I often use the past tense when I talk about my father, which is strange, since he’s still alive, still an alcoholic, still a gambler and still, technically speaking, a criminal. At the end of 2002, he was released from a Brisbane prison after serving 20 months of a four-year sentence for armed robbery, which makes him sound dangerous and exciting. Far from it. He’s five foot nothing, wears thick spectacles, speaks slowly with a broad Dublin accent and is polite to strangers.

He was 56 at the time of the robbery. He was gambling in the Chinese Club in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, and he’d run out of money. It was 3 a.m. A few months earlier he’d handed in his ATM card in an attempt to control his addiction. He’d arranged with the bank that he could only withdraw cash over the counter, during business hours. And now he was broke, living in a dosshouse, and desperate for some money so he could continue playing pokie machines.

He left the Chinese Club, walked into a 7-Eleven, went up to the counter and handed the girl behind the counter a piece of paper which said: ‘Give me all your money or I’ll shoot you.’ The girl emptied the till and gave my father the money. But he didn’t think he had enough, so he walked to the nearest McDonald’s, went up to the counter, and handed the same note to the girl who asked for his order: ‘Give me all your money or I’ll shoot you.’ He didn’t have a weapon.

When I found out that it was the same note, the same scrunched-up piece of paper, that my father handed to the girl in McDonald’s, I imagined him realising that he’d left it at the 7-Eleven and going back to pick it up. I imagined him saying: ‘Sorry. Just coming back for my piece of paper. I thought I might need it again.’ I imagined him saying something wry like this, because I always force myself to think of the one good thing about him: his wit.

At McDonald’s the girl emptied her till. My father took the money, put the note in his pocket, got into a taxi and went to the casino. The police were told about both robberies, watched the security footage, issued an ID to a local squad car, and started looking. They went to the casino first (a good place to start) and found him within 45 minutes of the first robbery.

He told me he nearly ‘got off on a technicality’. His legal aid lawyer employed a handwriting analyst whose report said that it was unlikely that the handwriting in the note was my father’s. But there were several witnesses and video footage. The technicality got him nowhere.

It was a condition of his early parole that he should work every day for the Salvation Army, sorting second-hand clothes into neat piles. But my father can’t stand the Salvos and he did a runner. I got a call from the Brisbane police a few months later. Did I know where he was? ‘No idea,’ I said.

The police tracked him down, without my help, and got an extradition order to fly him from Sydney, where he was staying in a halfway house run by the Wesley Mission, back to Brisbane. He didn’t like being arrested ‘out of the blue’, but said he was happier in prison, and spent two more months there, working in the carpentry shop, before being released on parole again, this time into the custody of the Wesley Mission.

Last year he called me. He was drunk. ‘I’ve called to say goodbye,’ he said. ‘I’ve got cancer. The doctors have given me six months to live.’ He sounded like he was crying. My partner was sitting on the couch. He turned the TV down. I put my hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and said: ‘It’s my dad. He’s pretending to have cancer.’ I knew he was lying by the time he got to the end of the first sentence – I’ve become very good at lie-detection. I can also smell alcohol on somebody’s breath at a hundred paces.

Both my parents are Irish, my mother from respectable Wexford stock and my father from a Dublin working-class family. Both of them took the pledge when they were in their teens and my father kept his drinking a secret from my mother for a surprisingly long time. This doesn’t mean he didn’t turn up drunk on her doorstep to take her to dances. When she first asked him about this, he said somebody had spiked his drink; and when, closer to the wedding, she questioned him again, this is what happened. She said: ‘Why are you acting so strange?’ ‘I’ve got a dose of leukaemia,’ he said. ‘It makes me seem like I’m drunk. But you can’t tell anybody. It’s a secret.’

Then he disappeared for three months, during which time he had no contact with my mother. She didn’t treat his outlandish lie, or his sudden disappearance, as a warning. Far from it. She not only believed him, she felt sorry for him, kept his sad secret and, when he returned, married him.

My mother contracted polio when she was four and spent the next 12 years in and out of hospital (more in than out). At first she was paralysed from the neck down – in an iron lung – and when, years later and after several operations, she regained movement in most of her body, paediatric surgeons broke the bones in her ankles and inserted metal rods, like knitting needles, into her legs. The screws at the ends of the rods were turned and tightened every day for eight months. Her ankles were broken in such a way that she couldn’t walk without the aid of shoes with built-in platforms. This procedure was carried out on young women who contracted polio so that they would be able to wear high-heels when they grew up. She wore callipers – iron bars rigged up to the knee, one end of which slotted into deep holes in specially made black boots – until she was 16.

During this time she had little contact with her large family, and a perfunctory education. Go through all this, and chances are that the first man who says he loves you, is kind and polite, and doesn’t treat you like a cripple, is a man worth marrying. But soon after their marriage, my mother got her nickname, the only pet-name I heard him use for her: ‘Chicken Legs’. He thought this was terrifically funny and laughed whenever he said it, which was often. ‘Look at your chicken legs poking out from under your skirt,’ he would say.

