'Music is the first language here', says Galway poet Rita Ann Higgins near the conclusion of this beguiling 'part-essay, part-rhyme' memoir. From the book's lyrical opening strains in 'Baile Crua' to its gentle resolution in a verdant 'Spiddal', Higgins dances from past to present according to a singular lilt.
It's a hard-won tune. Everywhere in Hurting God is the suggestion that Higgins has always sung slightly off-key, especially with respect to her large family. The original print run had to be pulped at great expense after her brother, millionaire businessman Joe Higgins, threatened legal action over the telling of a disputed event in the book – since excised.
The omission doesn't seem to detract from the effect of the whole, as this memoir – though episodic – largely works by conjuring a sense of time and place as Higgins takes the measure of remembrance.
Higgins has a reputation as something of a barnburner. But apart from some uncharacteristically leaden passages midway through the book where she trades the lyrical for the polemical, the voice of the agitator is largely absent from this work. The judgments it makes about the world are more subtle, as Higgins sifts through the legacy of her mother's Catholic devotion and her father's conflicted attitude to his native Irish tongue – an teanga eile, as one of her poems has it – to uncover the terms of her own complicated character.
Ultimately she returns to her ancestors by her own path, when she goes 'back on the Connemara journey', to a Gaeltacht bog and a Spiddal cottage where she can believe in God 'when the birds sing'.