Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?

A Memoir


By Seamas O’Reilly

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“In this joyous, wildly unconventional memoir, Séamas O'Reilly tells the story of losing his mother as a child and growing up with ten siblings in Northern Ireland during the final years of the Troubles as a raucous comedy, a grand caper that is absolutely bursting with life.”―Patrick Radden Keefe, NYT bestselling author of Say Nothing and Empire of Pain

One of NPR’s Best Books of the Year

Séamas O’Reilly’s mother died when he was five, leaving him, his ten (!) brothers and sisters, and their beloved father in their sprawling bungalow in rural Derry. It was the 1990s; the Troubles were a background rumble, but Séamas was more preoccupied with dinosaurs, Star Wars, and the actual location of heaven than the political climate.
An instant bestseller in Ireland, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is a book about a family of loud, argumentative, musical, sarcastic, grief-stricken siblings, shepherded into adulthood by a man whose foibles and reticence were matched only by his love for his children and his determination that they would flourish.



Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?

One thing they don’t tell you about mammies is that when they die you get new trousers. On my first full day as a half-orphan, I remember fiddling with unfamiliar cords as Margaret held my cheek and told me Mammy was a flower.

She and her husband Phillie were close friends of my parents, and their presence is one of the few memories that survive from that period, most specifically the conversation Margaret had with me there and then. ‘Sometimes,’ croaked Margaret in a voice bent ragged from two days’ crying, ‘when God sees a particularly pretty flower, He’ll take it up from Earth, and put it in his own garden.’ Margaret held me in the sort of tight, worried grip usually reserved for heaving lambs up a ladder. As she clenched my hand and told me God had specially marked my mother for death, a tear-damp thumb traced small circles on my temple. She stroked my hair.

It was nice to think that Mammy was so well-liked by God, since she was a massive fan. She went to all his gigs – Mass, prayer groups, marriage guidance meetings; and had all the action figures – small Infant of Prague statuettes, much larger Infant of Prague statuettes, little blue plastic flasks of holy water in the shape of God’s own Mammy herself. So, in one sense, Margaret’s version of events was kind of comforting. It placed my mother’s death in that category of stories where people met their heroes, like Maureen Bouvaird getting a hug from Daniel O’Donnell in the Mount Errigal Hotel. Only Mammy’s death was even better, since Mrs Bouvaird didn’t get to live outside Daniel’s house forever thereafter, however much she would have liked to. As it happens, witnesses said Maureen cried so much she hyperventilated, leaving a shining snail’s trail of snot arching from Daniel’s jumper to the floor. Thereafter, the sexy eunuch of Irish country music waved her to the medical tent, where she spent the remainder of the evening clutching an icepack to blue curls in glazed, mumbling bliss.

As Margaret reassured me that God was an avaricious gardener intent on murdering my loved ones any time he pleased, I concentrated once more on my new corduroy slacks, summoned from the aether as if issued by whichever government department administers to the needs of all the brave little boys with dead, flowery mams – an infant grief action pack stuffed with trousers, sensible underpants, cod liver oil tablets and a solar-powered calculator.

The cords were new and clean and inordinately delightful to fiddle with, most especially when I flicked my finger up and down their pleasing grooves, stopping only each time a superheated nail forced a change of hands. I think it’s fair to say I had no idea what was going on, save that this was all very sad and, worse, making Margaret sad. In that way of five-year-olds, I feared sadness in adults above all things, so I leaned my head upon Margaret’s shoulder to reassure her that her words had scrubbed things clean. In truth, I found the flower story unsettling. I couldn’t help picturing Mammy – lovely, tired and blue-tinged in her flowy white hospital gown – awakening to a frenzy of mechanical beeping as the roof caved in and tubes burst from machines.

‘God takes the most beautiful ones for himself,’ she repeated in a tired rasp, as I envisaged the room pelted from above by ceiling plaster, maybe an oncologist or two getting knocked out by falling smoke alarms, God’s two great probing fingers smashing through the roof to relocate Mammy to that odd garden he kept in heaven, presumably so he’d have something to do on Sundays.

