Friday, October 30, 2020

Seán Ua Cearnaigh (1933-2020)

 The road to nowhere

When I was a small child it seemed to me that my father came from the literal middle of nowhere. When we drove from our small house in Enniscorthy to the even smaller thatched cottage in Tipperary where he was born and raised, we’d drive on main roads and through big towns like New Ross, Waterford and Clonmel until we got near. Then we’d turn down a tiny side road which he sometimes struggled to find in its unsignposted insignificance. After what seemed like an eternity when you’re five we would take a sharp right on to a more winding tiny road, so tiny you constantly feared you’d round a corner into another car coming in the opposite direction. If you were unlucky enough to run into another car on this road, well, one of you was backing up. Thankfully that almost never happened. 

In actual fact, it’s not really the middle of nowhere. There are two nearby villages, Burncourt and Ballyporeen (later made famous by a rather tenuous Ronald Reagan connection) and on the final tiny road not far from the farm and the cottage, you pass Mitchelstown Caves. That meant that as a child growing up my Dad’s address was John Joe Kearney, Mitchelstown Caves, Co. Tipperary. He told me once that when the bullies in the school he went to learnt this they responded by giving him the nickname “fear na pluaise” (Irish for cave man). Another boy whose most distinguishing feature was his very large ears was dubbed “fear na cluaise” (ears man). It seems that the schoolyard bullies in rural 1940s Ireland were at least bilingual and vaguely poetic. 

My first resteal

If you’re wondering about the Kearney thing, I can confirm he was born a Kearney. As a committed Irish language activist he Gaelicized his name to Seán Ua Cearnaigh, although his mother and most of his family went on calling him John Joe. He reanglicised it to Sean O’Kearney, thereby reclaiming the O he felt the English had stolen from us, without bothering with the legal formalities of a name change. I grew up thinking the name on my birth certificate was Dara O’Kearney until I first applied for a passport and found there was no O’. To this day there’s a note on my passport on the discrepancy. 

Never a farmer to be

By all accounts, or at least by his, it seemed his childhood was far from perfect. He never said it directly, or even complained about anything, but I inferred from the stories he told that he struggled to relate to kids outside his immediate family, was seen as a bit odd and did not enjoy school. He had a lifelong love of learning and knowledge, but I think he struggled to see the point of a long bicycle ride to school to learn what all the other kids learned when he could just stop off at a barn up the road from the cottage and read the books of his own choosing. At that early age he had already learned one of the most important lessons of his life, that if the physical world left you unsatisfied and unfulfilled you could always withdraw to the world of the mind. Mitching as it was called in the Ireland of his day was very commonplace at the time, but my Dad might have been the only one in the whole county if not country skipping school so he could read more. He apparently got away with this for a year or so until his mother encountered the headmaster in the local village who asked her why her son didn’t come to school any more.

His relationships with his parents were apparently loving in their own way but not without difficulties. He described his father as a practical man who often despaired of the impractical son he was given. He never attempted to hide the fact that he hated farming and that could never be the life for him, even if as both the eldest child and only son he would have been expected to take it over. Most of the stories he told me about his own father involved him being charged with some practical task and failing comically, like the time he hitched the horse to the cart facing the cart, apparently believing that horses either pushed carts, or worked best in reverse gear. His mother was one of the many fiercely intelligent and independent women who take no prisoners and suffer no fools gladly that are peppered through that side of my family. As a small child I remember being struck that they greeted each other not with a kiss but a handshake. She both loved and despaired of her eccentric only son who wasn’t even any good at cards. She was the original card shark of the family and it pained her to see any game played sub optimally. My Dad loved playing cards everywhere except in her cottage, because it always ended the same way with her berating his substandard play in front of his mildly amused son. 

The three sisters

By contrast, his relationships with his three sisters seemed idyllic. He had different relationships with each of the three reflecting their very different (from each other) personalities, and with all three he had a closer bond than any other I’ve ever seen between brother and sister. With eldest Kathleen he shared a love of Irish history and culture, and he respected her fierce intelligence and directness that meant she always called it as she saw it. In Eileen he found a soul even gentler and kinder than his own, a true kindred spirit who seemed to understand and appreciate his eccentricities and qualities better than anyone else. And with youngest sister Ann, the rebel of the family, he thrilled to her sense of playfulness, humour and mischief while appreciating her insistence on living her own life on her own terms. All three relationships lasted a lifetime, and the most excited and happy I ever saw him was getting into the car to drive to visit one of them. 


