I used to take very long, solitary road trips when I lived in the States. I never minded being on my own or driving for days – it was a bit cathartic, really – except for one particular time, when I drove from Indianapolis to Baltimore and back for a friend’s wedding. Many calamities befell me on that trip, from having my car break down on the highway, to a bout of seasonal hay fever that drove me to insanity, to spending my 25th birthday alone, and on top of it all, a terrible aching for Frank. I was in a pretty miserable state of mind – he lived in Ireland, I lived in the USA, we’d been apart for five months, and there was no end in sight. I was feeling very sorry for myself, to say the least.
However, even in the dark moments of that trip, there were pinpricks of beautiful light, and one of the best was when I stumbled across a used book store in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was the kind of place that was packed end-to-end with stacks and shelves and piles of dusty books, into little rooms and closets, up a rickety staircase, and haphazardly thrown into some sort of organised chaos. Often in places like that, you don’t go looking for particular titles, because you’ll get lost and frustrated. Instead, you explore, and you let a book find you.
On that humid May afternoon, Mr. Peter Sheridan, and his memoir “44: Dublin Made Me” found me. The book ended up in my hand, then on the seat of my car, and all the way home to my bookshelf in Indianapolis. I didn’t actually read it until some time later, but I can truly say that it, and its author, left a permanent and growing imprint on my life, particularly since I set up housekeeping in Ireland. In the years after discovering this treasure, I’ve found Peter’s other books as well, and, funnily enough, mostly in used bookstores – “47 Roses,” “Big Fat Love” and “Break A Leg.” They’ve joined an elite pile of literature I am loath to part with – except for “Big Fat Love,” which was too good to keep to myself, so I had to share it with my best friend for her last birthday.
I would love to write like Peter Sheridan. His story-telling, filled with honesty, humour, sadness and hope, does it all for me. It’s so difficult to write a tale full of shadows without losing, or worse, disheartening, your readers. Trying to find an Irish author who can successfully do this is even trickier! There is a lot – a hell of a lot – of extremely depressing Irish literature, some even under the guise of humorous prose. I think the phrase to get “bogged down” must have come from Ireland, and was probably referring Irish literature. In any case, Peter’s books have never left me looking for the nearest bridge to jump from – no, they have taught me how to feel empathy and love and truth without crudeness or anger or emptiness. He does not hide things from his readers, nor dismiss them or condescend, but simply tells the stories and lets them do their magic. It must be his gift, probably inherited from a long line of hardworking singers, lovers, artists and just good old colourful human beings.
Peter’s books make me love Ireland. I can often get downtrodden in this place, and I am sorry to say it. Ireland is beautiful. It’s a world unto itself, full of mystery and legend and fairy dust. In the towns, especially our town, the shine kind of goes off it a bit when faced with poverty, illness, rain, and a good deal of complaining. But Peter brings Ireland back to life for me, and what’s more, he does it with the people who live mostly on Dublin’s North side. He’s not painting lovely pictures of a hilly countryside dotted with sheep or of posh folks drinking their tea by the sea in Blackrock – he’s telling the stories of the working classes, the ones some people cross the road to avoid, and he’s making them glow as bright as dandelions.
When I’ve finished reading one of Peter’s books, the first thing I do is get out my map of Dublin and I find all the places he refers to. I start to plan a trip there in my head, and I daydream about what it must have been like in the 50s, 60s and 70s. I find myself never wanting to leave Ireland, but wanting to go on discovering, knowing her people, and making my own stories here. I want to have a cup of tea with the boarders in the Sheridans’ friendly kitchen (from “44”), and I want to play games and laugh with Philo at the old folks’ day care centre (from “Big Fat Love”). I want to jump in a time machine and help little Peter carry (and hide) all his Lucky Lumps home (from “Break A Leg”). I want to hear more stories and songs of what Dublin used to be like. I long for it the way I used to long to see Frank Sinatra sing at New York’s Paramount Theatre in 1942… or the way I wish I could have been school mates with Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1880s DeSmet, South Dakota.
So, in a way, it was quite a signpost occasion when I finally got to meet Peter, after he performed his one man show, “Break A Leg,” in Drogheda a couple of weeks ago. This third memoir from Mr. Sheridan came out last autumn, and he began doing a one man show version of it at the Viking Theatre in Dublin earlier this year. For many reasons – mostly being hugely pregnant and without transportation – we missed seeing him perform then, but were delighted to find he was on the roster for this year’s Drogheda Arts Festival.
It was our first night out since having Shea, so I was a bit giddy, but I hope I did not come off as too much of a knock-kneed teenager! I found it a little amusing that we were by far the youngest people in the audience, but it only strengthened my resolve that more people my age and younger should read Peter’s books and see his shows. Frank got us tickets front and centre at the theatre – always makes me a little nervous, being that close to the performer, but I was spellbound by the play before I could feel any discomfort. It was such a joy to hear Peter tell the stories in his own voice. And wow! I never would have imagined what a physical actor he could be, especially as he is admittedly over the 60 year age mark… but he had the presence and grace on stage of a 20 year-old. No kidding.
We stayed after the “curtain closed” and met Peter in the lobby, having him sign a crisp, new copy of his book. He stood and chatted to us for several minutes and was a true gentleman! I hope I get the chance to meet Peter Sheridan again one day, perhaps at a writing seminar or at another production, but if I don’t, this meeting will be one that sticks in my memory for ages to come. It was a wonderful evening.
It seems, these days, like everyone wants to be edgy, or cynical, or shocking when they write a story. I’d rather just write something true – even if it’s fiction, I mean true in the sense that it comes from a very real place within, and it stands up and isn’t afraid to be something humble and meaningful. That’s what Peter Sheridan’s writing is to me, and that is why he has left me inspired and, dare I say it? Confident. Confident that my stories, too, are worth the telling.
*Note: This post’s title refers to “A Man Called Peter,” which was the title of a book and later film on the life of the late Peter Marshall, another inspiring man with the same first name.’