In fact, my mother died from the breast cancer that had spun a cruel, mocking thread through her life for four years. The hospital rang my father at 3 a.m. on Thursday 17 October 1991. Their exact words went unrecorded, but the general gist was that he’d want to get there quick. I can’t imagine the horror of that morning, my father racing dawn, chain-smoking as he managed the ninety-minute drive from Derry to Belfast in less than an hour. When he arrived, she had already passed. Sheila O’Reilly was dead, and my father drove back to Derry as the sole parent of eleven children.

From certain angles, the circumstances of my upbringing are disarmingly baroque. I agree, for example, that the whole eleven kids thing is a bit much. My parents’ remarkable fecundity had long been something of a cause célèbre to friends or, indeed, any random person who could count past ten, or had passed our scraggly-haired forms in the big white minibus in which we drove around. Nicknamed, with some inevitability, the O’Reillymobile, this vehicle cemented our place as an oddity wherever we went, and while I’m not saying everyone we knew mocked us as a gaggle of freaks, I’d find it hard to understand if they didn’t.

Passing us on the road during the school run, you would have seen a mildly frazzled man at the wheel, muttering at traffic through a woolly fog of cigar smoke. This man, resplendent in a two-tone suit and with beautifully combed blond hair, is my father, Joe, or Daddy, as Northern Irish speech has it. Daddy was, for reasons that will become obvious, the bright, shining star of my childhood, and, quite possibly, human life on Earth during this period. His hypothetical tension behind the wheel on this entirely notional morning might have been the result of one of us forgetting to put on shoes, neglecting to go to the toilet, or ingeniously weaponising a nosebleed against their nearest sibling.

He might have been stressed by that morning’s checkpoint run, the dystopian rigmarole undertaken by everyone who lived on Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland, during which army patrolmen would have commanded him to present ID as they manoeuvred their long, mirrored stick under the vehicle on the off-chance he’d paused ahead of the school run to place explosive materiel underneath his eleven infants’ feet. Of course, you could also just have happened to catch him during the nerve-obliterating period between 1999 and 2001, when no fewer than six of his daughters were simultaneously teenagers. I can’t imagine what that was like, and I was there. To be honest, the wonder isn’t so much that my father was frazzled, but that he managed to avoid going flamboyantly insane.

Contrary to the expectations of non-Irish people, it was highly unusual to have a family so large. Among my parents’ generation, it might have been slightly more common, particularly in rural communities, but by the eighties and nineties, such tallies were vanishingly rare. My parents were formidably – perhaps recklessly – Catholic, but even among the ranks of the devout, families with five kids were seldom seen. Seven would have been considered crisply eccentric, and nine plainly mad. To be one of eleven was singularly, fizzily demented. At best, you were the child of sex maniacs; at worst, the creepy scions of some bearded recluse amassing weapons in the hills. It didn’t help that we were so close in age and travelled, often singing, in the kind of large, vaguely municipal transport vehicle usually reserved for separatist church groups and volleyball teams made up of young offenders.

In some school years, it was easier to isolate the age groups in which we did not have a representative. In primary school we once had emissaries in six out of seven classes. We’ve since been told tales of completely unconnected third parties working out their relative age groups by referring to which O’Reilly was in their year. Even within our own home, it was necessary to erect internal subdivisions that simplified things. This we did by separating into three distinct castes, which ran in age order thus: the Big Ones (Sinead, Dara and Shane), the Middle Ones (Maeve, Orla, Mairead and Dearbhaile) and the Wee Ones (Caoimhe, me, Fionnuala and Conall). When my mother died, the youngest of us was two. I was myself three weeks shy of my sixth birthday; the celebration of that was, I have been led to believe, a decidedly subdued affair.

It’s an infuriating quirk of the brain that I remember my first taste of a banana sandwich but not the moment I was told Mammy had died. The closest I can manage must be some moments – perhaps hours – later: a clear image of walking through pyjama-clad siblings who were crying in all directions. It was morning, but since Daddy had left so early the curtains hadn’t yet been thrown open, a practice fastidiously encouraged the second he woke. This tinged everything with a dark, greyish unfamiliarity that only added to the queasy gloom of the moment.

