Growing Up on the Emerald Isle

TO SCHOOL THROUGH THE FIELDS: AN IRISH COUNTRY CHILDHOOD by Alice Taylor, New York: St. Martin's Press, 151 pp., $14.95 GROWING up during the 1940s, near Newmarket, County Cork, in a family with seven children, Alice Taylor gathered memories of life on an old-fashioned Irish farm. ``This is the story of a childhood,'' she begins. ``In its day it was an ordinary childhood but, with the changing winds of time, now it could never be.''

Ah, those were the dear old days, Taylor seems to say on every page. Still, a younger brother grows sick and dies; in a time that takes being neighborly for granted, an old lady lets it be known that she doesn't want many visitors; and an old codger hauls people into court at the slightest provocation.

Taylor echoes her generation's tendency to have mixed feelings about the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. She writes with obvious affection that every six years it was her family's turn to have the parish priests come to say Mass in their home. This inspired cleaning and repair work that started as much as 12 months in advance. Yet the shadow side is there, too. In one of several poems Taylor includes in her book, she echoes Dostoevsky's story of the Grand Inquisitor.

``To School Through the Fields'' is loaded with rural Irish ``characters.'' There's Old Nell, who lived in a run-down country cottage with a thatched roof which many birds and mice called home, and Nell was loath to disturb any of them.

Here's Andy Connie, an uncle of Alice's father. ``He loved singing and dancing and often stood in the middle of the kitchen floor and danced a jig or a reel.''

Taylor remembers much about day-to-day farm life. If her portrait comes across too rosy, it captivates all the same: ``With his meadows ripened to a honey-colored hue by the sun, my father went to the haggard [yard] and, taking his old mowing machine firmly by its long shaft, he eased it slowly from under the overhanging trees where it had sheltered throughout the long winter.''

The publisher reports that in 1989 Taylor's book became the biggest bestseller in Irish history. This in the land of Joyce and Yeats? American readers - even those of Irish extraction - may not find Taylor's recollections as big a tug on the heartstrings as her fellow Irish evidently have. She has an eye for detail and a style both crisp and colorful, but this is a book long on nostalgia, short on substance.

This could have been a book of some depth, its world and its people more than two-dimensional. All the same, many readers will enjoy Alice Taylor's stories of a rural Irish childhood.

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