by Bill Banning
Story ran in the Missoula Independent on September 16, 1999
Begorah, an Irish memoir that says something new
If the phrase "Irish memoir" brings to mind stories of a childhood plagued by ignorance, squalor and death, then undoubtedly you have experienced at least one of the many Irish memoirs that have been published recently. And, if that's the case, then you know it would be foolhardy for any author to try to best someone like Frank McCourt -- whose blockbuster autobiography Angela's Ashes started it all -- because when it comes to evoking pity for the wretched and oppressed, there is none better. However, if your appetite for questionable triumphs of the human spirit and gross details about life at the bottom of the urban food chain has been sated already, then Bill Watkins' A Celtic Childhood is an opportunity to appreciate the other side of the Irish psyche. Utilizing a acute ear for dialect, a good eye for history and an innate storytelling ability, Watkins provides an entertaining account of how his identity was shaped by his Irish mother and Welsh father, while educating the reader about what it means to be Celtic. A professional musician and entertainer, Watkins can tell a good story and keep his audience's interest. And anyone who has spent time in a pub shooting the bull will appreciate Watkins' easy-going but informative style.
When Bill Watkins was born in Birmingham, England in 1950, his father was a soldier in the British army. His mother, who was born in Limerick, Ireland, seems to be the only connection to any kind of Celtic childhood. However, what Watkins means by Celtic is soon made clear when the nurse at the English hospital where "Willie" is born tells his mother that his birth certificate should read "British." She indignantly refuses, saying: "If a cat has kittens in a baker's shop, does it make them currant buns?" Soon it's clear that Willie's identity will not be formed by his birthplace, but rather by his parents and extended family.
But what makes this book a true pleasure to read is Watkins' palpable love of the Celtic language, the rhythm of which he reproduces faithfully in dialogue. He obviously values words and proves his own maxim: :The English hoard words like misers and the Irish spend them like sailors." Those challenged by the prolific Irish slang and idiom used throughout this book will enjoy the glossary, which gives specific meanings and etymologies for words that may sound foreign to American ears. My vocabulary has been expanded to include "git," "amadawn," next to which our "fool" seems downright prosaic.
But the book's merits do not rest entirely upon its lyrical prose and cool cuss words; Watkins' rambunctious childhood included such dramatic events as bringing a live hand grenade to grade school "show and tell," and perpetrating a drive-by shooting of a wedding party (using blanks), while dressed up like Capon-ese gangsters. Still, his real talent lies in his ability to relate these events to the history that surrounds him. For example, when his father makes a traditional longbow tipped with .303 bullet-heads, we not only get the story of the manufacture, but also discourses on yew wood, the medieval enclosure movement, the historical consequences of the longbow, along with the history behind "flipping the bird." (Apparently a holdover from the two-fingered way the English bowmen would give the French who were wont to amputate the fingers of captured archers, sending them back unfit for further service.)
Indeed, Watkins' storytelling ability serves him well as he describes the Fleadh nights when his family would gather in Limerick, and Celtic history, poetry and song would flow as freely as the Guinness. This method of education through entertainment seems to be a characteristically Irish trait 00 what Willie's dad refers to as the "Encyclopedia Hibernicus Bullshitus." And maybe it depends on how you like your history, but I found myself agreeing with Watkins, who, telling of his cousin's role in the IRA's infamous New Year's Day attack on a Protestant army barracks, says: "That's the sort of history we are used to -- not the despotic antics of some obese, syphilitic, ax-wielding old tosspot like Henry VIII."
History, being essentially the story of people and events which just happen to be true, can be interesting when told by a good storyteller. And because the book loosely follows Watkins' coming-of-age in the '60s, we get a European perspective on events like Kennedy's election, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and being a Beatnik (not a Sputnik, as one provincial Irish cop accuses him).
Bill Watkins should receive credit for re-associating the words "humorous," "thoughtful" and "educational" with the term "Irish memoir." Watkins succeeds in creating a lively, readable account of the first 17 years of his life, because he possesses the skill of an Irish bard: He can mix poetry, song, story and history together to make a pleasing tale. While not simply some pro-Irish paean of praise, Watkins succeeds in characterizing a positive, cultured, intelligent side of Celtic life that has been noticeably absent in recent works of Irish autobiography. Most of the Irish I know, including members of my own family, are subject to both destructive melancholy and exuberant creativity; it's refreshing to discover someone whose memory includes the good as well as the bad.