There are differing accounts of how the news was delivered, but we know Daddy rang to tell us some time after 6 a.m. Some remember Sinead answering the phone, others her pleading with Dara to get it. The Big Ones – then aged thirteen, fifteen and seventeen respectively – had understood the gravity of those last few trips to the hospital better than the rest of us. To children reared to believe no news was good news, a 6 a.m. phone call bore all the gut-punching potentiality of, well, news.

We’d been to see Mammy the preceding weekend. I once more find I only have very faint memories of that final visit. I can see her in bed, tired and pale, laughing through the web of tubes taped to her face like a child’s art project, but it’s impossible to know if this was on that occasion or some earlier trip. Those tubes were a common point of reference for us in the years after her death, my sister Maeve becoming convinced they’d strangled her. By contrast, I have quite floridly detailed memories from later on that day, playing outside in the tall trees that lined the clinic, presumably after the Wee Ones had been removed to give my parents some space from their more oblivious children.

Apart from that I can remember very little of that week, save that morning on the couch with Margaret and a smattering of sensations from the subsequent wake. My father had called Phillie and Margaret with the news before he left Belfast, so they could come over to our house and look in on us until he returned. They arrived in the early morning to a surreal mess of sobbing. It also fell to them to intercept Anne as she pulled in to begin her day’s work, around seven. Anne was a saintly woman who tended to the house and its numerous infant contents, most especially since Mammy had fallen ill. Anne was particularly beloved of my mother for her superhuman propensity for calm, an invaluable asset on those days when the cruel humiliations of cancer seemed inexplicable, or she simply found herself without the will to talk.

Anne was as steady as rain and implacable as taxes; the kind of strong, rooted Donegal woman you could imagine blithely tutting if her hair caught fire. Looking out the kitchen window past our own shaken tears, we watched as the news made even her steadfast frame crumple backward. We saw her face collapse and her knees buckle, hands grasping her mouth before they steadied themselves on the car door behind.

This was, of course, a mere precursor to the sight of my father returning to sobs and screams, holding us all as we heaved, and crying loudly himself. The sight of my father crying was so dizzyingly perverse that I couldn’t have been more shocked and appalled if bats had flown out of his mouth. Daddy’s stoicism was as solid a fixture in my life as rain, or Savlon. This was the man who had forged time and space with his own rough hands, unafraid of heights or the dark or spiders or anything, save for being caught without some WD-40 when he needed it. In many ways, my father’s grief hit me harder than anything else. It would be from the wreckage of this moment that he would reassemble the universe for us.

Mammy’s body returned that afternoon, and was to be waked in our home. While the house was filling up, me and the other Wee Ones were being kept out of the way as things were made ready. I was mesmerised by the strange acoustic novelties now occurring in rooms removed of their furniture; the echoing clang of chairs and tables dragged about the place; the strange, loud, reverberating clicks of clocks that went, despite tradition, unstopped. It was customary for mirrors to be covered too, but Daddy had forgone both these measures since, for all his religious devotion, he saw them as affectation.

Our great big bungalow lay on the border of Derry and Donegal, with ‘on the border’ being here quite literal. Where our fence ended, so did the international jurisdictions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, its Crown Dependencies, all British Overseas Territories and the wider Commonwealth. Situated as far out from the city as it was, we rarely had many visitors, let alone enough to crowd our decidedly roomy environs. Now, there were people everywhere. Moreover, there was a sense that these were all people I’d simply never seen in our house before. They weren’t strangers exactly, they just weren’t house friends. These were people I’d only ever seen in the middle of town; ones who’d stop Mammy with a holler and a hooting laugh, as if bumping into someone in a shop was the greatest miracle since that pig in Ballinasloe that sang hymns. They’d grab her arm and talk a few feet above me, invariably bending down to smush my face and ask, ‘Dear God, Sheila, which one’s this now?’ They’d never guess my name, since I was on the younger end, and it was generally hard enough for my parents to keep track, but I was pinched and cuddled and told I was the spit of whichever sibling it was that they did happen to know. And now here they were, in our kitchen, the life squashed out of them, all serious and nervy as they carried dishes about the place and sheepishly searched, cupboard by cupboard, for whisks or dish cloths. Over these two days we would host a throng of well-wishers who’d come to pay their respects, see how we were doing, and inevitably bring us food, plates or cutlery. There were casseroles and tureens of soup and pyramids of vol-au-vents being shaped and reshaped like ice sculptures as they sat on that huge kitchen table, which had been moved especially for the purpose. This may have been the single biggest change; the table’s twelve-foot length completely altering the room’s dimensions when placed against the opposite wall, under that giant, high, ugly mirror, in which I was still many years from catching my own reflection.

