- 05 Nov 20
O’Brien discusses how Ireland’s celebration of death is notably individual – and reflects on the Irish people's intriguing habit of relishing in the darkness of their mortality.
Irish author Gillian O’Brien exudes humour amidst morbid topics in her newest publication, The Darkness Echoing. As a Reader in Modern Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University, she regularly speaks about how the Irish commemorate the past.
“I worked for a lot of museums that have to do with death, but I was also interested in how people talk about funerals and death," she says. "They do so with a lot of black humour in Ireland. I wondered about how we tell stories about Irish history, and how Irish culture talks about the past and talks about death. We are prone to see the humour in things that might otherwise be very sad.”
These discoveries are mainly due to her grandmother’s obsession with planning for death, and viewing it as a fine topic of conversation.
“I think there’s an ease or a comfort with talking about death and dying," she reflects. "It isn't seen like something morbid. It is seen as a final chapter. Growing up, I didn't think it was strange that somebody would talk about what they wanted for their funeral. As a child, I would go to the wake and see the body laid out, and that would be something that was quite normal. I don’t think my childhood was particularly unique in that way. I think that is quite normal for a lot of Irish children growing up.”
After living in America for a short time, O’Brien began to understand this Irish pride of dark jokes, and one’s death preparation. Her husband also brought new perspectives to these initial insights.
“It wasn’t until I moved away to America, and then I spent a lot of time in England," she explains. "My husband is English, so I started to realise how death wasn’t the same in every culture. Death is much more solemnised in other cultures. People don’t talk about it as easily, and funerals are much more restricted in terms of numbers. What I thought was natural and ordinary seemed extraordinary when I moved out from where I’d grown up.”
Her work in heritage sites and museums also influenced her fascination with extracting the history of the strangeness of the Irish people.
“I started to work with some museums when they were developing their sites or heritage centres," she says. "I happened to be in one former fort, and then some former prisons, and I began to realise that all the stories we tell are things like incarceration, and stories that are not necessarily feel-good stories. People go to museums to enjoy themselves. It’s something they do to relax. I realised that so many of the stories we tell are, ‘Here’s a fun idea. Let’s go to a prison.’ ‘Let’s go and learn about a famine.’ ‘Let’s go and see a ship which took people to emigrate from Ireland during very frightful times.’ I was curious about how people seem to enjoy that. They enjoy going to see exhibitions for a dead body. I was interested in how many of those were there around in Ireland, and how do we tell those stories? Why do we tell those stories?”
Death and the rituals surrounding the topic enthralled O’Brien – to the point of heading out to prove Ireland’s obsession with the darker side of things. She found herself on a hunt to find Ireland’s places of famine, death, and rebellion.
“I enjoy going to those places," she says. "I assumed there were a lot of them, though the only way to really know is to get in the car and go off and try to visit every corner of the country – and think how these different stories are played out.”
Kilmainham Gaol is one of O’Brien’s favourite sites that she visited on her road trip. She found that the site's history as a prison and its architectural makeup held many secrets.
Another stop that particularly stuck out to her was a shopping centre in Kilkenny, where tourists listen to an audio guide about the story of a Famine-era workhouse.
“I thought, 'This won't be good'," she recalls. "You're standing beside Starbucks and you have all the piped music playing. I had very low expectations, but it was a really quite moving experience. You see the layers of how things change. We can still tell the stories of the past even though, physically, everything around us had changed. That was very unexpected.”
Having visited over 200 places, many sites O’Brien stopped at did not make it to her book.
“I was doing it week after week after week," she explains. "Which will make you realise how many times the same stories are told, as if they’re from the same place.”
Stories can build up over generations of being retold. Unless someone traces the timeline of a story’s historical progression, it’s as if the story came to exist without a beginning.
“I’m always interested in looking at the shadows and not the sun," she remarks. "If there is a story to be uncovered in a corner, I would be much more interested in looking at that than maybe the obvious story that might be more palatable.”