Meet the oddparents: a modern twist on an old role
The religious aspect is gone for many, but the godparent role is still taken seriously – whether it means making godchildren feel special or shepherding them into the world of adult conversation
From left, Phoenix Whelan; his ‘fairy oddmother’, Rebecca Halliday; and his mother, Jackie Freer
Claire Ronan with her children Barry and Mikaela
Claire Ronan’s godmother, Maeve McStay
Fiona Kearney and her godson, Finbarr Murphy
At Easter, some godparents are making the rounds with chocolate Easter eggs, while others are preparing to attend First Communions and Confirmations. In an increasingly secular society, however, where values are not prescribed by religion, godparents who take their roles seriously see themselves as no less important.
REBECCA HALLIDAY AND IAN HENDERSON
‘I vow to take Phoenix to Electric Picnic’; ‘I vow to take him to his first Liverpool match and to teach him how to chat up the ladies’
Instead of godparents, two-year-old Phoenix Whelan has “oddparents”, a “fairy oddmother” and an “oddfather” who were appointed at a naming ceremony rather than a Baptism or christening.
Musician Rebecca Halliday, the “oddmother”, explains how the planned secular ceremony for Phoenix turned out to also be his parents’ surprise wedding reception at the Residence in Dublin. Without telling anyone, Phoenix’s mother and father – Jackie Freer and Moe Whelan – had married in the registry office, which came as a shock to friends who thought they would never formally marry.
In preparation for the ceremony, Phoenix’s oddparents, Halliday and oddfather Ian Henderson, had written their own “book of pledges”, which they read aloud at what Halliday calls the “non-christening”. Henderson promised: “I vow to take Phoenix to his first Liverpool match” and “I vow to teach Phoenix how to chat up the ladies”, while Halliday pledged: “I vow to take Phoenix to his first opera and Electric Picnic.”
“Phoenix’s parents are not religious or traditional people,” says Halliday. “They chose not to be married in a church or to baptise their child. However, they felt it was important to invite two long-standing friends to take on the role of guardian to their son, who he can always rely on and come to for advice, help or support.”
Halliday grew up with Freer and was only a few months old when she attended Freer’s Baptism. Their two families are close, as they also are with Henderson’s family – so close in fact that his uncle and Freer’s mother have been going out for the past 15 years, making Henderson a sort of step-cousin to Freer.
The meaning of “oddparent”, says Freer, “is the same thing as a godparent, it symbolises entrusting the wellbeing of our child in the hands of people who are irrevocably close to us. They are both the sanest, loveliest people.” Freer’s own godmother is still her best friend, and she didn’t want Phoenix to miss out just because she and her husband are not religious.
The secular godparent has different ideas of nurturing a child’s development than the Catholic Church, which states: “Insofar as possible, a person to be baptised is to be given a sponsor who assists an adult in Christian initiation or, together with the parents, presents an infant for Baptism. A sponsor also helps the baptised person to lead a Christian life in keeping with Baptism and to fulfil faithfully the obligations inherent in it.”
The Church of Ireland’s stance is that “it is a privilege and a responsibility to be asked to be a godparent . . . The godparent promises to help care for the spiritual welfare of the child. It is important, therefore, that the godparents can answer honestly the declarations of faith and that they will be committed to supporting and praying for their godchild.”
Halliday’s interpretation, however, while not religious, is heartfelt: “I’d go across the world to be with Jackie at a moment’s notice if I was needed,” she says. Freer, Whelan and Phoenix have moved to Noosa, Australia, where they live a surfer lifestyle in a beachside home.
‘Everybody knows that gay men make the best godparents’
While everyone has their own idea of what qualities a godparent should have, “everybody knows that gay men make the best godparents”, says Diarmuid O’Hegarty, godfather to four girls, the children of friends. O’Hegarty, who is former deputy head of the London Metal Exchange, lives in London with his partner, Vincent, who also has godchildren.
Asking you to play such a significant role in their children’s lives is a way for friends who have children to tell you they rate you highly enough to want a lifelong relationship with you, he believes.
Kate (19), Ruby (18), Anna (16) and Thea (3) help make O’Hegarty feel connected to the continuity of life, he says. “I’m lucky in that I have a lot of time for [my god-daughters]. I won them by audition.”
While he is not religious and won’t be instructing his god-daughters in any faith, he takes his commitment very seriously. “I grew up with adults who mattered and who believed I mattered, and this is something young people need. All children like to feel special. A godparent has to be different for that child than anyone else they know.”
With his god-daughters scattered across Dublin, Paris and the US, geographical proximity isn’t really that important, he thinks. “I’ve known the kids all their lives, and they are comfortable around you because they know you and they trust you; even if you need to talk to them about their parents, it’s a safe conversation. It’s important to listen to children, and you can’t be too po-faced when you talk to them – you have to be not too worried about the feedback.”
O’Hegarty is a distant relative of Irish patriot Michael Collins, and he quotes another of his relatives, PS O’Hegarty, on the subject of Collins as his inspiration for the sort of godfather he tries to be. “He [Collins] passed the great test for an adult in that children loved him.”
Nearly two decades of godparenthood must have meant digging deep? “When they’re infants, a bottle of gin for the parents is best. When they’re older, cash is good,” he says.
‘Godparents belong to the family but they are different to the family. They are there to make you feel special and spoiled’
When the godparent is a good one, godchildren can retain the connection well into adulthood.
On her 21st birthday, her godmother made her feel very important by giving her a pair of diamond earrings that matched ones her godmother had given to her own offspring. They were made from diamonds taken from a necklace that had belonged to her mother. “Now you’re 21. That’s the last gift,” her godmother had said.
Being listened to and shepherded into the world of important adult conversation is another gift, she says – one that she tries to pass on to her godson, Finbarr Murphy.
“I also had a godfather – an uncle, Terry Kelleher – who was a film-maker in London, and in my teen years, I visited and we had earnest chats about the meaning of it all. He provided another worldview for me outside the nuclear family. The special thing about godparents is that they belong to the family but they are different to the family. They are there to make you feel special and spoiled,” says Kearney. Kelleher lives in the south of France now, and Kearney visits him with her boys.
For the parents, choosing godparents is also a way to keep friends and family who have emigrated closer emotionally, if not geographically, she adds.
‘We’re not the Brady Bunch, but there is love and respect’
Ocean FM radio presenter Claire Ronan’s godmother is her sister, Maeve McStay, older by 12 years, who is also godmother to Ronan’s son, Barry, while Ronan is godmother to Maeve’s son, Jamie.
“She was always my rock,” says Ronan. “If I was ever in trouble, I could go to her, and she is one of the fairest, calmest people you would ever meet. I would never make a major life decision without talking to her first.”
“Her home is a second home to my son, Barry, who went to her at weekends when he was boarding at Blackrock College. If he ran out of money or out of petrol on the motorway, he would ring Maeve and she was there for him. And I love Maeve’s children as much as my own. We’re not the Brady Bunch, but there is love and respect.”
Ronan is a regular Mass-goer, but she doesn’t see it as part of her role to pass down religious teaching.
“I don’t know anyone who does that,” she says. “Godparents don’t have to be religious. If they are good people, that’s what’s important.”