My Dad loved games, something he passed on to both his sons. He taught me most of the games I know, including poker, but it started with chess. A friend would come once a week to play him, and I’d sit and watch the incomprehensible battle of wits that ensued. I did understand that the games they played were intense for both men, and my Dad seemed to always lose. Over the course of the game I’d see him go from boyish optimism to puzzlement, frustration, and eventually resignation and the disappointment of defeat. His disappointment never lasted very long: he was a very good loser, something he didn’t manage to pass on to me. He enjoyed the game for the game itself, the result didn’t seem to matter much to him. This was true of almost everything he did: he read voraciously and learned for the pure joy of knowledge. He was not an ambitious man, something he was often berated for, but for him knowledge was it’s own reward. 

After a few weeks of observation, I asked him to teach me. I quickly learned the moves, we played a few games, and he got to experience the joy of victory. At least for a few weeks until I won my first game. He took it well even if it can’t have been nice to lose to your 7 year old smartass braggadocio son, who was not a gracious winner. We played a few more games during which the gulf in skill rose to obvious and embarrassing proportions. The novelty of beating my old man had been replaced by something somewhere between sympathy and mortification so I stopped badgering him to play, and started badgering him to let me join the local chess club.  He gratefully accepted the switch. 

He taught me dozens of card games, almost all of which he played enthusiastically but badly. As I got older we settled into a familiar pattern: he’d teach me a new game, we’d play until I got better than him, I’d teach my brother and we’d play until one of us emerged dominant. My brother won chess, I won checkers. He won monopoly, I won most but not all of the card games. When we ran out of games my father taught us, we started inventing our own. I remember one game in particular that grew in complexity and strategic richness over time: US President. We played as competing candidates vying for states and electoral votes. There was both strategy in where you chose to employ limited resources, and chance in the form of rolling a dice. Once we’d exhausted all the competitive games my Dad settled into patience (known as solitaire in the US), a game he would play for hours and hours on end for the rest of his life. 

As I was growing up I saw myself as very different from my Dad, but looking back I see we were far more similar than either of us perhaps imagined. We shared a lot of passions and our political outlooks aligned perfectly. He was a man who was driven by the things and people he loved and tried to waste as little time as possible on the things and people that annoyed and bothered him. I grew to see the wisdom in that. He loved games and knowledge for what they taught him not what they brought him. While I remain a more outwardly ambitious man than he ever was and take pride in trophies and other accolades, the primary attraction of things like running and poker for me remains the joy of discovery more than the joy of victory. My Dad could immerse himself in a book or a game or a piece he was writing so the rest of the world faded away, something my own kids will attest he definitely passed on to me. He had natural endurance both physically and in life. He could walk all day, and one of the stories he told me involved him going to Dublin as a teenager to see his beloved Tipperary hurling team play in Croke Park, spend the money that was intended for return train fare on drink, which meant he had to walk home. For those of you not familiar with Irish geography, that’s a long walk. 


The biggest thing I think I learned from him is just because someone is very different from you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respect and try to get along with them. Having had a tricky relationship with his mother growing up, he found himself with an oldest son who seemed to have inherited all her most difficult traits (obstinacy, stubbornness, impatience with imperfection and a sharp tongue that didn’t hold back if it thought you were wrong). To his eternal credit he adjusted to this and never insisted “my house my rules” or that I behave the way he would have liked me to behave, or that I be like him. His nickname for me, “wisey” was a gentle jibing response to a smartass son who would never let him win a game or an argument, or let any perceived lapse of logic go unremarked on. 

I remember him as having spent much of my childhood alone in the smallest room in the house, his office, hammering on an old typewriter. He wrote poetry, stories and articles, mostly in Irish, which he submitted to various publications like Ireland’s Own. His biggest ambition was to get a book published, and the most deflated I remember seeing him was when he would open a parcel containing a returned manuscript and a rejection letter. But he was a dogged resourceful man who never dwell on disappointment or setback but simply got on with writing the next one. He taught me by example that failure is final only when you give up. I sometimes feel very old in poker and in life, but when I think of everything he achieved past my age with failing health, it’s inspirational. At the age of 65 he finally achieved his ambition, and over the final two decades of his life published approximately 20 historical fiction books with Irish book publishers such as ‘An Gúm’ and ‘Coiscéim’ and received a number of awards for his writing. His particular strength was books aimed at kids: he had a natural affinity with kids and an ability to communicate with them directly. At his funeral one of my cousins who teaches on the Aran Islands told me his books were the favourites of the kid in her school, and he came there to give them a talk once. 


