Not as Irish as I thought I was

This first appeared as a feature article in the Mayo News in April 2014.

THE state visit of President Michael D. Higgins to the United Kingdom last week coincided with the death of my paternal grandmother, Sarah (Sarah O’Brien (nee Coyne), born June 10, 1922 in Cappanacreha, died April 3, 2014 in Ballinrobe) at the age of 92. A fl ying visit to Ireland ensured that I missed the pageantry on display in Windsor but instead my 48 hours over the water allowed me some time to reflect on being a second generation Irishman in England in 2014. Much was made in Ireland of the visit with a number of accounts on RTE radio of Irish people living in the UK, and as I listened on the drive through Mayo on my way from Knock airport to Finny I empathised with much of what I heard.

I am emotionally and culturally bilingual – equally at home in both countries. This is a direct result of an upbringing rich in Irish music, language, food and sport and a time spent living there. Be in no doubt, having been born in London and lived in England for the majority of my life I am proud to be British. Despite that, I feel Irish and support them fervently whenever the two teams meet and that has meant a close relationship with losing throughout most of my life. However, when I am in Ireland, and that is not as often as I’d like, I realise that I’m not as Irish as I think I am.

It is often thought that the two countries are very similar – they are not. Countless examples jumped out at me this week, not least of which was the swiftness with which my grandmother was buried and the duration of her funeral. My grandmother died on Thursday and was buried by Saturday morning. Colleagues at work were surprised at the speed with which things happened; seven to 10 days would be typical in England. They were also surprised to learn that I would spend two hours of Friday evening at a Chapel of Rest four feet away from my grandmother in an open coffin whilst 350 people, many of whom were unknown to me, filed past to shake my hand and offer consolation for my loss.

The manner in which the Chapel of Rest ceremony was conducted was striking. I have witnessed it before but as you age I guess you become more attuned to the emotion of others. It was emotionally tortuous for my father. He was seated across the room from me and was the first person all visitors greeted on arrival. He has never been particularly comfortable at ceremonial occasions or in a suit so this was somewhat of a perfect storm for him. He was with his two brothers and four sisters in the room where he’d seen his father and sister laid out thirteen years and twelve years ago respectively. Some visitors stood for a few moments on entering the room, perhaps to say a quiet prayer, before embarking on their journey around the room. On those occasions my father took the chance to try to work out who they were (he’s lived in the UK for the last 49 years). Others dived straight in offering their condolences. My father would nod his thanks or, occasionally, a smile would cross his face if a familiar face turned up, perhaps from school, England or his time playing Gaelic football. All would eventually make their way to my side of the room. I knew very few of the visitors and most of those I did know didn’t recognise me. Some had dressed for the occasion others had come directly from the farm. Some looked each of us directly in the eye whilst they said their piece; others were already looking on to the next family member. After two hours of hand-shaking I was left in no doubt that my hands are weak and soft. The men, without exception, had thick, strong hands with calloused palms and a handshake to match.

The sense of community was incredible. Each of these visitors had taken time out of their Friday evening to do something that they felt was important. Some had come a long way and may not have seen my grandmother for many years. It was a community event, a chance to say goodbye to a friend, rekindle acquaintances from long ago and do your duty by your church all wrapped up in one rural, Irish, Catholic tradition. It left me longing for just such a feeling in my own community. I enjoy living in Sandhurst and get on well with my neighbours, but there certainly won’t be 350 of them turning out for my funeral.

The confrontation with death was something that I used to feel was unnecessary. I could never find the logic to explain why you needed to expose close relatives to the body of their loved one for so long whilst, simultaneously, being courteous and civil to a procession of strangers. My English experiences of funerals are short, sweet and certainly don’t involve open coffins. I see it as a Catholic method of exposing you to your own mortality. I’m not a Catholic, but that’s certainly how it worked for me – “That’ll be you in a while. Better make the most of what time you have left, eh Jarlath?”

We brought my grandmother to Finny Church that evening and had a short church service. I was shocked and touched to discover that the local TD, Éamon Ó Cuív, a grandson of Éamon de Valera, had come along to pay his respects; virtually unthinkable in England. Saturday morning brought the burial after the church service with obligatory readings and prayers from grandchildren, some in Irish and mine in English. I had flashbacks to my grandfather’s funeral in the same church 13 years ago. I vividly remember the priest splashing holy water on my grandfather’s coffin using a plastic dish mop and recall how upset I was at the disrespect I felt that my grandfather had been shown at the time. That Father Ted moment was not to be repeated.

The priest informed the congregation that my grandmother had 21 brothers and sisters (her father was married twice). I spent much of the service reflecting on how hard life must have been in rural Ireland in the 1920s with such a large family. I know that my father’s upbringing was tough; I found it impossible to imagine my grandmother’s childhood. The only thoughts that I could summon were that to have 22 children in today’s England would mean a programme on Channel 4 and a vicious front page in the Daily Mail.

As we left the church the midday Angelus was playing on the radio. I was immediately brought back to my childhood when my grandparents’ house would fall silent. The adults would be praying, I would be oblivious to the words and all I knew was that it was something that had to be endured and that I had to keep quiet. This time I welcomed the silence and the time for reflection that it provided. I know wonder if those adults, all those years ago, were doing something similar.

The burial was stereotypically Irish with persistent rain, muddy ground and my cousin, Gráinne, playing the accordion at the graveside. Once it was over my father took me to visit the grave of my great-grandfather and of one of my father’s closest friends, Jimmy, who had died in a collapsed trench on a building site in Manchester at the age of 24. Tragically, I was to read on the gravestone that Jimmy’s son died in an accident too, this time at the age of 27 in Germany. “Not everyone lives until they’re 92, Jarlath.”

The wake started with lunch followed, less than two hours later, by dinner. A wedding party were in the pub at the same time, Irish music was playing courtesy of Gráinne again and I watched Munster defeat Toulouse in the Heineken Cup. Once more my creeping mortality snuck up on me as I played pool with my seven year-old second cousin, Dylan. Not so long ago that was me being taught how to play by a distant relative and in the blink of an eye the student had become the teacher.

This melancholy mood that was enveloping me was only heightened by my uncle Martin’s proclamation that he was “taking one last look at those mountains. There’s nothing here for me anymore.” I failed to understand as all I could see was unadulterated natural beauty and I didn’t think I could ever tire of that view. He was clear, however, that bitter memories were stirred and that this chapter in his life needed to be closed. It was time to leave with my usual “Until the next time,” and I hoped that that didn’t mean another funeral as my maternal grandmother is 101 and in frail health, but that is often the way as we lead our busy lives.

Until this week I had felt a quite sprightly 39 year-old, but that feeling has most certainly gone. I’m not sad about that at all, but, as I write this back home in England, I’m certainly sad that I’m not as Irish as I thought I was.


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