Author Q&A: Kevin Toolis

How The Irish Teach Us To Live, Love and Die (W&N, £8.99)

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The Bafta-winning writer, film maker and former foreign correspondent’s new book is part memoir, part tribute to his father – who died in the family home – and part meditation on that which comes to us all.

On the island of Achill, where you partly grew up, you say death has a “louder voice”. Why is that?
On the island of my forefathers, and across most of rural Ireland, death literally has a louder voice through local radio stations which daily, often three times day, read out the names of the recently deceased and give details of their wakes and funerals. Local villagers listen in and then go in great numbers to see the bodies of their dead neighbours. Such a death-filled radio roll call would horrify most Londoners or English city dwellers even though we all die at the same rate, 1 per cent a year, across the globe. That is 200,000 dead people a day, 73 million a year. If a London radio station did the same as those Irish stations, the announcer would have to read out 230 names each day as 85,000 people die in London each year. Death for sure is louder on the island.

 You write about the “Western Death Machine”. What are its components?
Over the last century the dying and the dead have been removed from public sight in the western world. Most western hospitals don’t just cure the sick, they also shroud the dying away from public view. And after someone has died it has become common for their relatives to never see or touch their dead. Families have little experience of organising funerals and so rely on undertakers but the whole process can become very impersonal. And too few people go to funerals. Death, so much a part of life, is diminished.

 What is the link between your personal experiences of death, including that of your brother, and you becoming a journalist?
When I was 20 my brother Bernard died of leukaemia after a hard-fought struggle. He was 26. His death ripped into me, shattered my sense of youthful invulnerability, and I went in search of a means to fend off death. I went in search of a war where I thought I could find an answer as to how you could survive in the aftermath of loss by talking to other survivors of violent death. I drifted into becoming a reporter.

 You suggest that the Irish way of experiencing death – and preparing for it – is somehow different from elsewhere in the western world. Why do you believe that to be the case?
At the centre of an Irish wake is a dead body, a dead human, a dead one-of-us. However much you fool yourself with vitamin pills, plastic surgery or a daily jog that somehow you’ll live forever, there is nothing like the touch of an ice-cold corpse to remind you that we are all mortal. And that one day it will be you in the box.

 Why have so many societies dispensed with the wake when, as you write, it’s the “oldest rite of humanity”?
We have lost our way with death and fallen into the hands of “professionals”, doctors and undertakers. We even blank out the faces and images of death on our TV screens. Urbanisation has also reshaped our sense of community. But death is too important, too personal, to be left to those professionals. It is time to reclaim our dead and rediscover the grace and value of this ancient rite.

 Despite all your experience of death, something singular happens to you at Glasnevin. What was it and what was its lasting significance?
In Glasnevin, after exploring death for decades as a reporter, by the side of another dead “IRA martyr” being shuffled underground, I came to an understanding within myself that I could not cure my fear of death by just re-watching the same grim pageant of death over and over as a spectator. I could no longer be a reporter and had to become an actor, a participant. The only way to cope with death is to share the burden, and joy, of my own mortality by helping others share theirs. I had to reach out and offer myself to others in their moment of trial. Which of course is exactly what happens in an Irish wake when you turn up and shake the hands of the bereaved and tell them you are “sorry for their troubles”.

In death we offer our living presence or we offer nothing because all our other weapons, riches, power, status, cannot reverse the loss of the dead person. It is a lot easier than you think. And it is also very good practice for your own death.

 Violent deaths in Northern Ireland have decreased since the Good Friday Agreement. Does Brexit place pressure on the peace process?
In my long decades reporting wars and conflicts, I did come to understand how societies fray and disintegrate one day at a time. What was shocking and inconceivable two months ago becomes commonplace today and the downward lurch into chaos is never as far away as we think. Events pile on events and bring their own counter-reactions.

Democracy is more fragile than we think and when a people feels threatened they can easily fall into ruin and self-destruction. Although their numbers are tiny there will always be enough gunmen and bombers waiting on the sidelines for the right moment to make a bad situation worse.

Some 3,700 people were murdered in the Troubles because of a failure to resolve minor communal differences between the Protestant and Catholic populations in Northern Ireland. So of course Brexit, and its huge uncertainties, threatens the current settlement on the island of Ireland. And only a fool, usually an English fool, could ever believe otherwise. But what that future will be is still uncertain.

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