My Dad was not good at any sport, but that didn’t stop him from loving them all. He grew up in a time when soccer and cricket were hated in Ireland as foreign imperialist sports, but he welcomed them into his heart. He confided in me on one of our drives to Tipperary that when he was growing up he’d never seen either game played, and that he had surreptitiously learned about soccer purely from listening to radio commentaries of matches. He laughingly admitted that he imagined the act of heading rather differently from the reality: in his mind’s eye it involved players getting down on the ground to hit the ball with their head for some reason. To this day I have no idea what he could have imagined as the reason they’d want to do that rather than just kick the ball, but my Dad was a romantic rather than a logician, and like many romantics the world he imagined was a much more entertaining place than the one he found himself in. This made him an entertaining if somewhat unreliable narrator at this times, he very much subscribed to the Spike Milligan view that you shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, and to this day I can’t be sure if all the bridges in Tipperary he proudly told me his father had blown up during the war of independence were ever actually blown up by my grandad. It wasn’t that he lied: he was actually the worst liar I’ve ever known in the sense that when he attempted subterfuge it was comically transparent, but he had a way of reimagining the world to make it more interesting. 

The eternal optimist

My Dad’s path through life was not an easy one. He was a natural optimist and romantic who always believed that no matter how bad things got, better times were ahead, just round the corner. I’m not entirely sure why he decided to become a forester, but I think it may simply have been that he loved trees. Unfortunately for him he quickly discovered that the reality of the job was very different from the romantic ideal in his head. He definitely didn’t enjoy “thinning”, the process of going through the forests in his care marking the trees that were to be felled. To watch his face as a workman started up the chainsaw, you’d think it was going to be taken to him rather than the tree. He did enjoy bringing me to forests, and walking around them with me, something he never managed to pass on to me. To this day I find them desolate somewhat sinister slightly unnerving places where bad things can be expected to happen. But my Dad was an old fashioned tree lover.  

He was diagnosed with serious health problems in his 30s and contracted diabetes in his 50s. The fact that he lived to be 87 is testament to his resilience and ability to make the best of whatever life dealt him. He was less “when life gives you a lemon make lemonade” and more “get it over with and eat that lemon without complaint, then tell everyone that was the last of the lemons and it’s nothing but oranges from here on out”. 

Mrs Doke

When I pulled off the coup of a lifetime and persuaded Mireille to uproot her life in Germany to join me in what she initially assumed was a “priest-ridden backward country”, nobody welcomed her into the family with the amount of enthusiasm my Dad had for her. They took to each other instantly. He was thrilled by her intelligence, directness, culture and sense of humour. As proud as he was of being Irish, and as much as he loved local history, he was never parochial or insular and was genuinely the least xenophobic person I’ve ever met. He was living proof that you don’t have to be racist to be nationalist, and you can both a proud Irishman and a proud European. He loved the fact that our family was now properly cosmopolitan and European. He brushed up on his basic French to talk to the in laws. He was a little disappointed they didn’t quite share his enthusiasm and knowledge for all things Napoleon Bonaparte, but he consoled himself with a genuine relish for French cooking that he instantly recognized as a different level from bacon and cabbage.

The funeral

Pandemic or not, his funeral was a very well attended affair, with his sisters, both his sons, different generations of both sides of the family, and friends he had shared his different passions with showing up to say goodbye at St Aidan’s Cathedral. His sister Ann delivered a moving tribute to the brother she had known and loved all her life, and her husband Bobby Gardiner and children provided the kind of beautiful haunting Irish music soundtrack my Dad always loved. 