In the time-honoured tradition of all Irish crises, sandwiches were liberally distributed. Egg and onion, of course, but also ham, and not merely the thin, wet slices you got for school lunches, but the thick, rough-cut chunks that still had the fat on – the type used exclusively by millionaires, Vikings and, it was taken for granted, Protestants. To add to the general sense of occasion, fifteen-year-old Dara had been dispatched to Lapsley’s to pick up two hundred Regal King Size cigarettes. The 160 that made it back from the shop were distributed around the house on oblong trays of polished silver, the kind of dish more typically reserved for bringing meat joints to neighbours’ houses. Individual cigarettes were also offered freely to guests by hand, as if we were not a gathering of grief-stricken Northern Irish Catholics at all, but a cabal of New York sophisticates toasting a dazzling new biography of Lyndon Johnson.

Still more people filed in. Friends my mother had accumulated in her six short years teaching in Derry, but whom her children knew only by titled rank, like Mr O’Mahoney, Father Collins, Sister Deirdre, Dr Cleary. And more cups, plates, cutlery, napkins, sandwiches, not to mention all manner of glazed meats and boiled vegetables, wrapped in foil and on plates their donors were prepared to never see again. The sheer mass of food on display may have given an outsider the impression that we were doubly afflicted; not merely a giant family bereft of a loving mother, but one just pulled from six weeks under an avalanche, in which they’d had little or no access to potato salads, gravy or fruitcakes in that time.

I’m not sure if this was the origin of our family’s long-standing collection of dark, dense fruitcakes, but I’ve always believed it to be the case. The notion that anyone enjoys Irish fruitcake – a foodstuff that boasts the consistency, shine and taste of a wet boxing glove – is so fanciful I’ve long theorised that every gifting of a fruitcake is just that person offloading one they themselves were cruelly gifted some days (or years) earlier. Brown, thick and studded with dried fruits of dubious age and origin, fruitcakes are the nutritional equivalent of concussion. They are so unpalatable, so repulsive, so reminiscent of a bundled-up tarpaulin that’s spent a week in the rain, you’d have little chance of getting someone to accept one unless the occasion precluded their making a scene. I’m still largely convinced that all of rural Ireland is engaged in a dense, berried pyramid scheme devoted to circulating the same thousand cakes in a never-ending merry-go-round of spongy offal. Despite our best efforts at redistribution, there were fruitcakes in our house that stayed for years. Some of them we dared not move for fear they’d become load bearing.

In a kindly gesture, Phillie Riordan had brought dozens of spirit miniatures, the little overpriced booze bottles you get in a hotel minibar. These were sincerely appreciated, not least by Dara, who instituted another light tax for his own ends before decamping to the garage to play pool for the evening. Phillie had no doubt procured the miniatures via respectable means, but the odd specificity of such an offering delighted those for whom it conjured images of our upright and respectable GP pilfering his haul from hotel minibars over several years. There were also the kind of large, stainless-steel caterer’s teapots you see at church fairs. Did we borrow those too from the convent, like we did the dozens of sandy-coloured folding wooden chairs? The latter now stretched from the back door and through the kitchen, out the front hall, and up against the piano in the dining room where Mammy lay in her coffin, on a table that was too high for me to see her without being lifted.

