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[best kids joke ever]Séamas O’Reilly: ‘My best advice for grief: be five’

  Whenever friends approach Séamas O’Reilly for advice on bereavement, figuring him to be a pillar of wisdom on grief having lost his own mother in early childhood, he drafts them the same prescription. “Right, here’s my advice, are you taking this down? Step one: be five.”

  O’Reilly’s experience of losing his mother Sheila to cancer in the 1980s forms the spine of his assured debut, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? The title is born of the phrase that the then five-year-old greeted mourners with at her wake.

  “I’d be sticking my hand out to shake their hands, not really knowing the seriousness of what was going on,” O’Reilly says, speaking from his home in Hackney, London. “I don’t remember saying it — the only reason I know about it is because at family get-togethers, it would always come out as one of those go-to funny stories around the kitchen table.”

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  Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is singular in tone, occupying a sweet spot between the tragicomedy of Frank McCourt and the pin-sharp observational humour of David Sedaris. Much of this comedic heft comes from the fact that O’Reilly was the ninth of 11 children: not unusual once upon a time in Ireland, but in 1980s Derry it was borderline radical.

  “People have just literally pointed to me at a party or at a dinner table and gone, ‘He’s got 10 siblings’,” O’Reilly says. “The thing I really want people to understand is that we never thought it was normal. We were constantly making fun of ourselves.”

  Certainly, the O’Reillys were a well-known sight in the area, being ferried about in the family minivan by their indomitable father, Joe. O’Reilly’s readers are likely to fall hook, line and sinker for Joe as a character.

  Affectionately sketched by his son, Joe takes magnificent delight in killing rogue mice that invade his house, yet is a known pillar of Christian goodness within the community. Whatever time he has left over from rearing 11 children single-handedly on one wage, he uses by helping others and curating arguably Derry’s most impressive home-VHS collection, complete with categorisation and viewer notes; a sort of proto-Netflix.