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Kathryn Swegart reviews the story of an immigrant family's experience, written by a mother and daughter. 

Maureen O’Carroll: A Musical Memoir of an Irish Immigrant Childhood 

Written by Maureen O’Carroll and Leora O’Carroll 




Forlorn beyond words, May O’Carroll sat on a park bench bouncing a perambulator that held two precious babies. Pregnant with her fifth child, she struggled to keep her fear under control. Several years ago, May and her husband John had sailed from Ireland in search of a better life. They immigrated to New Zealand but soon discovered that opportunities were few, partly due to discrimination against Catholics. Once again, the family packed their bags and moved, this time to Australia. John arranged for the rental of a house at 220 Darling Street in Sydney. He also established a barber shop at the same location. 

Now life took a desperate turn. With little thought to the family’s fate, the landlord announced that he planned to sell the house. Unless they came up with a down payment of 100 pounds, they would be out on the streets. The immigrant family teetered on the brink of eviction. 

May O’Carroll sat on a park bench and wept at the cruel turn of events. Suddenly she felt someone gently squeeze her arm. A kind woman named Mrs. Delores sat next to her on the bench. “Come on love, what could make a young mother weep her heart out like this? What is so terrible?” 

In one grand sweep of Christian charity, Mrs. Delores loaned the family 100 pounds from her meager savings. The O’Carroll family bought the house and John’s barber shop was back in business. Over time, they paid back the loan. Six months later, in September 1932, Maureen was born.  

Here begins the story of Maureen O’Carroll, middle child in a large Irish immigrant family, who rose out of a blue-collar family to become an accomplished cellist, performing in major orchestras around the world. Maureen had vivid memories of childhood days, which she tells in a string-of-pearls style. She also had a sharp wit. The short chapters are crammed with exploits of this mischievous child. With her auburn hair and insatiable curiosity, she reminded me of Anne Shirley, propagandist in the classic children’s book Anne of Green Gables. 

In the chapter "Orchestra of the Elves," Maureen was intrigued by a gramophone. When no one was looking, she tiptoed up to the magical music box and fiddled with knobs and opened little doors. Where did the music come from? Her older brother explained that little elves lived inside the box and played tiny instruments. Of course, Maureen just had to captured one of those creatures. 

Leaning against the music box with my shoulder I blindly, but gently patted around trying to locate an elf … Then my fingers touched something very soft and round. I had found the elf! He was furry! 


Much to Maureen’s disappointment, it was only a dust ball.  

I read this book over the course of two weeks, laughing out loud at Maureen’s adventures. It also gave insight into the resilience of immigrant families. Maureen writes of the aftermath of the Easter Uprising of 1916, giving a glimpse into Irish history. Her mother was jailed and many of their friends were killed in the bloody uprising.  

Unfortunately, Maureen does not give the impression that their Catholic faith was a bedrock in their lives. Her mother also had a side business as a fortune teller, using tarot cards and reading tea leaves. 

Despite these shortcomings, I do recommend this humorous book that gives firsthand accounts of immigrant families as the struggle for survival in a new land. The reader does not have to be of Irish heritage to enjoy Maureen O'Carroll



Copyright 2023 Kathryn Swegart
Images: Canva