Reflections via Alzheimer’s: Ian Maleney writes essays on rural life and his grandfather’s battle with illness

THE debut collection of essays from Ian Maleney is a sombre, quiet, reflective affair about life in the family homestead in rural Offaly as his grandfather John Joe succumbs to Alzheimer’s. Through this debilitating disease, Maleney contemplates the bog and peat cutting that his family has worked on for decades, muses on the midlands and how it feels almost left behind by the urban centres of Ireland, and ponders where exactly his future lies, touching on various art throughout the collection.

Maleney, 29, says it was interesting to channel such ideas through Alzheimer’s, which helped shed light on self-hood, relationships, and communities.

“It made a lot of what would be very theoretical and abstract very practical and very relatable in an everyday sense. It’s obviously easy to over-interpret these things but hopefully I managed to avoid doing these things and I just tried to talk about what life is like with a disease like that rather than talk too deeply about the medical side of the disease.”

He explains that it wasn’t necessarily catharsis he felt at the conclusion of writing about his grandfather’s illness, but rather a clarity about what he was thinking over the previous few years.

“Every essay is an attempt to try and think something through as much as I can, and hopefully the form of any particular essay and the structure of it would reflect the effort of trying to think something the whole way through. It doesn’t necessarily feel better at the end but at least you’ve done that much for yourself and for your own head. You can kind of move past it, if nothing else.”

It is the place — Offaly, the midlands, the bog — that Maleney really puts across in this collection. It’s there from the very first line of the opening essay, ‘And The Wind It Tremendously Blew’, first published in the annual literary journal Winter Papers in 2017: “The first time Niamh came with me to my parents’ farm, I took her to the bog. It’s not much of a destination, but it’s about the only place you can go if you want to get out of the house.”

Maleney hopes the book corrects the narrative, so to speak, of how people view the Irish midlands, though he jokes that “I don’t want to be doing Failte Ireland’s work for them”.

He says: “I guess I’ve always had the experience of, someone will ask me where I’m from and I’ll say Offaly, and they’ll say, Oh I’ve never been there. That is the only response you ever get. Or ‘I’ve seen it while I’m passing on the train’. That’s all you get — if you’re not from there, you don’t have any reason to go there, particularly where I grew up, it wouldn’t be scenic in any real way. it’s not the west of Ireland where you have this completely overloaded tourist industry keeping the whole place afloat. It doesn’t have the Irish language as a source of authentic Irishness at all.

“None of the things people associate with Ireland outside the Pale really are important in the midlands, that’s not how the place sees itself or functions.

He adds:

“I really look forward to the day when we have a film about the Irish midlands where it isn’t full of depressed alcoholics and perverts. That’s basically the only representation that we have of the giant blankness in the middle of the country that no one cares about.”

Musing on his own future, he seems conflicted as to what it looks like: “Speaking as someone who sees myself living in the country long term, it’s hard to know how to square that circle of how do you make that place more attractive for people, how do you make it more open to different kinds of people?

“Because in a lot of places, the structures of people’s lives are defined by traditional institutions like schools and churches and GAA and all these kinds of things, which might be conservative but might be all they have left, so for people who aren’t necessarily interested in those things, you can’t necessarily come in and say it needs to be completely different so you need to find some way of improving without destroying - and that might not even be possible.”

Minor Monuments is out now on Tramp Press. Ian Maleney will read at the Crosstown Drift event as part of Cork Midsummer Festival (June 13-23)

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