One of the most moving books I have ever come across is Timothy O'Grady's I Could Read the Sky. Its blend of prose and stark photography has made it one of my favorite books to date. It has the right words to touch anybody, its writer having delved deep into the Irish soul and its photographer, having witnessed its beauty.
Timothy O'Grady never lived the hard life of his Irish ancestors -- digging ditches or planting potatoes during the famine. Instead, O'Grady grew up in Chicago, went to Northwestern University and upon the urging of a friend, went to a remote island in Ireland, only to fall in love with it and stay there for a time.
"The island was called Gola, and it was a very eerie place," O'Grady said during an interview at his alma mater. "The last people had left about four years before I got there, and it was as if everybody had just evaporated."
Living in Gola for a few months, O'Grady then became an Irish citizen though still keeping his American passport and lived in London, making his life as a writer, editor and actor. These days, O'Grady makes his residence in Valencia, Spain with his wife and daughter.
His first novel, Motherland, was published in 1989 to critical acclaim for which he won the David Higham Award for First Novels. He also co-edited Ireland's Unfinished Revolution: An Oral History. His next work was a collaboration with notable British photographer, Steven Pyke, I Could Read The Sky which has now garnered an accompanying CD by Afro-Celt's Iarla ” LionŠird , and most recently a film of the same title.
I Could Read The Sky is a finely woven tale of an Irishman returned home from a hard life in England's potato fields and factories. Through his mournful eyes we see the life he had left behind as a child, the father who wouldn't say good-bye, and the love of his life gone so fast. Interspersed between intricately lyrical prose are haunting pictures of life in Labasheeda -- images of Baby pushing her pram, of the Tailor who burns his loom dressed only in his underclothes and nothing else, and of the wide expanse of O'Grady's tale told through the eyes of Irish migrants and the camera lens of Steve Pyke.
It is not O'Grady's story alone. It is the derived from stories of people he talked to in the pubs of Ireland where they went day after day for inexpensive lunches, as well as conversations and vibey musical sessions with the great fiddler Martin Hayes from County Clare in Ireland and other emigrant Irish musicians.
And through it all, O'Grady never used a tape recorder, choosing instead to write down notes for as he says, "it made people treat it as more of an occasion instead of freely spending words the way they might speaking into a recorder." Such method also forced him to listen for the details he would eventually pen down in the book, of an Ireland he had never known.
"I remember when I first thought of it,'' he told Celina Ottaway of the University of Albany. "There was a man that I met, he didn't give me a lot of imagery, but I got the sense of a life lived. When I thought of writing it, it was his face that I saw.''
"I started thinking about memory,'' O'Grady said. "Memory is so ever present in life in Ireland.''
Just as it is ever present in his beautifully haunting I Could Read The Sky, with its poetic prose and stark images, O'Grady and Pyke, along with fiddler Martin Hayes, singer Iarla ” LionŠird and other dedicated performers bring this wonderful book to life.
If you'd like to learn more about Ireland and its people without having to plumb through texts and texts of history, check out Timothy O'Grady's touching I Could Read The Sky.
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