We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It: A Memoir of My Irish Boyhood

We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It: A Memoir of My Irish Boyhood

by Tom Phelan


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In the tradition of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Alice Taylor’s To School Through the Fields, Tom Phelan’s We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It is a heartfelt and masterfully written memoir of growing up in Ireland in the 1940s.

Tom Phelan, who was born and raised in County Laois in the Irish midlands, spent his formative years working under his wise and demanding father, JohnJoe, on a farm that was often wet, muddy, and back-breaking.

These stories recount Tom’s upbringing in an isolated rural community from the day he was delivered by the local midwife. As a child, Tom became aware that priests lived in warm, dry houses and saw that they never had muck or dung on their polished shoes. He began to dream of becoming a priest and traveling to sunny foreign missions, where he would baptize and teach pagan children.

We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It offers you a glimpse of life in the Irish countryside in the 1940s, a time before rural electrification, the telephone, or indoor plumbing; when the main modes of travel were bicycle and animal cart; when small farmers struggled to survive and turkey eggs were hatched in the kitchen cupboard; when the Church exerted enormous control over Ireland. We become acquainted with the never-ending efforts of Tom’s father to wrest a livelihood from the land.

With tears and laughter, We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It speaks to the strength of the human spirit in the face of life's adversities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501197093
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 128,102
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Tom Phelan had just turned fifty when his first novel, In the Season of the Daisies, was accepted for publication by the Lilliput Press in Dublin. Since then, he has penned five other novels: Nailer, The Canal Bridge, Iscariot, Derrycloney, and Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told. He has also written for Newsday, the Irish Echo, and The Recorder, the journal of the American-Irish Historical Society. He lives in New York with his wife.

Read an Excerpt

We Were Rich and We Didn’t Know It

  • In the early 1930s, my father, JohnJoe Phelan, having borne the dictatorship of his father until the old man died and having buried his aged mother in the local cemetery two years later, became the master of his own destiny and the owner of a farm in Laragh, one-half mile from the town of Mountmellick in County Laois.

    Mointeach Milic, which the British corrupted to Mountmellick, means the “marshy land beside the bog.” JohnJoe’s farm was fifty-two boggy acres that, as he himself said, were so soft they could be tilled with the belt of a blackthorn bush.

    A few years before his parents died, JohnJoe began planning for his future. He knew that upon their deaths, he would have to get his sister, Molly, out of the house so he could bring in a new mistress—a wife. He already had his eye on Annie Hayes, a young woman who lived on the far end of the town in a cottage on the edge of the marsh but still in the bog.

    JohnJoe was a good planner; he had a plan.

    His distant cousin Kate Larkin, an aged spinster living in the townland of Aganloo, was the sole survivor of a farm-owning family. Kate was also related to JohnJoe’s uncle Pake Nugent, whom JohnJoe disliked immensely. “Pake’s nothing but a land grabber!” he would snipe.

    With the future relocation of Molly on his mind and Kate Larkin within a death rattle of the grave, JohnJoe bought a strawberry-jam Swiss roll and set off one Sunday morning in his pony-and-trap to travel the eight miles to Aganloo. Upon arrival, he made tea for Kate and himself, then sweetened his cousin’s toothless mouth with the Swiss roll. “Ah, JohnJoe,” she said, “this cake is nice and aisy on me oul gums.”

    JohnJoe went down on one knee before the ailing woman. “Sure, Kate, I have a favor to ask of ye. I’ll have a hard time getting a wife as long as Molly is living at home with me. Would ye ever think of leaving yer house and farm to her?”

    Kate generously told him to arise. “JohnJoe, I’ll be changing me will tomorrow, and when I’m wearing me shroud, this place will be Molly’s. I’m just sorry I’ll miss yer weddin.”

    JohnJoe sliced the rest of the Swiss roll and placed it on a chair convenient to his benefactress. Then he set out for home, his success bearing him up. But as his pony trotted down Kate Larkin’s avenue, he met Pake Nugent coming up the road on his rattling bike. JohnJoe assumed that Pake, with five sons and four daughters, was about to ask Kate for her farm.

    “Did you bring her anything, Pake?” JohnJoe called. “I brought her a Swiss roll.”

    “Maybe she’ll give me a bit,” Pake shouted back.

    “It’ll be the only thing she can give you!”

    JohnJoe could not contain himself, and he roared out laughter as loud as the bawl of a mare ass.