With its folded chairs, industrial quantities of tea and expanding population of desolate mourners, the house soon took on the appearance of a field hospital. Beside those standing in twos and threes, engaging in murmured conversation, still more slumped alone in chairs, rendered insensible to others by stifled sobs. Everywhere stood puffy-eyed people with features so red and blotchy it was as if bandages had just been ripped off their faces. I can still remember the slowly disappearing mirage of finger-shaped, blood-evacuated flesh on Giovanni Doran’s cheeks as he withdrew the hand that clasped his face so he could shake my father’s.

There were, everywhere, people who’d been jarringly removed from their appropriate contexts. Mr O’Mahoney, who commanded the dignity of a sphinx in the secondary school I would later attend, was reduced to fumbling his way through a chat with my older brother Shane, in which he told his then-thirteen-year-old student that his own mother had recently died, and thus he knew what Shane was going through. A polite type, Shane was nevertheless incapable of hiding his contempt for the equivalence. Thereafter, the conversation took on that stilted air common to those chats you have with sales staff once they tell you the price of an item and you keep talking only so they’ll never suspect you don’t regularly spend £28 on lemon-scented handwash.

Most guests, already sombre and teary when they arrived, were stunned into traumatic shock once they greeted the body. Gripping the coffin’s edge, they stared in dejection at my mother, who lay stately, pale and dead at forty-three. Some regarded her casket as if it were a grisly wound they’d discovered on their own body, registering the sight with a loud gasping horror that made all around them redouble their own racking sobs. Some witnesses collapsed in the manner of someone cruelly betrayed, as if they’d arrived at the whole maudlin affair on the understanding they were being driven to a Zumba class.

In any case, a sniffled consensus prevailed that my mother looked ‘just like herself’. This sentiment was always spoken with an air of relief that suggested Irish morticians were sometimes in the habit of altering the appearance of the dead for a laugh, but on this occasion had read the generally melancholy feeling in the room and realised it would be best to make up her face to look as much as possible as it had in life. In a nice touch, you might have noted, her clothes had also been chosen from her own wardrobe, rather than from some jolly old hamper in the corner of the morgue filled with feather boas, pirate hooks and floppy, felt-lined cowboy hats. Many’s the wake, you might presume, owed its lively atmosphere to the hilarious sight of your late Auntie Pauline dressed head to toe as Henry VIII.

And so this cycle repeated; people arriving bearing fruitcake, ashen-faced, clasping hands and embracing those of us there gathered, only to see the body and suffer an emotional collapse that might range anywhere from throttled gasp to guttural wailing. Hundreds would come in the next two days, causing hushed embarrassment among those who inadvertently arrived when things were already hectic, or had realised they’d called at a more prominent time than their relation to the deceased might warrant. As always, even in kindest company, an unspoken hierarchy of grief asserted itself.

Wakes surround you, smother you even, with loved ones and acquaintances and workmates and long-lost pals, prompting a cycle of social interaction that gives the entire process a strangely unreal tinge. Perhaps that’s the point, and the whole system is just a ruse aimed at preventing emotional breakdown by demanding a ritual period of event management for the mourner. Of course you can be alone with your dark, broiling thoughts, but only once you’ve made and distributed six hundred cups of tea.

My memories are scattered: Dara and Shane playing pool in the garage, and the latter winning since the former was getting increasingly merry on pilfered spirits; the twins, Orla and Maeve, acting adult and serene, though they were not yet twelve; my youngest brother, Conall, six weeks from turning three years old, looking even more confused than I did, being passed from person to person in a daisy chain of cuddles so never-ending I don’t know that his feet touched the ground all day. My own contribution to people’s memories of the wake is somewhat less dignified than I’d like, but has become a venerable classic on those boozy nights when my family come together and retell our favourite mortifying tales about ourselves.

