Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Wily O'Reilly

Image from Patrick Taylor author site

A retired medical specialist, Dr. Patrick Taylor has been writing all his life. While practicing medicine, he wrote medical textbooks and edited a medical journal as well as contributing a regular humour column in Stitches: The Journal of Medical Humour, keeping his readers in stitches with the antics of the lovable reprobate, Ulster GP Dr. Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly.

After retiring from active practice, O'Reilly grew and developed as Patrick began his fiction career in earnest. When his tenth novel in the Irish Country Doctor series came out in 2015, fans were unsurprized when it followed its predecessors onto the New York Times and Globe and Mail bestseller lists.

Throughout the novel series, the crafty WWII naval veteran protagonist, village GP Dr. O'Reilly is described through the point of view of Dr. Barry Laverty, who is first his locum, and later his partner and friend. The books bring to life a typical though fictitious Ulster village from before WWII through the post-war period, casting light and shadow on every aspects of life in Ballybucklebo.

The Wily O'Reilly (Forge, 2014) is a series of vignettes about the same crusty widower, selected from earlier humour columns. Now middle-aged and self-confident to a fault, O'Reilly is devoted to his Jamieson's whiskey, his widowed housekeeper's cooking, and to making sure the patients never "get the upper hand."

Fingal O'Reilly is a "classical scholar, bagpiper, poacher, hard drinker, and foul-mouthed country GP." The first time his foil, Dr. Taylor, reports for duty as a locum, he observes his new employer: a large man, "six foot thirteen'' with "the shoulders of Atlas." The fact that his nose tip is "an alabaster white" turns out to be an omen of the doctor's anger. Indeed, at this moment, he is propelling a hapless young man out the door for showing up with filthy feet. A moment later, the doctor pleasantly informs the prospective patient that although surgery hours are over, he'll wait and see him if he washes his feet and returns within an hour.

After this startling juncture, the new locum is obliged to introduce himself. Timidly, he asks, "Doctor O'Reilly?"

No, ripostes the other, "John--bloody--Wayne."

As he shares his medical experience with Dr. Taylor, O'Reilly confuses his hapless locum by habitually speaking in bizarre non-sequiturs. He also involves his unwilling assistant in a series of ludicrous adventures and schemes, many of which the young doctor foresees will end badly, adding "And yet his patients loved him, and I suppose in time, so did I."


Taylor's humour is refreshingly light. Though he refers in passing to darker subjects like war, disease, and social inequality, he does so in an oblique fashion, often by larding his tales with linguistically lush and bizarrely exaggerated military and sporting similes. After explaining how the landed gentry purchased, raised and "coddled" their pheasants, he then goes on to describe shooting season when the "bewildered birds...flapping fearfully in full flight," are set upon by "hordes of happy hunters" who blaze away "with all the enthusiasm of Montgomery's artillery during the warm-up to the away match at El Alamein."

His description of poaching follows. He makes much use of alliteration, here using the letter p (once characterized by Margaret Atwood as the funniest in the alphabet). This avian theft by "lesser mortals" was "frowned upon by the upper crust" who historically "spent considerable resources to ensure that vast tracts of Australia were populated by platoons of penurious peasants who'd purloined or pilfered privately purchased pheasants."

Exaggerated though these tales are, the book carries us warmly to a past time and another place, where pints are sunk at the "Mucky Duck," a pub that serves stout to dogs but where women cannot go, and where the Christmas pageant is disrupted by a fainting nun who, along with the rest of the audience, is scandalized by a young actor who happens to be Fingal's nephew. Miffed by his demotion from the role of Joseph and grudgingly playing the part of the innkeeper, he invites Mary to come into the inn but tells Joseph to "feck off."

For this infringement, the sinner is catechized to stop him swearing and made to eat his meals standing up for an extended period. He also has his pocket money stopped for three months. In another episode, the intrepid child overcomes this hurdle when an unexpected business opportunity presents itself, allowing him to rent his school cap to other boys sequentially, for reasons I will not reveal.

The Wily O'Reilly is of a different style and format from the novels, which are historically accurate and more serious, though still warm in tone and filled with funny moments. Having finished the vignettes, I look forward to choosing one of the two that wait on my chair as we speak.

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