My parents left Ireland soon after they were married, to live in London, where my brother and I were born. My father drank, we were poor, and our lives were beginning to get messy. When I was two, we left London for Sydney. When we got there it was the same, only hotter. We were poor, my father drank, and our lives were a well-established mess. We moved seven times in three years. We lived in sheds and garages. One night my father told my mother: ‘It’s because of your legs that I drink. I’m too ashamed and have to drink in order to get enough courage to leave the house.’

When he ran out of money for booze he had an idea. One day, around lunchtime, three women turned up on the doorstep. My mother asked them why they were there. ‘We’ve come about the babysitting job,’ they said. My father had put an advertisement in the newspaper: ‘Wanted – babysitters’. He told my mother she had to work. And she did. We were left with a babysitter. She worked for more than thirty years.

We left Sydney for Dublin when I was five, and moved to a place called Ballymun, a group of high-rise flats: a slum. Kids used to push each other off the swings to get a go and skulls were cracked open. The lifts were full of piss and vomit and when my aunt and uncle came to visit, they complained about the constant noise and stench of the garbage being sent down chutes.

After a few years, we moved to a new housing estate in Dublin called Tallaght, the kind where all the houses are identical and your next-door neighbour’s is a mirror-image of yours. And this new house was luxury to us: two storeys, clean carpet, two big bedrooms, a bath and a box-room.

Nearly every night he brought drunks home from the pub and they took it in turns to piss in the coal scuttle. My father once sent one of his friends up to my mother. The man stood at the end of her bed with his trousers undone. ‘Tony said it would be OK,’ he said.

These drunken friends sometimes visited our house on their days off work, but when my father went to the front door – groggy, doing up his dressing-gown – he didn’t recognise them and sent them away. Fights broke out on the doorstep and the police were called.

On nights when my father got home to find his dinner had gone cold – it was left for him on top of a pot of boiled water – he’d take the plate of food up to the bedroom and throw it at my mother. He’d pay me a fiver to clean up the mess.

The police were always coming to our house to find him. Assault, mostly. I remember standing outside the house when I was about eight and seeing him being handcuffed and led into the back seat of a police car. When he hit his head hard on the car door, I remember thinking that the policeman had probably done it on purpose.

A few years later, we left Dublin for Australia (again). I was 11. Our first months were spent in a migrant hostel in Perth; then we moved to another flat in a high-rise. My father drank day and night.

One night he brought a doctor home with him: it was 2 a.m. My mother was woken by my father and the doctor, who stood in the bedroom doorway. My father turned the light on. ‘The doctor’s come to look at your chicken legs,’ my father said. ‘I’ve told him they’re withering away. It’s for your own good.’

The doctor knelt down by the bed – which was a mattress on the floor – and pulled the sheets back from my mother’s legs. ‘I see what you mean, Mr Hyland,’ the doctor said. He gave his card to my mother, stood up and left.

‘Didn’t I tell you!’ my father said.

I began to steal and I stopped doing well at school. I started to learn not to care. Most of my daydreams were adoption fantasies: fantasies about who my real parents were (often rich and famous Americans, or famous dead writers).

My father couldn’t find work in Perth, so we left. We spent several weeks being driven by him, in intense heat, across the Nullabor desert to Melbourne. By the time we found a place to live, my father’s drinking was so bad that he was regularly beating my mother and my brother. My mother threw up her arms and said: ‘Tony, don’t!’ My brother crawled on the kitchen floor and tried to use a bin as a shield, or cowered against the couch.

When my father tried to strangle my mother (usually in the kitchen), I intervened, sometimes with a knife. I was strong and prepared to defend myself. I got knives out of the drawer and cut or scratched his face. When, many years later, he showed me the scars I’d given him, it occurred to me that although he has spent plenty of time in prison for violent crimes, I was the most violent member of the family, the one prepared to kill.

Two years of drunken mess passed, and then my father was committed to a psychiatric hospital. Not long after, my mother found the courage and good sense to divorce him.

Before he was committed, my father suffered from hallucinations. In the mornings he ran from the bedroom, screaming: ‘The rats! The snakes!’ I’d watch him from the sitting-room, with the television on and a plate of toast on my lap, and feel very little. It surprised me even then how little I felt. I was curious, mostly, about the rats and snakes: How big were they? Were they black or brown? But I don’t remember caring about how he felt.

I was 13 and I wanted my new fantasy life to begin. But at the time, there seemed little chance I would become anything but a criminal, too. I was doing badly at school, taking any kind of pill on offer in the local park, drinking from a cask of wine I kept under my bed, and throwing up after dinner every night.

Then I decided that I should go to a better school. The one I was at had too many kids who – like me – liked to steal cars and smoke bongs. I had to get myself into a school where there’d be less temptation. I started ringing posher schools. I got onto one that seemed amenable, and told the principal that I was from a bad background and needed a break, and that’s – more or less – what this new school gave me.

