Wednesday, December 15, 2004

129. PJ (Daddy)

My father died in October, 2002. He had been dead to his family for many years before, since he had been struck down by Alzheimer's in the early 90s. I remember him in his prime. He could be irascible and quick-tempered but he was a very fair man. He took us away from Ireland when we were a very young family in order to make a better life for us in England and then in Germany where he worked for the Americans. He came out of a background of poverty and resignation and he refused to accept it. In that sense, and in other ways, I will always be my father's son.

Today we come to pay our last respects to Paddy, as an old friend or ex-colleague, perhaps as an ex-patient – but also as a husband, father, and grandfather. The voice behind these words is what his eldest son, myself, would wish to say to you at this service.

Although far away in Japan and unable to join you in today’s gathering, I feel very much present with the other members of my family – my mother, my sisters Caitriona and Patricia, my brother Des, and my niece Elizabeth. We have always been a very close-knit family, and particularly so at this time as we lay our father to rest.
This was a man whose life spanned eight decades of the 20th century. In 1915, when Dad was born, Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. George V was the King of Great Britain and Emperor of India; his cousin Nicky was the Czar of Russia, and another cousin Willy was the Kaiser of Germany. The aging Franz Joseph still reigned over the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Motor cars were an expensive plaything of the rich and airplanes were still in their infancy. This world has completely disappeared.

Dad was born in the West of Ireland, in County Clare, the only son of a gardener on the estate of Ballyalla, just outside the town of Ennis. Ireland then was still under British rule, but like so many other things, this too was to change over the first ten years of his life. This was the Ireland of Yeats and O’Casey, of the 1916 Easter Rebellion, of the British Viceroy in Dublin Castle, and of DeValera and Michael Collins.

One of Dad’s early memories, as he told me once, was walking home from school along a narrow country road when he heard the rumble of an armoured car rounding the bend behind him. British soldiers!! Tall hedges lined the roadside, and there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. He made himself as small as he could and prayed to God they would keep going and ignore him. They didn’t. They stopped and these dreadful Black and Tans, renowned for their ferocity, offered him chocolate and candy.

He was a bright kid and by dint of a scholarship or some outside help (the family history is unclear on this point) he became the first of his family to attend university. He went up to University College in Dublin and took a degree in Economics. He was encouraged to study abroad for his master’s degree and by some forgotten train of events ended up as a student in Cologne in the late 1930s. So there he was as a young man in Nazi Germany.

I remember there were two stories he told me about this period in his life. The first was about his visit to Nuremberg to see the annual Nazi Party rally. It was difficult to travel in Germany at the time and it took him weeks to assemble all the necessary permits. When he finally got there the place was packed to the rafters with the party faithful. He wanted to see this fellow Hitler that everyone was making such a fuss about, so he went along one evening to a huge stadium in a torchlight procession. The walls of the stadium were lined with anti-aircraft searchlights and they beamed thousands of feet upwards into the night sky, like pillars of light. The opening acts were Goebbels and Hermann Goering and they whipped the crowd into a rising frenzy. Suddenly the spotlights went out and there was a roll of drums. The lights came on again directed at the main podium, and there was Hitler. And the crowd went wild, for 5, 10, 15 minutes. Dad said this was amazing, just calculated mass hysteria. He also said (this was much later) he could understand a Rolling Stones concert .

The other story was about helping – well, not getting in the way of – another Irishman who beat the hell out of two Gestapo thugs who were hassling an elderly Jewish couple in a restaurant. It was funny when he told it. I don’t think it was all that funny when it happened.

The Embassy advised him to get out in 1939 and he did. In early September that year, while on a Sunday cycling tour, he dropped into a pub in County Wicklow for lunch and heard Neville Chamberlain on the radio – they called it the wireless in those days – announcing that Britain was now at war with Germany. Ireland remained neutral. There wasn’t much sympathy for the Nazis, but nobody wanted to allow the British back in for ANY reason. Churchill got upset about this and threatened to take over the Irish ports by force if the Irish wouldn’t allow his navy to use them. DeValera, the Irish prime minister, responded to him in a famous wireless/radio address and overnight 100,000 young Irishmen joined the army, including my father. The plan was to shoot at whoever came first, the Germans or the Brits. In the event, nobody came and that was my father’s war. As a coastal battery commander, he said he had more trouble during the war with the local parish priest than anybody else: his men were getting too friendly with the local girls.

If this is beginning to sound like a history lesson, that’s because it is. It’s the history of my father as a young man and his contact with the events of his time. It’s easy to forget that Dad was not always a victim of Alzheimer’s, not always an elderly or middle-aged man. He was a young man once and dreamed a young man’s dreams. One of these dreams, shortly after the War, was my mother – he courted young Lily McCarthy of Glandore Road in the face of some pretty tough opposition from her parents. This is where mom can take up the story much better than me. They were married on September 1, 1947 at the Marino Parish Church on Dublin’s Griffith Avenue, a church that looks remarkably the same today as it does in the wedding photographs.

A year later, on November the 9th, I came along. Three years later my sister Caitriona was born and Dad took his young family over to England where his CPA qualifications offered him a better job than anything going in Ireland at the time. Contacts in England persuaded him to join AFEX, the American Forces Exchange, and that brought us to Wiesbaden, Germany. In 1958 Patricia was born and Des followed on, completing the family in 1960. From that point, others can take up the tale.
I’ve talked about Dad as a young guy, because it’s important not to forget that part of his life. Now that his life has reached its natural end most of us, including me, remember him in his middle age or older, and our most recent memories are of the terrible years of his final decline. This is not the full picture. We need to see him as he was in his entirety, from youth to old age.

Dad and I had some powerful differences when I was growing up, but I knew I could always depend on him, always. He could be stubborn, ornery and cantankerous, but those were the very traits that provided strength when he was young and pulled him out of the background he was born into. I learned a lot just by watching him. He had a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong, and his colleagues spoke very highly of him. He put his neck on the line more than once for the people who worked for him. He never mentioned it at home, but I heard about it from them.

I always loved him as a little boy. Later on, I began to understand him, not just as a father but as a man, and I really got to like him because of who he was and what he’d done. I’ll miss him. Unfortunately, because of this terrible disease that robs people of their minds, I began to miss him long before he actually passed away. Our last real opportunity to talk to one another as father and son was during a tour of Ireland in the summer of 1991.

The crumbling walls of the Ballyalla estate are still there to be seen, just a few minutes walk up the road from the cottage where Dad’s sister Kitty lived with her husband Jim and their four children, our cousins, who are grieving now in County Clare where it all began, and in London and Africa, just as we are in Dallas and in Japan today. I still remember that 1991 journey, and I will keep those other moments close to my heart as well.

Ave, Pater, Atque Vale … I salute you, Father, and say Farewell.
And as we say in Ireland, may you sit at the right hand of God!