    Not long after JohnJoe’s visit to Aganloo, old Kate breathed her last, and soon Molly immigrated to the Larkin farm, JohnJoe driving his horse-and-cart with beds, mattresses, and a few other sticks. His sister drove on ahead in the pony-and-trap; Molly would not be seen in a horse’s cart in close proximity to an equine arse. After all, she was now a landowner.

    Free of his sister, JohnJoe wiped the muck and the cow dung off his wellingtons and set about entrapping Annie Hayes in his amorous plans.

  • Table of Contents

    Author's Note 1

    JohnJoe's Clever Plan 3

    JohnJoe Gets a Wife 6

    The Jubilee Nurse 10

    In the Farmhouse Kitchen 15

    The Turkey in the Cupboard 20

    Love Writ Shyly 27

    My Fifty-Two-Acre Playground 32

    The Lovely Church 36

    Praying for the Dead 41

    The Storyteller 45

    The Road to School 56

    First Babies 66

    The Penny Catechism 70

    Scary Surprise from the Dark Continent 74

    The Red Motorcar 78

    To School with Uncle Jack and Red 82

    Altar Boy Days 85

    The Recruiter 90

    Blessed Oliver 94

    The Sweet Paper 99

    Sheriff Johnny's Gun 101

    My Boxing Career 104

    Tyranny of the Irish Weather 110

    De Valera and Dad's Turnips 114

    Early Morning Cattle Drive 117

    The Early Lives of Piglets 122

    Horses 128

    The Forge 134

    Whiteface and the Stallion 141

    The Bull on the Farm 145

    Accident Near Tullamore 150

    Isaac's Tree 153

    Burning Bushes 158

    We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It 162

    The Rambler 166

    Luckless Lar 170

    The Man Who Knew Everything 173

    Wasted on the Bog Air 176

    Jimser Scott 180

    Billy 185

    Flying the Nest 191

    Epilogue 197

    Glossary 201

    Acknowledgments 209

    About the Author 211

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    We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It: A Memoir of My Irish Boyhood 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
    gaele 8 months ago
    AudioBook Review: Stars: Overall 4 Narration 3 Story 5 Mostly because I was enchanted with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, and then got all involved in the PBS Show, My Mother and Other Strangers, Ireland of the 40’s has always held an interest. While we’re all familiar with ‘the troubles’ and the information about the ‘Irish Issues” has been written about endlessly – no matter what side you lean toward, I’ve always wanted more from the outer counties and people as I learn about the time, struggles and choices of residents not always highlighted in the tales of struggle or lore. Tom Phelan takes us to his own childhood in an exploration of relationships, both within the family and with the ever-present and occasionally domineering Catholic Church, as they struggle through both good and lean times, find and chase dreams, opportunities and choices, and above all, maintain that peculiar tether to land, family and the “Irishness” that binds them all together. Taking us from his infancy through to the point he leaves for boarding school to study for the priesthood, we are treated to that ‘simpler’ sense of the days without internet, when chores went from sunup to sundown with everything having a time and a season, and the sheer repetition bringing that sense of belonging and purpose to every day. Prose that is simple and deceptively complex as it details daily life – from being bullied to great moments of triumph – all under the close watchfulness of neighbors, family and the church. The simplistic lessons that his father was teaching them – perhaps to avoid bringing undue notice or setting them “apart” from others and thus making them more of a target of those who don’t have options, the struggles to keep ‘thoughts and acts’ to oneself, and the actual detailing of people being people – not good, not bad, but opportunistic and availing themselves of the opportunity and the moment which often determined the ‘morality’ of the moment. It was an interesting tale that seeks not to glorify or vilify the rural life in middle-counties Ireland in the 40’s, but to show it, warts and all, allowing readers to better understand those of that generation and perhaps better understand the changes, or lack thereof, within the same areas. Narration for this story is provided by Gerard Doyle, who captured the accent and the lyrical delivery with aplomb. My single complaint was with transitions, as paragraphs weren’t clear or distinct, and often one did not clearly lead into another, allowing for a bit of “catch up” for ears and brain to regather themselves. It was easy to acclimate to the accent, and his voice did manage to present with tone and volume changes as appropriate, allowing for auditory interest that kept me engaged and intrigued. I received an AudioBook copy of the title from Simon Audio for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I enjoyed this book quite a bit, Phelan does an excellent job giving a sense of his childhood in Ireland. My only real gripe is that it is a bit disjointed at times and falls victim to some unnecessary repetition. I think the order of some of the essays could have been reconfigured for a smoother experience. I received this book via NetGalley.