Eighteen months after my father was locked up, I became a Mormon. I had just got home from school when two Mormon missionaries knocked on the door. I opened the door, read their names on the tags they wore on their lapels – names like Elder Osmotherly and Elder Stinchcombe – and let them in. They were American. As I listened to them proselytise, all I could think was this: if I become a Mormon, maybe I can become an American. Within five months I was baptised.

My fixation with America began, as it does for many children, with an addiction to television. I was six or seven when it started, around the time my father was bringing those drunk men home from the pub. Every night, after tea, I watched shows like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons with such longing and attachment that I felt more a part of these families than my own. Michael Landon was my father, and I was Laura Ingalls. Even when Mary Ingalls went blind, I thought I’d rather be her than myself. As far as I was concerned, the American happy family dream was the only dream worth having. And so, I became a Mormon.

Wearing a white gown, I was submerged in a pool of water behind a glass screen, in the Moorabbin ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The white baptismal frock was see-through when wet, and I was fantastically embarrassed, but I thought, happily, that I was on my way to the USA.

I lasted two years as a Mormon. Being near Mormon families made me feel like I might belong, somehow, to one of them. But it also made me look at my own family with deeper contempt. The only place for me was somewhere else.

I won two acting awards in the Mormon roadshow (a musical show, put on by each ward) and, had I won a third, I might have got the scholarship I wanted, to study acting at Brigham Young University in Utah. But before there was time to win any more prizes, I was excommunicated (for drinking, smoking and hating Caro, a horrible caffeine-free coffee substitute). I had spent long enough around the privileged, however, to get a taste for another kind of life, a life in which people read books, go to the theatre and listen to classical music while eating dinner at a table.

Some of my childhood longing to exchange my own family for a happy American one has found its way into my first novel, How the Light Gets In: the story is told by Lou Connor, a 16-year-old who goes on exchange to the United States to live with a rich, creepy family in southern Illinois. Lou is an existentially thwarted Goldilocks, peering through other people’s windows (the wrong ones), craving to sleep in other people’s beds (the wrong beds). And because I know what it’s like to long to be Laura Ingalls, I thought I might be able to set my main character up for this kind of botched transformation.

After my time as a Mormon, I decided to make sure I didn’t end up like the rest of my family. I rejected them all. My mother was a victim, my father a hood and my brother a victim, too. By now, aged 15, he was already in and out of juvenile detention centres. Not surprisingly, since he took the lion’s share of my father’s abuse and cruelty, his story is not a good one. In fact, it’s too sad to write. A life, so far, completely wasted. I haven’t spoken to him in eight years.

Over the course of a decade I changed everything about myself: the way I spoke, dressed and behaved. I brought books into the house and began to read and write. I moved out when I was in my final year of high school to live with one of my teachers. I learned to study. I published my first short story. I got a nearly perfect university-entrance score. I did a law degree. I became a lawyer, although for the most part, I hated being a lawyer; I spent every weekend writing.

But there was a price to pay. My transformation turned me into a snob; a hater of victims, a hater of have-nots. And while I hope I’m over the worst of this now, all habits die hard. I often think I’d like to meet people like me, people with seriously fucked-up childhoods. But I don’t want to compare stories with someone who has survived by the skin of their teeth. I don’t want to be in the same company as a whingeing mental case, or a second-generation fuck-up. I want to talk about this stuff with someone who’s done more than just get through it.

I don’t mean to suggest I’ve come through without chinks. But I’m not a basket-case, and it bothers me that most of the people I’ve talked to from this kind of lunatic background incline towards self-pity and self-abuse.

There’s a loneliness involved in survival, in the kind of class-changing that involves disowning, and in some way despising one’s own family and saying, at least for a while: I hate you, I’ll never be like you, and I don’t care how much this hurts your feelings. For a long time, this is what I did, and sometimes it’s what I still do. I’m often a complete stranger to my family, and I’m just as often a stranger to the well-educated, well-read, well-dressed, middle-class people from good homes who were the reason I went to all the trouble in the first place.

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Vol. 26 No. 11 · 3 June 2004

M.J. Hyland (LRB, 6 May) tells a story that is rapidly becoming a cliché: that of the miserable Irish child of even more miserable Irish parents who finds emotional and material salvation in a foreign country: Angela's Ashes in an Australian accent. What such stories reveal, contrary to the intentions of their authors, is that there is nothing uniquely awful about awful Irish childhoods: they are typical instances of child abuse anywhere, which at the same time confirm the host country's belief that theirs – Australia, America, wherever – truly is the land of opportunity. That is questionable; what is not is that the Irish tradition of moaning (which can be beautiful when played as a lament) carries on, resisting the forces of modernity and wealth, the decline of religion and the provision of counselling services.

Eoin Dillon

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