Norah Brain (1907-1987): An Introduction – Writing Lives

Norah Brain (1907-1987): An Introduction

Norah Brain’s untitled, (handwritten),  memoir is about a young girl growing up during World War One whose family has uprooted to Kilkishen in Ireland from England due to her father’s Irish nationality . Norah’s memoir begins when she is aged eight in 1914.  The memoir reflects on growing up in a large family where five children have to share a bed. It describes the harsh reality of child mortality and illness among working-class communities in the early twentieth century.

train      ( Example of the type of train that Norah would have travelled to Kilkishen by)

Norah’s memoir suggests that material deprivation was accompanied by emotional deprivations. Her recollections of family life are inflected by anger at the lack of affection she received from her parents.  Throughout her childhood she never receives a kiss or a hug from her mother as she writes: ‘I can never remember seeing her taking me in her arms & kissing me- she kept us clean & fed & that was that.’(3) Norah’s parents seem to have subscribed to the common notion at the time that ‘children should be seen not heard’.

Like many working-class children in the early twentieth century, Norah had to take on the responsibilities of adulthood early.  She was often expected to look after her younger siblings and had to leave school at the age of eleven to work, even though Norah’s teacher urged her father to keep her in school. After her schooling she went on to stay at other homes to look after young children.

Religion runs right through Norah’s memoir with recollections of trips to mass and prayers to St Anthony. Norah seems to have resented the strictness of Catholicism, both during her childhood, and as an autobiographer. She relates, for instance, the story of a girl who went with a married man, resulting in both the woman and the man being banned from the church.

Norah’s memoir voices resentment about the harsh reality and discipline of her early life and yet she lightens her story with humorous and nostalgic stories of hunting for rabbits with a ferret and sneaking into dances. Unlike many autobiographies, she provides few details or dates, and does not even name her siblings. It is unclear, for instance, how old Norah was at the end of her childhood memoir. This lack of detail makes it difficult tracking Norah’s life and it took some searching to establish her dates of birth and death, 1907-1987.

Norah’s writing, however, is fluent and story-like. Her use of quotation gives the memoir a conversational style. Perhaps for Norah writing the memoir proved that she should have received the education she had been denied. This might also be the significance of the poem she includes at the end of her memoir. Despite all the hardships she has described, she ends rather surprisingly with a nostalgic poem about youth and age.

Picture Reference:

Useful websites:  (collection of old photographs of Kilkishen- the Irish village where Norah grew up)

Useful Blogs:

(Both great blogs in relation to the narrative style that Norah uses)



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