A system had been put in place to try to marshal the movements of us Wee Ones, who were a bit too young and, let’s face it, thick to understand precisely what was going on. Hence my being fussed over with sadness by Margaret, or Anne, or any of the Big or Middle Ones. Of course, they couldn’t repress my ebullient run-around ways for ever, and before long, I was wandering free through the gathered mourners. I was simply too young to grasp that the only thing sadder than a five-year-old crying because his mammy has died is a five-year-old wandering around with a smile on his face because he hasn’t yet understood what that means. We laugh about it now, but it really is hard for me to imagine the effect I must have had, skipping sunnily through the throng, appalling each person upon their entry to the room by thrusting my beaming, three-foot frame in front of them like a chipper little maître d’, with the cheerful enquiry:

‘Did ye hear Mammy died?’

I don’t remember faces dropping, nor anguished sighs, but I’m told I accumulated many such reactions before someone came up and stopped me from traumatising any more of these good people. The solemnity, not to mention the permanence, of my mother’s death was lost on me then, and it would take a while to sell it in a way I really took to heart. Months later, in much the same manner of a man who remembers a packet of Rolos in his coat pocket, I’d straighten my back with delight and perkily ask the nearest larger person when Mammy was coming back, on account of how she’d been dead for ages and was, surely by now, overdue a return.

The funeral itself was a beautiful affair, with eight priests scattered from chancel to apse in Long Tower church. The service was led by Bishop Edward Daly, a man made famous by his fearless work on Bloody Sunday, traversing the Bogside with his blood-stained handkerchief. He was a family friend back in my dad’s home town, a man who’d been babysat by my granny in his youth. When my parents moved to Derry, he drove them about and showed them what was what. Just six years later, he was officiating at Mammy’s funeral. There were over a thousand attendees, and other than standard weeping, the silence was broken only by the softly warped lilt of Long Tower’s great organ and Dearbhaile, three years my senior, who screamed so hard her shoe fell off, and Phillie had to take her outside to be sedated.

Mammy was laid to rest in Brandywell cemetery, high up the steep, grassy hill that runs up into Creggan, looking down over Brandywell Road and Derry City’s stadium. Some years later, a fibreglass statue of a paramilitary volunteer was erected a few graves in front of hers, a fascinating departure from the ambience of angels and urns graveyards typically aim for. Mounted by the INLA – very much the Andrew Ridgeley of Irish republicanism – it was a striking addition to the neighbourhood. The aims and deeds of the INLA are too complex to go into here, but it is odd that, to this day, any time I visit my mother’s grave it hovers on the edge of my vision like a giant G.I. Joe, only one who’s about to give a prepared warning to the world’s media. If you were to construct a heavy-handed visual metaphor for how large a shadow the Troubles cast over everything in Northern Ireland during my childhood, it wouldn’t be a bad shout.

On the way home, Daddy rolled down the window of the hearse and thanked the policemen marshalling the traffic at Nixon’s Corner. This was the checkpoint that lay two miles from our house, the very same one we’d go through each morning. That they had taken the time to facilitate the cortège and its followers was a bending of protocol that my father greatly appreciated, the kind of touching moment you could imagine Van Morrison singing about, when he wasn’t phlegmily screaming at some studio engineer.

In the months that followed, left more and more to ourselves, the shock would subside and the slow, rumbling grief would come in successive, parallel waves. The impacts would come to each of us individually and at different speeds, and then be magnified by all of the subsequent considerations of everyone else’s grief, cross-bred and multiplied by the twelve of us trying to make sense of it, whether together or apart. When you lost the energy to be sad, anger would tag in for a relief shift. My older siblings would work through their own grief and then consider the horror that we younger members still had to go through, and the abject desolation of the whole thing would reheat inside them all over again.


