The Home Place: Coming home - Colum McCann
The Irish Hospice Foundation asked some well-known people to contribute to its new book, ‘The Gathering: Reflections on Ireland’. This is Colum McCann’s contribution: ‘I did what anyone with a fondness for James Joyce would: I licked my thumb, picked up the crumb of Ulysses and ate it’
Early in 2013 I lost my best friend. Brendan Bourke. A photographer, a film-maker, a writer, a teacher. He had struggled with his health for many years, but somehow he had always managed to bring a spark to whatever life gathered around him, including his own.
Brendan knew of my obsession with Ulysses and he promised that, one day, he would read it. I tried to encourage him to read the more salacious parts of Molly’s soliloquy, or to begin with Bloom at breakfast, or to sit for a while with the Citizen in Little Britain Street. He could even read the novel backwards if he wanted to. I was fairly sure he would enjoy it, once he got over its supposed difficulty. Bren was a Dubliner after all. And he was a good reader. And Ulysses – despite the aura that somehow gathers around it – was the perfect Dublin novel.
He never read the book, however. He talked about it but never read it. Life got in the way. There was always some new film project that overtook the task. Or a photograph to take. Or another surgical procedure to undergo. He was always just about to read it. “Good puzzle to cross Dublin without passing a pub.” We once sat in the Stag’s Head together and tried to figure out if there was a way. The novel was at the cusp for Brendan: he was always about to embark on it. After his brother Kyron gave him his kidney – and almost four more years of life – he said he was going to finally sit down and read it. It became one of his ambitions. That, and race a rally car. That, and finish a film of ours: As If There Were Trees. That, and bring his partner, Liz, on a journey to the States. That, and so many other things.
Brendan died early in the new year. His body failed him. He was young, or young enough, at 50, to make me think that it was entirely wrong. I flew home to Dublin from New York. The next day I talked with Liz. She was going through his things in preparation for the funeral. Brendan had, she said, purchased a copy of Ulysses just before Christmas. She knew because she had found it among his Christmas things, with a receipt from Hodges Figgis stuck inside. She could tell from the spine that he had not yet cracked the book open. It made her smile, though, to think about it. He had, at least, bought it. He was ready for it.
The next day she took the copy and placed it on Brendan’s chest in the open wicker coffin that he lay inside, in the funeral home in Fairview. It was her gesture to him to carry the story with him.
I have never liked the idea of an open coffin, but later that evening I got the chance to sit in the funeral home before the viewing. Brendan was laid out in the open coffin, dressed in his favourite cowboy boots and a paisley shirt. The copy of Ulysses lay slap bang in the middle of his chest, just above his folded hands. Still uncracked, unopened.