1394 A great wee book, so it is
An Irish Country Yuletide
by Patrick Taylor
New York: Macmillan (Forge Books), 2021
$17.99 (US) / 9781250780904
Reviewed by Ian J.M. Kennedy
With the recent release of Kenneth Branagh’s film Belfast, set during the Troubles in 1969, it’s timely that The British Columbia Review should ask for a review of Salt Spring Island resident Patrick Taylor’s recent book An Irish Country Yuletide. Taylor grew up just outside Belfast, in Bangor, Co. Down, and while living there and working in a Belfast hospital in 1969 he cut his literary chops writing about the Troubles. He later immigrated to Calgary where he published his first two books Only Wounded, a collection of short stories, and his first novel Pray for Us Sinners, both set in war-torn Belfast.
While working as a medical researcher in Alberta, Taylor continued honing his writing skills by contributing to a medical humour column in the Canadian Medical Journal. In 2001, following his retirement, he began writing his extremely popular An Irish Country Doctor series that has run to seventeen books. An Irish Country Yuletide as his most recent.
Taylor’s sixteen other Irish Country Doctor books call to mind James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, about a Scottish veterinarian living in Yorkshire, and the BBC series Dr. Finlay, telling of a physician in a small village in Scotland. Both series describe the lives of medical practitioners working from their “surgeries” in their own houses, all the while tended to by a loveable housekeeper. Taylor sets his series in the 1960s fictional village of Ballybucklebo, on the shores of Belfast Lough between Belfast and Bangor, where Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, a cantankerous, older M.D. and his recently qualified understudy Dr. Barry Laverty ply their trade. They are cared for by their dedicated, widowed, housekeeper Mrs. Maureen “Kinky” O’Hanlon. “Arthur Guinness” and “Lady Macbeth,” the household dog and cat, complete the domesticity. Taylor overdoes the names and colloquialisms making the book overwhelmingly Irish.
A novella of 173 pages, An Irish Country Yuletide proves smaller than the other books in the Irish Country Doctor series, which run to 600 pages, but readers still get their money’s worth. The book centres round the events in Ballybucklebo during Christmas 1965, a kinder, gentler time before the Troubles. The two doctors along with O’Reilly’s new wife and Laverty’s girlfriend, their friends and neighbours all enjoy the Christmas traditions of caroling, trimming the tree, shopping for presents, greeting Father Christmas and eating a scrumptious Christmas dinner prepared by “Kinty.” Taylor creates a “feel good” time and place that may once have existed — though it likely never did, to this nostalgic degree. Amid these festivities the two doctors continue their medical practice, dealing with a case of leukemia and a case of measles afflicting a young girl who fears she will miss out on seeing Santa. In the end, of course, all works out well.
An Irish Country Yuletide offers a warm, easily-read tale chock full of bonhomie, wonderful characters, kindness and good will — exactly what Christmas should entail. Taylor’s books often delve into Irish folklore and are peppered with Ulster and Munster colloquial jargon that most North American readers might find difficult to understand. Taylor provides an extensive glossary at the end of each book explaining such phrases as “I’m your man,” “both legs the same length,” and “your head’s a marley.”
Although Taylor does not provide an appendix of medical terms, embedded within the story he educates readers about various diseases and how doctors treated them at that time. In the 1950s and 60s measles ran rampant but thankfully vaccines now prevent children having to suffer, as many of us who are old enough did in our childhoods.
The author provides an added bonus at the end of the book in featuring some of “Kintys’” Christmas recipes, including winter vegetable soup, lemon fridge cake, Irish wheaten bread, sage and onion stuffing, roast parsnips, roast potatoes and Seville orange marmalade. On reading the marmalade recipe I was surprised that it contained one notable omission. After the marmalade finishes boiling and has set, and before putting it into jars, one should add a “right good dollop” of Irish whiskey to make the marmalade truly Irish. That’s what my mother used to do and her marmalade was “wheeker” — “absolutely marvellous.”
An anachronism I take issue with is the fact that Taylor mentions that some houses in Ballybucklebo burned turf, or peat, in their fireplaces in 1965. At that time turf was mostly burned only in rural parts of Ireland, but around Belfast people burned coal and the burning of smoky bituminous coal made the population of Belfast susceptible to respiratory ailments, with bronchitis being very common. The smoke settled over the city trapped beneath colder air above and stagnated in the bowl between the hills to the east and west in which Belfast sits. I would suggest that the burning of peat had been phased out by 1965, the time in which the events in this book took place.
Perhaps, sometime in the future, viewers will be able to turn on Masterpiece Theatre on Sunday evenings and see the cinematic recreation of the An Irish Country Doctor series. It would give All Creatures Great and Small a run for its money and would delight the significant number of the Irish diaspora in North America who hold to the belief there are only two races in the world– those who are Irish and those who wish they were.
An Irish Country Yuletide will bring laughter and sentimental tears to readers, making it a perfect Christmas afternoon read while waiting for the turkey to roast, or indeed at any time of the year. Readers can read this book as a “stand alone” and do not have to have read the other books in the series. It might, however, inspire those who have not read the others to have a go at the others. As they would say in the Ulster: “This is a great wee book, so it is!
Born in County Donegal, Ireland, Ian J.M. Kennedy came to Canada in 1954 where he attended Burnaby North High School and earned a B.A. from UBC. Later he did post-graduate work at Queen’s University, Belfast, and on his return to Canada taught geography and history at Steveston Secondary School for thirty years. Following his retirement in 1999, he moved to Comox and became a rugby journalist, travelling the world and writing about a game he never played very well. Widely published in many magazines, his journalism also includes numerous articles about history, travel, motorcycling, cottage living, and pubs. His books include Guide to the Neighbourhood Pubs of the Lower Mainland (Gordon Soules, 1982), The Pick of the Pubs of B.C. (Heritage House, 1986), Sunny Sandy Savary: A History of Savary Island 1792-1992 (Kennell, 1992), The Life and Times of Joe McPhee, Courtenay’s Founding Father (Kennell, 2010), and Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History (Harbour, 2014), co-authored with Margaret Horsfield. Editor’s note: Ian Kennedy has also reviewed books by Jon Stott, Glen Mofford, Glen Cowley, and Peter McMullan for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and writers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster