Artane days stayed with ship crooner

Sat, Dec 1, 2012, 00:00

In life, singer Matt Munro was a favourite of Dubliner John Ryan. In death, the strains of the crooner’s Softly As I Leave You greeted mourners as they gathered for his funeral this week.

The congregation at Golders Green crematorium in north London was small but select – friends Ryan had made over years attending the London-Irish Centre’s elderly lunch club.

Few of them, however, knew of his past: of life in Dolphin’s Barn and then of years – too painful to speak about afterwards to all but a handful, and then only briefly – in the Artane industrial school in Dublin.

Born in 1928, Ryan’s mother and father, Annie and James, died of TB before he was 12: the nine children went into homes, the four boys to Artane. He never knew where his sisters had been taken.

For being an orphan, Ryan was sentenced to 4½ years for “destitution”, though he refused to go before the Residential Institutions Redress Board for compensation.

“He didn’t want to go there, too many memories, none of them good. He said he saw his brothers frequently at the beginning but over time they were placed in separate sections,” said Cllr Sally Mulready.

“By the time he left he did not know whether his brothers had left before him, or were still there when he left. In any case, he never saw them again,” she told The Irish Times.

Mulready had frequent contact in the London Irish Centre with Ryan, who spent years singing on cruise ships, in the weeks before he died in early November.

“He said to me, ‘I am really worried that they will put me down a hole when I die. I don’t want to be buried down a hole. I am just a nobody and nobody will care’,” she went on.

In late October, the two travelled to Levitons funeral directors in Camden to make arrangements: “The taxi driver – he was an Asian man – asked us if we were going to a funeral.

“John said ‘I am going to see my own funeral. I want to see what it’s like’. He had a dry sense of humour. The driver swung around in his seat, totally taken by the story,” she continued.

No priest or prayers

The undertaker asked his religion. “That was a long time ago. I want no priest or prayers at my funeral. I just want to go,” replied the single 84-year-old.

Ryan and Mulready left Levitons and went to his bank, where he drew down a cheque for £3,093 to pay for his last rites. “He was a happy man coming back,” she commented.

Less than a fortnight later, he contracted septicaemia and was rushed from his sheltered accommodation in Camden to University College Hospital in Euston.

Before drifting into unconsciousness, he named Mulready as his next-of-kin, leaving her to organise a simple ceremony in Golders Green in accordance with his wishes.

Most of them in their 70s and 80s, and all Irish, the dozen-and-a-half mourners were discomfited by the lack of a religious service, but they complied, despite quiet murmurs of unhappiness.

Mary Allen read Yeats’s Lake Isle of Innisfree, while Ann Sherwin sang Smiling Through, a song made famous by Richard Tauber. “He had a philosophy of smiling through,” said Mulready.

Failing to hold back the tears, Maria Connolly, one of those who run the popular lunch club in Camden, was, nevertheless, joyful that so many had come to mark his passing.

“I will always remember him. The world goes on, but you wonder why it doesn’t stop because such a lovely man has gone,” she said, speaking just feet from his funeral bier.

The people in the pews were asked for memories or tributes.

Neighbour, Eddie Carey, originally from Mitchelstown, Co Cork said: “I never knew that he was in that hell-hole of a place.”

Later, back in the London Irish Centre, where he went three times a week, it was clear that Ryan had told few, if any, of the dark Artane days.

Penny Clune, from Ballina, Co Tipperary sat beside him for two years before he mentioned it, and then only briefly: “He just said he couldn’t talk about it, just said that they were bad. He didn’t bring it up afterwards.”

Shared memories

If Artane was a past not to be reopened, Ryan happily shared memories of his days on the cruise ships “singing Frankie Sinatra” all over the world: “In the photographs, he was absolutely stunning”, she said with a smile.

The photographs of days on board the PO flagship SS Canberra were carefully kept in his flat in Ashton Court on the Camden Road, often still in much-thumbed company display cards.

Back in Golders Green, his coffin retreated behind the heavy metal doors, flanked by green curtains, to the sound of Seán O’Riada’s Mise Éire.

For now, his ashes will stay there, as Mulready tries to track his relations. “We’ll scatter his ashes there in a year, or so, if we can’t find them.

“Or maybe we’ll take them to Dublin and cast them into the Liffey. He was proud of being Irish, despite everything. Yes, maybe we’ll do that,” she told The Irish Times.

His death certificate lists the details of his life and passing simply: John Joseph Ryan, born December 16th, 1928, died November 2nd, 2012. Labourer, Singer and Showman (Retired).