I flipped a page of the ‘Sunday Independent’ and there was an obituary to a friend I didn’t know had died. Like so many other friends, our regular paths had taken us in different directions in recent years. Manus O’Riardon was a remarkable man. All I’ll say about him here is that President Michael D Higgins attended his funeral.
Manus paid me a generous compliment during our last conversation in Spain – and his words now mean more than before.
This got me thinking: Many of us have regrets over something we didn’t tell somebody while they were alive, but doesn’t what they did say to us become more profound after the realisation that person can never say a word to us again? The departed person doesn’t have to be a loved one – just someone we admired. In keeping with the memory of what Manus said to me, please let me indulge myself by telling you of a last exchange (even if the only one) I had with some famous people.
It was the Summer of 1961 when I worked for a couple of months in the Greville Arms Hotel Mullingar. One morning as I was ‘windowlening’ the mirror in the gent’s toilet, the door flew open and a plumpish, scruffy man, with a flurry of black curly hair, barged in. He proceeded to study his own appearance is the gleaming mirror, all the while searching the pockets of a suit-jacket, that seemed to be too big for him. “Have you a comb, Gorsoon”, he asked. I had, and I handed it over without a word.
After struggling for a few minutes with the unruly hair, the man somehow found his own comb in an inside pocket. He held the two combs up to the light, turned to me and announced; “yours is a better one – so you keep mine!” And that is how I came to own Brendan Behan’s comb. Brendan Behan hadn’t meant a lot to me at that time, but when he died a couple of years later, his words to me took on a new significance.
During the 50s and 60’, Nicky Rackard was the nearest thing to the second coming of Christ, as far as I was concerned. Then in 1971 or ’72, I was at a social event and found myself standing right next to the great man. “My name is Nicky”, he said. My mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out for a while.
Whatever I thought I should have said, it didn’t come out; and what did, made no sense: “I never thought you were as big a man?” I stammered. “We were all big men”, Nicky replied. Yes, Nicky, you were a big man in every sense. In 2000 I sat for a night beside Nicky’s brother, Billy – and I have a signed hurling ball to prove it!
I had only seen Michaela Harte on television. She was interviewed after Tyrone won the 2003 All-Ireland Final, because she had foreseen the victory in a vivid dream. Then one evening I was behind the bar in ‘Paddy’s Point’ and in walked the beautiful Machaela with her parents. I quickly deserted my post, went out and welcomed the Hartes, as gaelge. Turning to Michaela I said; “If you ever dream that Westmeath win the All-Ireland, will you please tell me first?” With a twinkle in her eye she replied; “How long would I need to be asleep for?”
Soon afterwards I met Michaela and Micky again in the Croke Park Hotel. I was astonished that she addressed me by my name. “Any dreams lately?” I asked. And after Michaela’s tragic death her reply is engraved in my mind and on my heart forever: “All of my dreams have come true, Bernie ….”
I had the pleasure of meeting the late great Lieutenant-General Dermot Early at a ‘do’ in Kilmainham Gaol. In the course of our conversation, I naturally mentioned his magnificent feats during his football career. Dermot smiled, before relating how he was on duty outside a church in Cavan at the funeral of John Wilson, TD.
A man came over and asked; “Are you the great Dermott Early?” “Well, I am Dermott Early – but I’m not so sure about the ‘great’.” “Oh you were a great one”, exclaimed the Cavan man; warming to his task. “You could kick points from anywhere; right boot, left boot, no matter who was marking you, you could send them over.” Then after pausing and thinking for some seconds, the man said; “Mind you, you could kick the wides too!”
I told this story to Dermott Early Jnr and he asked if he could use it at presentations – as he has done many times in the years since the great Dermott’s passing. And those words with me are treasured ever more.
Never part without loving words. They might be your last.