Rory & Ita by Roddy Doyle

Viking  2002  338 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


"In all my life I have lived in two houses, had two jobs, and one husband.  I'm a very interesting person."  So says Ita Bridget Bolger Doyle, mother of Irishman Roddy Doyle, novelist, recipient of a Booker Prize, as well as the co-author of the screenplay for The Commitments.  It’s Roddy’s job to take his parents’ oral history of their times and relationship and transform it into something interesting.  And in Rory & Ita, his first nonfiction work, he largely succeeds.

Ita was born in 1925, the third child of a mother who died when Ita was three.  So surrounded was she by poverty that she didn’t recognize deprivation and hardship for what it was.  An intelligent, optimistic, calm woman, she found employment as a typist, until one night at a dance she met Rory Doyle, a compositor who arranged type for newspaper printing.  As she notes, “The earth did not move ... I didn't like him one bit.”  However, Doyle resolved to show up at the dance hall the next week not under the influence and Ita and Rory were soon an item.

But as Rory says, "It was a fortnight after we met that we first kissed, outside Ita's front door, or maybe it was three weeks.  It was probably about three weeks—you couldn't go rushing into these things."

Rory’s work involved proofreading, as well as typesetting, so his job occasionally had its perks, principal among which was locating “howlers.”  In that capacity, he reviewed the work of his fellow typesetters, noting "the report on the death of a much-respected Presbyterian minister .... He is survived by three sisters and two brothels."

This is a charming story of two ordinary people whose lives were beset by routine struggles, most of them occasioned by the lack of money.  Doyle began with audiotapes of his parents’ memories of events, and from them skillfully constructed an ongoing chronicle, each spouse’s story told in alternate chapters.

As Ita notes, "The trouble with reminiscing is that, while events occur in chronological order, memories don't.  This applies particularly in old age, when one might remember an incident that happened seventy years ago, and yesterday's dinner is a complete blank."  However, Doyle’s art consists in taking these disjointed memories and, through discrete stitching, turning them into a smooth narrative fabric.

Ita, while motherless, was not without family, and one of the more touching aspects of her story is her contact, early and late, with family members.  The appeal of much of her tale lies in her innocence and simplicity in recounting these relationships.  Her Aunt Bessie, for example, relates a childhood conversation among her girlhood friends.  "They were discussing the commandment 'Thou shalt not commit adultery.'  They just couldn't understand what adultery was and, if they didn't know what it was, how could they avoid committing it?  Suddenly, Bessie, she saw the light and told her friends: 'I know what adultery is.  It's watering the milk.'"

Living near Dublin, having bought a bungalow on an unpaved road, the Doyle’s made their way through childbirth and work.  Without the benefit of telephone or automobile, "The bicycle was central to civilisation.  If you hadn't got a bicycle, you were like a cowboy out in Arizona walking along the duty road.  The bicycle got you anywhere and everywhere."

Having devoted themselves to work and family, they were their fifties before they were willing and able to vacation abroad, taking a trip to Rimini in 1974.  Travel became one of their great, late-life pleasures.

One of the normal effects of age is disgruntlement with the new, the idea that the blessed past has been overrun by hurry and waste.  The Doyles’ however, are grateful to live in a more modern world.  As Rory says, following a heart attack in 1992, "I'm not living in a totally different world.  The availability of space, travel, movement, colours, and people’s outlook--it's so totally different.  We have much more in the way of material things, much more money and travel.  It's a very mobile society today, and a very pleasant one."

Their poverty denying them the privileges of education, these two intelligent, well-read, upstanding people remind us of the heroism in the everyday tasks of raising a family and going to work.  Doyle has produced a very personal document of both modern Ireland and a couple whose lives will become happily entwined with your own.