Early on in Booking Passage, Thomas Lynch describes the quintessentially Irish funeral held for his cousin Nora Lynch, who died-compos mentis and full of vim until nearly the end-four months into her ninetieth year. Never married, Nora had lived in the family cottage in Moveen West, County Clare, her entire life, maintaining a few cows, chickens, and fields for decades-at first with her bachelor brother Tommy, and after his death on her own.
That cousin Thomas Lynch would attend Nora’s funeral was a foregone conclusion. He had first met her in 1970 when, as a young man, he’d left home in Milford, Michigan, to get in touch with his Irish roots. As it turned out, those roots quickly grabbed onto him: he has been making the tranatlantic trip on a nearly annual basis since that time.
Over the years he’d grown close to Nora, helping her as and when he could. In 1982, for example, he and a friend finally decided that Nora deserved indoor plumbing; they did the job themselves. Later, the gift of a television set eased her long, lonely evenings.
Also present at Nora’s funeral was Lynch’s brother, Pat. Though he had met Nora on her occasional visits to America, the trip to the funeral was his first to the old country. The experience had the force of revelation. Having known little else but family lore and the trivialization that Lynch calls “the annual mid-March Oiyrish,” with its pints of green beer and parades, the scene at Moyarta Cemetery, the sight of Nora’s coffin set against a view of the tapering Clare peninsula, which divides the River Shannon from the Atlantic, brought things home to Pat.
Lynch describes his brother’s sudden meltdown into sobs and tears. “O God,” Pat said, “to think of it, Tom, the truth and beauty of it.”
Booking Passage does full justice to the truth and beauty of it. The “it,” of course, defies summary. “It” was the death of a simple, good woman, to be sure, but also the history and culture of Ireland and the way American descendants of the diaspora relate to-or forget-their roots. It is a particular way of relating to language, embracing poetry and liturgy, anecdote and gossip. The sprightly music of jigs and reels and the tragic fatalism of ballads. The echoes of a pre-technological culture, growing fainter as the Ireland of Famine and Troubles gives way to the economic powerhouse now known as the Celtic Tiger, where the ratio between pubs and wine bars is changing rapidly.
Happily, Lynch prefers narrative to summary. Booking Passage is a collection of linked essays, ranging from a single-page vignette to the seventy-five-page chapter at the center of the book reflecting on “the One True Faith of Holy Mother the Church practiced in the Druidesque, idolatrous style of the Irish.”
The form of the current volume is similar to that of The Undertaking (1997), Lynch’s breakout book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. The central metaphor of The Undertaking comes from Lynch’s profession, that of funeral director in Milford. The essays in The Undertaking and Bodies in Motion and at Rest (2000) take as their points of departure the ways we deal with death and remembrance, which Lynch believes have less and less to do with the ritualized acknowledgment of our mortality and more and more to do with a condition of collective denial about death. It is a subject that accommodates large doses of the sublime and the ridiculous. As any of his readers quickly discovers, Lynch is a master of high comedy.
Lynch’s literary model is Montaigne, the pioneer of what we nowadays call, rather dryly, “creative nonfiction.” The father of the “familiar essay,” Montaigne believed that in writing about himself, his daily habits and experiences, with careful observation and scrupulous honesty, he might espy in those concrete particulars the universal truth of “man’s entire estate.” In Booking Passage, Lynch notes that the essay, as the French master conceived it, “is less a certainty and more a search, an attempt at sense-making, a setting forth.”
It is a method well suited to prying truth and beauty from well-worn topics, such as what it means to be Irish American. The beating heart of Booking Passage is Lynch’s relationship with Nora, her cottage, and her patch of green by the sea. But there are also exquisite set pieces on the “information economy” of local gossip, the tale of Lynch’s namesake, a young priest in the 1930s doomed to die before his time in the American Southwest, the formidable personalities of his three sisters (affectionately nicknamed “the Furies”), and the slow-building ecstasy of a night of Irish music at the “Mrs. Crotty Memorial Concert” in Kilrush.
But for all its felicities, there are a couple of places in Booking Passage where both narrative drive and exploratory sense-making come near to a juddering halt. In the introduction, Lynch confesses that the terrible events of 9/11 made writing a book about ethnicity and religion much more difficult. It is an honorable sentiment, but perhaps unnecessary. However thoughtful, his digressions about Hutus and Tutsis feel strained. More effective in this regard is a passage detailing one of President Bill Clinton’s more effective efforts at diplomacy: the process that brought peace to Ireland in 1998.
The other, more serious, stutter in Booking Passage concerns “Holy Mother the Church.” It’s not that Lynch should have refrained from writing about the Irish version of the priest sexual-abuse scandals, or the hellish world of the Magdalene houses, which made virtual slaves of single women deemed to be near occasions of sin for Irish menfolk. The form of clerical idolatry that led to the priest-as-prince and its attendant corruption is an essential part of Ireland’s history. The problem is rather that these passages read as inserted disquisitions-they feel external to his experience, obligatory. Perhaps that’s because, as Lynch makes clear of the priests he’s known: “However imperfect these men have been, all they’ve ever done was good to me.”
At the other extreme is the story of his divorce and refusal to seek an annulment before marrying again. Here the rawness of his pain and anger tends to overpower our sympathy. It’s at moments like this that Lynch’s writing loses its air of tentative setting-forth and becomes, instead, self-interested assertion.
Lynch is something of a paradox: he has profoundly conservative impulses, but he also maintains progressive ideas about the politics of church and nation. His defense of small-town America (and the Irish village) celebrates religious particularity against the solvent of contemporary therapeutic culture. He used to bury Presbyterians and Catholics, he writes, but now he buries golfers and motorcycle enthusiasts. (He reports that golf-bag-shaped urns and upscale parties are increasingly replacing coffins and wakes.) For years he has attended a morning men’s Bible study with townsfolk who no doubt voted for George W. Bush. One moment Lynch makes clear that he’ll take no guff from priests and popes, while the next he’ll celebrate the vanished beauty of the Latin Mass.
Perhaps in the end it’s an Irish paradox, this reverent irreverence. The Irish have always lived in the anguished tension between past and future, something Lynch notes in passing about William Butler Yeats. It was Yeats who famously said, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” The great virtue of Thomas Lynch’s writing is that, while it occasionally descends into rhetoric, it far more often lifts into pure poetry.