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 with his wise and demanding father as he sought to wrest a livelihood from a farm that was often wet, muddy, and back-breaking.
It was a time before rural electrification, the telephone, and indoor plumbing; a time when the main modes of travel were bicycle and animal cart; a time when small farmers struggled to survive and turkey eggs were hatched in the kitchen cupboard; a time when the Church exerted enormous control over Ireland.
We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It recounts Tom’s upbringing in an isolated, rural community from the day he was delivered by the local midwife. With tears and laughter, it speaks to the strength of the human spirit in the face of life's adversities.
We Were Rich and We Didn’t Know It 1 JOHNJOE’S CLEVER PLAN 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.
Tom Phelan had just turned fifty when his first novel, In the Season of the Daisies, was accepted for publication. Since then, Phelan has written five other novels: Iscariot, Derrycloney, The Canal Bridge, Nailer, and Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told. Born and reared in Ireland, he now lives in New York.
"You don't have to be Irish to cherish this literary gift—just being human and curious and from a family will suffice." –Malachy McCourt, New York Times bestselling author of A Monk Swimming
"Other works have been situated at the same intersection of time and place, but rarely has the tale been told with such a charming simplicity of voice plus a vividness that fully captures the distinctive sound and pulse of Irish life." –Billy Collins
"Phelan's prose has an unpretentious beauty as he describes the farm, its routine and the people he remembers... With rich detail and sensitivity, We Were Rich translates for us a rural world that has disappeared. And to assist townies like me, he appends a glossary." –Star Tribune
"Plain, honest, funny, occasionally sad and rich in material detail, this wonderful memoir […] is the real thing." –Newsday
"A tender recollection of growing up on a farm in Ireland in the 1940s... a captivating portrait of a bygone time." –Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"[A] series of tender and earnest anecdotes of coming-of-age in the rural Irish midlands of the 1940s… Phelan’s vivid images of his life on the farm and at school provide a rich and colorful snapshot of the times that shaped him." –Publishers Weekly
"An evocative memoir with echoes of Frank McCourt." –Newsday
"This might seem like a grim childhood, and to be sure at times it was, but Phelan also draws on the small victories, the love of the land and of family. At a time when we have so much and are satisfied with none of it, Phelan’s story is one of grace and beauty." –CAYOCOSTA72
"In this very interesting memoir, we are drawn into a strange world from another time. One would love to sit down with the characters that are described in scintillating detail..." –Irish Echo