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Review from New York Irish History

In Who Occupies This House Kathleen Hill brilliantly applies the concept of post-traumatic stress to the Irish American experience. Her characters are middle-class, living in comfortable circumstances in Pelham, a New York suburb. By the usual socio-economic yardstick, they have made progress far beyond their humble beginnings. Yet they are afflicted by unnamable grief. There is a mystery here, compounded by silence and fear, which leads the narrator to construct her family history. Using bits of evidence, journals, photos, whatever comes to hand, she traces that history through four generations to ancestors fleeing the famine. During the Atlantic crossing in 1846, Bridgit, a young child, died, and her death is subconsciously linked to the deaths of children in subsequent generations. Memory smothered in silence and shame characterizes the pathology of the famine.

The narrator identifies with her grandmother, Deirdre – so aptly named – who lost both a brother and an infant daughter. Guilt and sorrow seem to have contributed to her early death. Kate, a surviving daughter, has little to say about her, no story to cover her "white bones." Willie, Deirdre's husband, is an even more shadowy figure who the narrator first thinks is the villain of the piece and then changes her mind. There is not enough evidence to explain his behavior, particularly his relationship with a male friend who converts to Catholicism and becomes a priest. Although he is one of eleven surviving children of the second generation, Willie seems as isolated as Deirdre, to whose desperate need he is unable to respond. He is the only one of the eleven children to have climbed the proverbial ladder, but there is a barely repressed bitterness about him; he is quick to anger and touchy about money.

The misery of poverty and famine is directly expressed through Willie's encounter with a dying woman evicted with her two children and taking shelter in a filthy lean-to in Killarney. Traveling through Ireland with a friend in the late nineteenth century, lodging at fine hotels, Willie reacts in fury which is not clearly articulated, but the narrator begins to understand that Willie's irascibility has its source in the fear that his success is tenuous, that he could easily slip back into that original Irish squalor. His state of mind is similar to that of middle-class African Americans and stetl Jews uneasy in the company of their poorer brethren.

In comparison to her grim description of famine, Hill's descriptions of Pelham are often intensely lyrical, a visionary response to a new world: "It was the silence of the tulip trees she was straining to hear, the trees standing all around her, as if about to speak. She looked down at the grass and tried to make her mind go blank. Then she glanced up quickly, thinking to surprise them, a ring of tongued flames singing in the twilight."

Such passages stand in place of the humor or irony that often relieves Irish writing. (Think of Muldoon's Maggot). Indeed, Hill is a superb stylist. The waves that closed over both Bridgit and Deirdre's brother reemerge in the room where Deirdre is dying, where she fears she is about to be pitched over the side of her bed. While this novel is non-linear, a kind of psychological scrapbook, Hill's vivid images and resonant phrasing sustain coherence. She thus establishes links between characters who appear largely separate from one another. Kate, Deirdre's daughter, is remembered, for example, as a ten-year-old sitting alone on her birthday clutching a pair of roller skates. Yet there are journals and letters expressing Deirdre's love for her children as well as passages describing the sexual passion of Deirdre's mother for her naval officer husband, John Carmody. Carmody, whose son may have committed suicide by drowning, eventually joins the ghosts occupying the Pelham house.

The narrator, who has begun her investigation in fear – might she also lose a child? – tries to determine what might appease these unhappy ghosts. Much of their story is lost. This is a gapped history – a bit like Absalom Absalom, but there is an undeniably spiritual dimension here.

Many Irish succumbed to famine because they believed it was the will of God, a punishment for sin. This belief helps to explain the shame suffered by subsequent generations. However, Catholic beliefs inherited by the narrator's family seem to have become merely genteel, pious practices. Attending Mass is much like singing Moore's Melodies, part of the tradition but lacking real commitment or significance.

The story ends with an exorcism, not an easy ceremony to describe, but in the hands of so skilled a writer as Kathleen Hill it provides a satisfying conclusion. The narrator forgives these tortured ghosts occupying the family house. Forgiving them, she forgives herself. She defines her passage through the house by a series of prayer circles enclosing all, linking them finally to one another. Relief is experienced by telling their stories, breaking the silence that stifled lives, imposing emotional paralysis. When she finally closes the front door, the house stands empty, the occupants are free.


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