Silver threads among the gold
One of the most affecting examples that I have encountered of the impact of bereavement was attributed to the late Peadar O’Donnell by his biographer, Peter Hegarty.
We will come back to that. But first, some background on the man himself because O’Donnell departed this life 35 years ago and his name resonates little today. He was “active” in the public sphere in Ireland throughout his long life but, operating on the radical fringe, he was more marginal than prominent. This assessment from The Dictionary of Irish Biography, Ireland’s national biographical directory, is fair:
Although O’Donnell once remarked that every cause he fought for was a failure, he is now regarded as one of the most influential socialist republican theorists and an important voice of dissent in twentieth-century Ireland.
An important component of his influence was longevity. Born in 1893 in Dungloe, County Donegal, O’Donnell was elected secretary of his county’s national teachers’ union (INTO) branch in 1917. His last notable public protest was 67 years later. In 1984, O’Donnell presided over a public ceremony in which three holders of honorary doctorates from Galway University (NUIG) repudiated their honours in protest against the university’s award of an honorary degree to the visiting US President, Ronald Reagan.
In the tradition of James Connolly rather than Padraic Pearse, O’Donnell was prominent in the IRA through the war of independence, took the Republican side during the civil war, was a Sinn Féin TD for Donegal for four years from 1923, and, thereafter, espoused a succession of broadly socialist causes through dark decades when it was most assuredly neither popular nor profitable.
He was also a novelist and playwright, patron and promoter of artistic talent; founder, principal funder and eventual editor of the radical literary journal The Bell, that survived and occasionally prospered in the hostile cultural climate of the 1940s and early 1950s. It is reported that, on a visit to America in 1939, he introduced Paul Robeson to the song, Kevin Barry, which became a standard in the latter’s repertoire.
O’Donnell “met” his future wife, Lile (shorthand for Elizabeth Mary Patricia), O’Donel from Mayo, while he was interned in Mountjoy gaol during the civil war in 1922. From outside the prison, she ran a covert “postal” service delivering messages to and from prisoners. As time went on, this blossomed into courtship by correspondence and they were married in 1924 after O’Donnell had been moved to and escaped from Kilmainham.
The honeymoon in a Dublin hotel ended abruptly after only a single night when O’Donnell was recognised and had to go on the run again. But the marriage lasted 45 years and was, by all accounts, intensely close. They had no children of their own but did raise Peadar’s nephew as their own child. The daughter of a prominent Mayo landowner, Lile brought enough money to the marriage to allow them to live well and to free Peadar to the life of literary gentleman and professional protester.
A lifelong smoker, Lile succumbed to emphysemia in October 1969. According to Peter Hegarty:
He[Peadar] spent the Christmas of 1969 in Portugal, in the hotel where he and Lile had once holidayed. He insisted on having the room where they had stayed, and ate his Christmas dinner in a restaurant where they had eaten a memorable seafood meal. He had the table set for two and ordered two portions of seafood. When the food arrived he asked the waiter to place the second portion on the other side of the table, where Lile had once sat.
O’Donnell sold the family home in Drumcondra, lived an unsettled, nomadic existence for the next decade, perching in the homes of various friends and relatives before finding some solace for the last seven years of his life when he shared a home in Monkstown with his longstanding friend from Donegal, Nora Harkin, also a life-long socialist and activist.
In August this year, we returned to France for our summer holidays. We missed out last year because of “you know what” after an unbroken sequence of 20 years in the same apartment extending right back to 2000. At that time, our son and only child was all of one year old and he was a full part of every holiday right up to 2018. His transition from infancy, through childhood and boyhood to manhood was integral to our holiday experience and memories, enriching both to witness and to encourage.
By 2019, he was old and independent enough to be making his own way in the world. We staved off the challenge of his absence by persuading him (easily) to join us for a week. And maybe that transition plus the relief of being able to resume normal habits this year made it easier to bear his not being with us at all.
We bargain for the equivalent of a “good” Irish summer but got better than that. The uninvited guest of COVID was unobtrusive. Rules were properly applied but with a light touch. All the old places were open and active, looking forward rather than back. And the fruits de mer hit the spot.
There was just one emotional wobble when I went down to our small cellar on the usual mission of grabbing a bottle of wine for dinner, but paused to scan the paraphernalia of bygone days; tennis racquets, table tennis bats, boules, packs of cards, sitting dutifully in a box, hurley and pitch and putt clubs standing to attention along the wall, even a lingering bucket and spade, ready for action but now redundant.
We have been privileged to witness and contribute to the expansion of physical proficiencies; first tentative steps into 18 inches of water to enthusiastically plunging in from great heights down seemingly vertical slides; improving prowess with all kinds of sporting spheres ; football, volleyball, golf, tennis; and socialisation; from abandoning restaurant tables to play with cars on the floor to enthusiastically embracing French cuisine and good (and substantially older) company; from grappling with the tin whistle in the back of the car on the journey down from the ferry to coaxing the intricate nooks and crannies of traditional music out of multiple instruments; from the instinctive optimism and openness of innocence to a more cautiously confident adulthood.
More has been gained than has been lost. Parents’ primary job is to get the kids to leave the nest, not to keep them there, to prepare them to survive and thrive autonomously in the wider world while returning occasionally but happily to their narrower domestic one. And that job has been done, but its successful completion leaves a gap.
But his journey parallels our own. The clock moves relentlessly forward towards the time when it will be too much trouble for Darby and Joan to go to France at all or when there will be only one of us left with the option. Neither is a comfortable thought.
But, where there’s life, there’s hope, or maybe it’s the other way around. John Hewitt left us this image of Peadar and Lile in the evening of their lives in “Calling on Peadar O’Donnell at Dungloe”:
But halfway up the drive we glimpsed the writer
still working in the garden with his wife;
I shouted and he straightened up to answer,
and in the gloom his fine head glimmered white.