I never knew

One of the youngest of a ‘preposterously large’ family, Séamas O’Reilly was just five when he lost his mother. He reveals how, decades later, he finally heard her voice in the most unexpected way.

Patricia handed me the letters as we sat down. They were in a clear plastic sleeve along with the cards and envelopes in which they’d originally arrived. I gripped the package like a life raft as she took me through its contents, before leaving me to pore over them alone.

‘Hold on to whatever,’ she said. ‘There’s no rush. I know where they are.’

Patricia is my mother’s oldest friend, and the package contained 11 letters she’d received during the last few years of my mother’s life. They chart a time in which my mother was either in treatment for cancer or in remission, between the multiple recurrences that were to come. Even through the plastic, I could make out the handwriting I’d seen in precious scraps throughout the house growing up: mass cards, hand-drafted prayers, notes on the backs of old photos. But here were full sentences, knotty asides, tumbling descriptions of everyday things, coherent thoughts still fluid and alive. Within seconds of opening the first envelope, I heard her voice and realised how little of it I’d heard as a child, surprised to find myself feeling her loss more keenly than I had in decades.

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On 17 October 1991, Sheila O’Reilly died, aged 43, from the breast cancer that had been a recurring presence in her life for the previous four years. My father found himself widowed at 44, and sole parent to 11 children, aged from two to 17. I, the ninth of these children, was three weeks shy of my sixth birthday. When I began writing a memoir of my childhood, it was clear that my mother’s death, and the circumstances of growing up in the preposterously large family she left behind, would factor prominently. I suppose my decision to title the book Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? was the first clue. I wanted it to encompass the tragedy and humour of my early life and I knew the responsibility that came with it. Not least since, although I knew a lot about my own childhood and the experience of getting through life in her absence, I found I had little in the way of tactile information about Mammy herself.

Séamas O’Reilly and mother
As a baby with his mum Sheila in 1986. Image: Séamas O’Reilly

At five, I was too young to have particularly detailed memories of my mother, and was left to piece her together from the testimonies of others. Even this posed its challenges. A beloved mum whose life was so tragically cut short, it’s understandable that she was spoken of in glowing tones when I was growing up. We were inundated with stories of my mother’s remarkable qualities: the boundless empathy and kindness that defined her life, her unflappable good humour, the care she showed others. This was, after all, a woman whose funeral attracted more than 1,000 mourners; someone with 11 children of her own but who still found time to provide emergency foster care to half a dozen more; someone so resolutely kind and generous that each of us has, on multiple occasions, been stopped cold by strangers hoping to impart an unprompted eulogy once they spotted our resemblance. ‘You won’t remember me, but…’ these usually began, before they listed all the ways in which they were touched by the warmth and humanity she showed to everyone she met.

Against this background, I spent much of my life grasping for any deeper information I could shake out of nearby adults. Patricia had always been my go-to for such revelations since, as my mother’s dearest friend, she’d give you the real stuff. Like most Irish families, we were raised to understand that laughter is the greatest tribute to the dead, and there is no greater proof for this notion than Patricia, as great an ambassador for the spirit of her friend as anyone could ever hope to have. If my mother had ever misbehaved in school, if she couldn’t hold a tune in her head, if she was ever so holier-than-thou that it would get on your nerves, Patricia was the one to tell us, and in a manner that was as beautiful, and healing, as a thousand glowing eulogies ever could be. And here, before me, were 5,000 words in my mother’s own hand, so that I could hear her voice in my head, spoken with the directness of an old friend.

The first letter is dated 30 November 1987, three weeks after the Remembrance Day bombings, in which 12 people were killed by an IRA attack in Enniskillen, the town where my family had spent most of their lives before moving to Derry shortly before my birth. ‘There’s been so much sadness,’ she wrote. ‘Enniskillen upset us all. I’ll never forget that Sunday, it was like a nightmare – listening and watching. I suppose the only hope is that good will come out of it.’

Séamas O’Reilly and family
Séamas (front row, second from right) with his parents and siblings at home in Derry, 1990. Image: Séamas O’Reilly

All her letters are like this: cognisant of tragedy but evincing a hopefulness about the future. There is sorrow here. They cover my mother’s near constant visits to people in hospitals, or attendance at funerals and other events. They also document her own illness and the changing fortunes of her battle with cancer. But mostly they give encouragement, support and offers of prayerful solidarity to Patricia. There are, thankfully, also breaks of bright comedy, as when she apologises for a crumpled missive – ‘Please excuse the condition of the card but Fionnuala has just been sitting on it’ – or when she informs Patricia that she’s been deploying us all to pray for her success in buying a house. ‘I hope your house works out for you,’ she wrote. ‘We only realised recently that some of the wee ones thought you had nowhere to live. Literally – roaming the streets!’

Everywhere she expresses an unshowy commitment to caring for others, as when she describes moving my terminally ill granny, her mother-in-law, into our already teeming family home. ‘It’s a big responsibility,’ she writes, ‘everybody tried to put us off – but it’s not nearly as bad as people think.’

Even when detailing her illness, she has a grace that strikes me dumb. ‘Emotionally, at best I’m disappointed,’ she wrote of one recurrence of her cancer. ‘I don’t understand what’s happening, I’m upset but I’m still hopeful.’ Even then, the main pain she expresses is for the rest of us, especially my father. ‘I know I don’t have to ask for your prayers, not only for me but especially Joe – he’s devastated. We told the children last night and they were great – so practical, who’d do what for them, when and where? Physically, I feel no different, in fact better than ever so I’m hoping that will stand to me in my recovery.’

There are exhaustively long descriptions of what we’re all up to – the school projects, plays, sports teams and class trips she’s helping to organise. They continue for so long, and in such detail, the effect is almost comical. I’m reminded anew of the industry necessary to keep us all going and find myself marvelling at the sheer size of my ridiculous family, a phenomenon you’d be forgiven for thinking I was, by now, well aware of. For all that detail, I wince with silent disappointment that my own name doesn’t occur in the letters. I’m not so self-involved as to think it’s anything other than pure dumb luck, but frequent re-reading confirms I’m the only one of my siblings not to get a specific mention.

Her last letter is dated 11 February 1991 – just eight months before her death. She details a new lump that has been found by her specialist, but devotes much of her time to documenting our adventures in school and extracurricular activities, and the plans to accompany two of my siblings on a language trip to Germany.

At times, reading these letters, it feels profane to see her making plans and hoping for the best, knowing what comes next. But it’s deeply touching to read her so full of life and compassion, refusing to be mired in pity. By the time I’d finished working her words into my memoir, I felt I knew her better than I ever hoped.

Fate was to provide another miracle, however. Some months after the book was finished, my sister told us another letter had arrived, from an old acquaintance back in Enniskillen. It contained a letter from my mother dated 10 March 1989, in which she offers words of comfort and support and gives love to her friend’s family, before ending with a rundown of what we’ve been up to. As exams, more music performances and school starts are detailed, she ends by mentioning those of us still at home. ‘Séamas (three), Fionnuala (two) and baby Conall are still at home so there’s never a free moment,’ she writes. I have, once more, her voice inside my head, but now I hear her calling me by name.

Séamas’s memoir Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is published by Fleet, price £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44 until 22 August, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.