In the graveyard afterwards, it was great to see cousins, aunts and uncles I hadn’t seen in decades. It was both sad and fitting that even in death my father was able to do one of the things he did best: bring very different people from all walks of life together on common ground. As we prepared to leave, one of my uncles pointed out something else that was very fitting: if you look straight across from his grave on the hill you see another more famous hill, Vinegar Hill, which was the place in Wexford that featured most prominently in his heart and in his stories. 

Brother Hanley

By the time I was in secondary school, I no longer felt at home in my parent’s home, and was counting down the days til I got to leave. It wasn’t really anybody’s fault: it was simply as time passed I grew further away from them in mind and outlook, and the differences between us outnumbered outweighed and overwhelmed any lingering similarities. My Dad seemed to accept this and make the best of it, my mother not so much. She seemed to take my rejection of almost all of her views on life and beliefs as a personal slight, and something that could be righted through extreme punishments and endless hectoring. It particularly hurt her that I was by now a confirmed atheist, and her main concern seemed to be that I keep this to myself. 

My secondary school was a Christian Brothers one. I’m sure you’ve all heard the horror stories, but in truth I have nothing but good memories. By Christian Brothers standards it was very modern in outlook. My favourite teacher was a Christian Brother from Tipperary, Brother Hanley. A philosopher and poet by nature (he was published in Irish), his life took a sharp turn in middle age when a shortage of physics teachers in the country led him to volunteer to go back to college and earn a science degree from scratch. By the time I met him he was nearing retirement, a wonderfully clear and passionate teacher who could convey the wonders of the universe in a physics class. I was therefore relieved that he was assigned to be my personal spiritual counsellor. Once a fortnight I’d go over to the Christian Brother residence for an hour with him in the dusty room assigned. He would answer any questions I had on points of doctrine factually but with none of the enthusiasm he had for quantum mechanics. He didn’t seem too interested in arguing with what I saw as logical inconsistencies in the religion I was born into, replying mostly with the phrase “it’s a matter of doctrine”. Sensing he could see through my sham pretence at faith I eventually came clean and told him I had lost all belief in a Christian God, and awaited his response. After his initial shock at the sudden blurted and I’m pretty sure incoherent nature of the confession had subsided, he smiled conspiratorially and said 

“Most of us do in the end. Let’s go for a walk”

Thereafter, our fortnightly spiritual counselling sessions took the form of walks in the garden and down by the river enjoying the marvels of nature while we talked philosophy, history and life in general. A physicist and mathematician by training and a poet and philosopher by nature, he combined them all into a wonderfully clear and concise method of expression that resonated with my similarly mathematical mind. When he told me that time as viewed through the prism of a single human life is not linear but elliptical, I understood intellectually he was saying that the further we get into our lives the closer we seem to get back to the beginning. As I get older I understand how true his statement was in a much more meaningful sense. The adult of 30 is a very different person from the child of 10, an entirely different person, and the adult of 50 will look back on the 30 year old as a different person again. But the child remains the original, and even as we go through life discarding and acquiring identities, beliefs, companions and experiences we never forget the child we were and how that child saw the world. 

Back to beginning

Even now, I read ten year old blogs written by 45 year old Doke and struggle to remember the person he was and the things he thought. My memories of 25 year old me are often so remote it’s like watching a movie about another person’s life for the most part, a movie where I’m struggling to grasp the hero’s motivations. But even now I can close my eyes and I’m back in the back of a Volkswagen Beetle on the way to the middle of nowhere. My Dad is driving, and as we pass through every town and village between Enniscorthy and the thatched cottage in the middle of nowhere he’s telling me story after story about each place, who used to live there, and what happened to them. Sometimes he’s the hero, sometimes he’s just a fringe character, and sometimes he’s just the one telling the story. But he’s happy, the happiest I will ever see him in his life, because he’s leaving the worries and stress of work and marriage behind for now, heading back to the place and people he loves the most, where he feels truly at home. And I’m happy too because he’s happy, because I love the place and people too, my Granny, aunts, uncles and cousins, with the easy uncomplicated love of people you only ever see on holiday. And I’m happy because we are talking and listening and telling each other stories and our differences no longer matter because of my Dad’s amazing ability to simply put them all to one side and focus purely on our similarities and shared passions. 

These are memories that are fresher in my mind than stuff that happened in January, these are memories that didn’t die with him but will remain alive and fresh to me for the rest of my life. Gone but not forgotten, ní fheicimid a leithéid arís.



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