Tom Phelan paints a portrait of his rural hometown in County Laois, Ireland and the life his family lived there in the 1940s and 50s in his newest book, We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It: A Memoir of My Irish Boyhood.
He read from his seventh book, published by Simon and Schuster’s Gallery Books, at the Turn of the Corkscrew bookstore and wine bar in Rockville Centre on March 6, the day after the book's release.
The Freeport resident emigrated in 1970 and was in the throes of leaving the priesthood in Ireland and wanted to give it one last chance in America. Needless to say, he found a different career path.
Phelan was working as a custodian at Locust School in Garden City in 1993 when he published his first book with a Dublin-based publishing company called Lilly Dupont Press. When asked what it was like, he paused and said, “It was a learning experience.” Phelan elaborated and said the publishing process took longer and was more stressful than he expected, but he quickly got back to work toward publishing a second.
At the reading, he thanked his wife Patricia with who he has lived in Freeport for roughly 30 years. Patricia has worked at a number of publishing companies and met Phelan when he was looking to publish a manuscript. She became one of the first sets of eyes to see most of his works. Now, Patricia is a self-employed genealogist, but still edits her husband’s work before it is sent to a publishing company for final editing.
Phelan’s novels include stories of Irish soldiers in World War I, the effects of ancient animosities, returned emigrants, the abusive Irish industrial schools, the priesthood, and life in rural Irish communities. They are as follows: In the Season of the Daisies, Iscariot, Derrycloney, The Canal Bridge, Nailer, and Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told.
Maureen Murphy, a professor of Irish Studies at Hofstra University, introduced Phelan and called his work “universal” because of its rootedness in Irish culture, yet relatable themes that extend beyond that. She said she could relate it to her mother’s childhood in upstate New York during the Great Depression.
Another speaker at the event was Peter McDermott, the deputy editor of the Irish Echo newspaper. McDermott met Phelan when his writing career was just getting off the ground, roughly 12 years ago. Now, he said he sees the importance of community as a standout idea through Phelan’s work, specifically his latest book.
“Aside from being funny and amusing and sad, it’s a great document about community in Ireland,” he said.
The first chapter Phelan read is called “De Valera and Dad’s Turnips,” which recalled a time in his childhood when all of his classmates were going to see the politician Éamon de Valera address his town. He had to stay and tend to the family farm, however, and describes begging his father to let him go, who finally said, “De Valera won’t sow our turnips.”
Phelan’s work focuses on his father JohnJoe, a workaholic who never drank and was committed to his family’s farm. “I never heard him laugh out loud,” Phelan said, adding that it was almost as if “God would hear you and throw down his thunderbolts.”
The second chapter he read, called “The Jubilee Nurse,” painted a portrait of midwife known as “Nurse Byrne” who tended wounds and treated illness with her homeopathic remedies, but won over the community with her personality. When Phelan was born, he writes, she said that he “had a voice that could fill a church” and, ironically, he became a priest.
Now, Phelan has a first draft of his next novel, tentatively titled “Field of Light,” which is set during the first potato famine in the 1840s and again in the early 1900s.