  • “In this joyous, wildly unconventional memoir, Séamas O'Reilly tells the story of losing his mother as a child and growing up with ten siblings in Northern Ireland during the final years of the Troubles as a raucous comedy, a grand caper that is absolutely bursting with life. Jostling with indelible characters and shot through with bittersweet longing, it is moving and mordantly hilarious, a love letter to the resilience (and the insanity) of family. I laughed, I cried -- but really.”—Patrick Radden Keefe, NYT bestselling author of Say Nothing and Empire of Pain
  • "I cannot stress enough how much I love this funny, adorable memoir. Not only hilarious, tender, absurd, delightful and charming, but written with such skill as to render it unforgettable."—Nina Stibbe, bestselling author of LOVE, NINA and REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
  • I laughed out loud reading Did Ye Hear Mammy Died, especially at the bits that recalled for me the way my own family laughs to keep from crying…It's rare to read about good fathers in memoirs, and O'Reilly's portrait…is hilarious and moving….It is this thread of refusal to be pitied, to have what happened to his family reduced to ‘a tawdry bit of sentimental fluff for people to tut along to and say how sad,’ that makes Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? so rousing. That it is also deadly funny is an extra treat.”—NPR
  • "A gorgeous piece of work. Thoughtful and charming, it’s a book that sprouts abundant humour from one of Ireland’s most emotionally fertile past-times…grief.”—Chris O'Dowd
  • "Northern Ireland in the time of the Troubles is often cast into a narrative that doesn’t allow room for joy or delight...O’Reilly’s recollection is a splendid paradox, both cheery and heartbreaking."—Booklist, Starred
  • "Séamas’ memoir is delightful and horrifying, sometimes within the same sentence.”—Patton Oswalt
  • "I laughed until I choked, I cried BUCKETS, I have NEVER been so charmed, I fell in GIANT LOVE with Daddy O’Reilly. Seriously, this is a rare and beautiful book.”—Marian Keyes, internationally bestselling author of Watermelon and Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married
  • “An almost improbable true story of an Irish man bringing up eleven (yes, eleven) children on his own, after his wife dies. Séamas is the ninth of these ‘half-orphans’ and he writes about his childhood and grief with such pathos and wit—even the chapter on his father’s love of dogs is exquisite. A gorgeous memoir.”—Pandora Skyes, author of How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right
  • “Such wonderful writing."—Nigella Lawson
  • "It's hard to imagine a memoir about an author's dead mother could elicit actual belly laughs, but somehow, O'Reilly makes it happen... what ultimately emerges in O'Reilly's recollections is never macabre. Instead, it is a tribute to the parents who raised him--his mother, by the legacy she left behind, and his father, in his sometimes strange and yet seemingly deliberate ways of caring for each of his children through their grief. Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? expertly combines heartfelt sentiment with a dry Irish wit that will leave readers questioning if the tears on their cheeks come from joy or sadness or dark humor--or all of the above."

    Kerry McHugh, Shelf Awareness
  • "In this rollicking debut, O’Reilly, a columnist for the London Observer, weaves a hilarious look at his Irish Catholic childhood with a touching tribute to his mother...Chock-full of wit and compassion"—Publishers Weekly
  • “An actually laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking memoir about growing up with ten siblings and a widowed dad in 90s Derry.”—Emily Temple, LITERARY HUB
  • Sometimes, a story hits hardest when told in the voice of the person who lived it. That’s the case with DID YE HEAR MAMMY DIED?...an equally lighthearted and profound examination of grief, family life and Northern Irish society against the backdrop of the waning years of the Troubles…It is disarming to find yourself laughing amid discussions of death, but O’Reilly’s sense of humor lands with the finality of a fruitcake hitting the kitchen floor. In a legato, Northern Irish timbre, O’Reilly nails the unreliability of memory… O’Reilly’s sketches are so visceral and intimate, you can almost imagine yourself as part of his tightknit community, too.”—Sebastian Modak, NEW YORK TIMES
  • “Séamas O’Reilly’s rousing grief memoir shuns sentimentality in favor of gallows humor. Its title comes from a favorite family tale: when O’Reilly was five, his mother died, leaving behind 11 (!) children. At the wake in their house in Northern Ireland, O’Reilly went around the crowd “like a chipper little maître’d, with the cheerful enquiry: ‘Did ye hear Mammy died?’” I laughed out loud reading this memoir – O’Reilly’s style and mining of family farce recall David Sedaris, but with a Derry bent.”

    NPR, Best Books of the Year

On Sale
Jun 7, 2022
Page Count
192 pages

Seamas O’Reilly

About the Author

Seamas O'Reilly is a columnist for the Observer and writes about media and politics for the Irish Times, New Statesman, Guts, and VICE. He lives in the London borough of Hackney with his family.

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