Christmas Day fire was a shattering blow but softened by the kindness of strangers

Opinion: Community values often provide a shelter in adversity that the State cannot replicate

Community values of kindness and solidarity still operate even though we sometimes think our society is dysfunctional.

Community values of kindness and solidarity still operate even though we sometimes think our society is dysfunctional.


My husband and I have something unusual in common: our parents’ homes both suffered serious fires. Thankfully, we have something else in common. No one died or was injured in either case.

My family home burnt down in the middle of the day 18 years ago. My father- in-law, Joe Conroy, escaped from his burning home in Naas on Christmas Day just past.

No one is sure exactly what happened. My sister-in-law, Kirstin, and her son Luca, who live with my father-in-law, were at Mass. My father-in-law was in the shower when he heard the smoke alarm.

When he ran downstairs, the fire was already established. He made a quick attempt to put it out and then, very wisely, left the house. It has been a source of much slagging that he did so clad in his birthday suit, clutching only a small jacket to cover the essentials.

It appears that someone had already spotted the fire, and contacted the fire brigade. In the age of social media, it was inevitable that someone would video the burning house on a phone.

It makes for scary viewing – black, tarry smoke billowing from everywhere, and shooting red and yellow flames. The firefighters moved quickly and efficiently to dowse it.

The house is semi-detached, so the family’s misfortune was shared by the nearest neighbour as extensive smoke damage rendered her house uninhabitable too.

My father-in-law’s beloved wife, Pat, died on New Year’s Eve 13 years ago, but he has a son and five daughters, and several of them were on the spot in a very short period of time.

A legend
At home in Dublin, my children were shattered. The home in Ashgrove is a gathering place for the entire family. My 12-year-old son asked the question that has no easy answer – why do bad things always seem to happen to good people?

Their grandfather is not just a good person, but also a bit of a legend. When he was in his early 20s, he spent a long time in a TB sanatorium, where he witnessed friends and acquaintances alike die, one after another. He was one of the lucky ones who survived and went home.

I think he lost all fear of death, and he has an ability to squeeze enjoyment out of life that I have seen in few people. It also gave him a mental toughness and resilience.

While it is not always true that what does not kill you makes you stronger, in his case, it is.

I always hesitate to tell people his age, which is 85, because it triggers expectations of a frail, old man. Instead, he is limber and healthy. That may seem a contradiction if I then say that he has battled cancer on several occasions recently, including having a kidney removed, followed by the removal of one of the tubes leading into the bladder.

However, he weathered his operations so well that his specialist declared him a “tough old bugger”. All that was troubling him after one of the operations was when he could go back to using his bullworker, which he refers to as the “poor man’s gym”.

I suspect that few eighty-something- year-old patients

request permission to get back to doing workouts just after an operation.

Second blow
He is immensely competent and independent, and within hours of the fire was working on how quickly they could re-build.

That was when the second blow fell. During one of the bouts of cancer treatment, the local branch office of his insurance company closed. He had always conducted his business in person, and given all that he was undergoing medically, he forgot to renew using another method.

The contents of his home are insured, but not the structure. Frankly, that news was worse than the fire. He had paid insurance on his home for 40 years, but not at the crucial time. This could be a deeply depressing story, except that as Kirstin, his daughter, said with the dry humour typical of the family, “having a fire is a good way to find out what people will say about you at your funeral without actually having to die”.

People have displayed the most extraordinary generosity. Friends arrived with vouchers, with cash, with clothes. They are staying with one of the family in Naas at the moment, and have the offer of a rent-free home for two months.

There have already been offers to help with much-needed fundraising, and the family have not given up on some kind of ex-gratia payment from the insurance company, slim though that hope may be.

At times when we are inclined to think that our little country fails on so many levels, it is important to remember that there is so much that works very well indeed.

Community values of kindness and solidarity, and the web of support created by a strong extended family, often provide shelter that the State cannot replicate.

The fire on Christmas Day was shattering, and the lack of insurance is worse. Yet because of the kindness of friends and strangers alike, it is possible to be hopeful at the start of 2014.

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