An Irish Obituary. When writing a memorial of a loved one’s life, there can be few higher praises then “it was a life well lived”. How is that measured? In the story of one Irishman that follows, the life lived was one that shared many common values and traits that readers may recognise in their own ancestors who kept Ireland in their hearts.
Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland. How are things in your part of the world today? Here in County Cork the cows have returned to the fields after a long winter – it’s so nice to see their black and white forms dot the hills and valleys.
I’m having a cup of Barry’s tea as I write and I do hope you’ll join me with a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as we start into today’s letter.
There was a significant event in our own family earlier this week – but before I tell more, I’d like to share the story of one man. As we tell the story of his journey through life, you may even recognise the story of one or two of your own Irish ancestors. See what you think.
Jack was born to the extreme west of Ireland in 1930. Ireland had been an independent nation for just a few short years – and the effects of the famine of the mid-1800s were still rolling through the land. He was the first-born, but within a few short years, was joined by two brothers and a sister. Together, they played among the stony fields and seashore that surrounded them on all sides. Money was scarce, but the places to spend money were also scarce – so things seemed to balance out.
Each day, Jack and his siblings walked the three miles to school in their bare feet – sparing their shoes for Sunday and other “good” days. On return each evening there were plenty of jobs around the farm – looking after the animals, fetching the water from the well or heading out on the boat for some line fishing. So it went until Jack reached the age of thirteen. He was then deemed sufficiently educated – and brought back to work full-time on the farm.
But being surrounded by the smell and stories of the sea, it was not long before he joined the crew of a local fishing boat – heading off into the wild atlantic for days at a time, mooring by night in the villages that dot the West Cork coastline. Life was local – Sunday was Mass and a bit of socialising in the nearby village, maybe a visit to the nearby market town each month and even a train trip to the big city from time to time. However, the Great War was at an end and he noticed how each month more friends and cousins left ageing parents behind to “take a chance” on a new life in a new world.
Jack served his time as a carpenter and made his way to the city of London after his last day as an apprentice. It was time to make a few stories of his own! Food rationing was coming to an end and London required all sorts of labour to rebuild a city that had been pulverised over the course of the Second World War.
Who knows how Jack must have felt when he sensed the enormous energy of a big city hit him for the first time? He met up with long-departed cousins and friends and tried to choose from the many opportunities for employment. The building sites were thick with Irish accents from Counties Cavan, Leitrim, Kerry, Cork and many more places he barely knew. There were even a few Irish speakers that spoke quietly among themselves. Ballrooms like the Galtymore in Cricklewood welcomed young Irish men and women each weekend as they turned the north of London into a home away from home – 32 counties inside a few square miles.
Jack had never heard of “chain migration” at this time, but over the following months he “set up” many of his Irish neighbours and friends in a good job and local “digs”. Why not? They were young, willing to work and had an opportunity that was hard to refuse. One summer evening he met his own “Galway Girl” and they courted over the following months. It all went well and they were married by a priest from County Leitrim, followed by a wedding breakfast and a honeymoon that consisted of a walk around the block. It was back to work the following day.
The couple worked hard, bought a house and paid off the mortgage within two years – all the while sending money back to their families in Ireland. As their children arrived, they often thought of returning to Ireland to raise them in the country that they loved. This was the dream that the London-Irish fraternity spoke of all the time. Jack and Philomena decided to make themselves one of the lucky couples – they earned the money, took the chance and headed back to an Ireland that was beginning to grow in confidence and offer opportunity to returning emigrants.
And so it came that Jack and Phil set up house back in Ireland. Their children settled into the local schools and learned to speak with an Irish accent. Jack and Phil felt that their hard work had brought their family back to the Ireland that they loved, but this time it was an Ireland with a future.
Every summer, Jack would load his family into the car and drive to his childhood home in the west of Ireland. He would meet up with parents, cousins, uncles and aunts – every neighbour seemingly a relative of some sort – and all eager to hear all the news and opinions from outside the parish.
Over the course of those summers, his own children grew up, met partners and had children of their own – and each summer they in turn would make their way to Jack’s homeplace by one way or another.
If you asked any of them to describe Jack, they would probably tell you that he was a man of few words but many deep connections. That was fine, he would prefer to be judged by his actions as opposed to any easy words. And if you were to look at those actions, you would see the many qualities that Irish people value: Work hard, have a smile on your face and a story on your lips, be kind and generous to others – and never, ever, give up.
Jack departed this life just a few days ago to join Philomena, and the turnout at his wake and funeral reminded us just how many lives he had touched on his journey through life. It was not a sad occasion, but the celebration of a life well-lived. So, farewell Dad – you will be missed, but you left plenty of traditions and memories to last our lifetime, and more than enough to pass down to our own children.
Sometime in the coming year, I’ll place a seat in your memory overlooking the yellow gorse and heathered fields of your childhood home – looking over Roaring Water Bay towards Cape Clear Island. There will be an inscription on this seat, but it will not say “Jack’s Seat” – no, that would be too presuming for you. Instead, it will say “Welcome to Jack’s World” – and invite any passing traveller to sit a while and look at the world through your eyes. Who knows, your strong, quiet presence might even join them for a moment or two!
John “Jack” Collins, 1930-2018.Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anamMay he rest in peace
That’s it for this week As always, do feel free to share your Irish surnames – or maybe even a family story or two. We do look forward to you joining us again next week.
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