Always roses: a tribute to my grandfather

November 20th, 2006 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

My grandfather passed away in July, severing finally the [last few] tendrils that bound him to this human realm. In truth they were few enough at the end, those threads. When I went to see him – to visit with him, I should say – a few days earlier, he struggled to chew a few bites of bread and jam, his eyes unfocused on a middle-distance. And then, of a sudden, he looked right at me as I stood by his hospital bed, and I winked. Winked, and I blanched immediately at what I had done. Not to have winked in the half-shadow of death (for we knew it was coming), though there was that. Rather, who was I to wink at this man, this always commanding presence who, just a few years ago had admonished me that men did not hug goodbye, but rather shook hands, as so many did in the days to follow, as we went through the standard rituals. “Sorry for your loss.” “He was a fine man.”

He was a fine man, and as I sit here I hear again his voice, slightly hoarse but still melodic and strident, a faint echo of mischief and challenge in it, and see him standing, always so admirably upright. My mind traces back to an early memory. He had come to Galway for a conference, the Labour Party in 1983 (or was it ’82?). During one session he brings me into the hall, to Leisureland, and I’m sure to the balcony at the back. And as I stretch back in my mind I realize it’s two memories fused. Another conference, this time the Credit Unions, a few years later, also Leisureland. Which time was it that he introduced me to people? “Willie! Is this your grandson?” “You take after your grandfather” (of course) and “You must be proud of him” (me of him). This last, the wording, probably not right, the event recedes just beyond sight, in the fog of the past, but there’s an essential truth to the sentiment. And I was – proud – especially seeing him there, where he was, as they say, in his element. I who was, as yet, too young to understand fully the notion of a ‘conference’, to participate as anything other than “Willie’s grandson”, could yet appreciate the admiration, the sense of purpose as he spoke with others, seeming to know so many and to float so easily through this space.

There were more conferences, of course, and many more groups and committees. One of my uncles read through the list at his funeral – choirs and church-groups – ones I knew and some I’d forgotten – credit union and harbour board – groups that kept him busy late into the evenings – Party and trade union – threading through the very fabric of his life – service members associations, senior citizens’ parliament – and underpinning his commitment to service and community. He was a Catholic, took his faith seriously, and drew on that faith to inform his work.

Or so I’m told. It’s amazing how a memory can so often be reduced to a collection of facts and assertions, gleaned and reframed from sermons and eulogies. As I rode the train to my grandfather’s funeral I read Banville’s The Sea, a powerful pondering on the past, and it fed into my own thought process. What was it of my memories that spoke, truly of my grandfather, of Granddad? Was it the careful accounting of public achievements – his lifetime achievement recognition from the Louth People of the Year Awards – and estimation of total hours spent here, or there? At the funeral – before the funeral, at the house – I got to meet one of the men he represented in the union, and we spoke of his triumphs, his successes that made differences to the lives of so many. These discussions, and the honor guards from groups he had served, reminded me again of why I was proud of him, of why I strive so often to emulate him. As I write these words again, that feeling, that pride, comes again – not that he worked alone, a quixotic hero, but perhaps that’s an even greater challenge; to work with and alongside others, subsuming in some manner your personal struggle, to build these things so they are more than the condensed will of a single individual.

But there’s more, and I too travel to a seaside scene. They – he, my grandmother – bring us – my sisters, myself – out to the beach where their children had once played. Or standing (so straight) directing me as I run around a track. Or he’s laying out tea in their house, or again the voice. Always the voice. We closed his funeral with a tribute that brought to mind that voice, as we sang Joe Hill. And while it’s tempting to close, then, with that admonition of “Don’t Mourn, Organize!” I think, instead of that other slogan – this one not from Joe – that we fight for bread, but roses too.

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