Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Returning the emigrant after death

Bringing my father back to Ireland to be buried brought his emigration journey full circle, writes Keith Sharkey.

Mon, Jul 23, 2012, 01:00


Bringing my father back to Ireland to be buried brought his emigration journey full circle, writes Keith Sharkey.

Keith's father Bill

In emigration there is the preparing, the going, the visiting, sometimes the returning, but always the passing. Death is the final act in the emigration drama and in many ways as poignant as the going. For those that said “one day maybe I’ll get home”, which emigrants from the 40s onwards probably had some chance of achieving, it means their longing and their sense of belonging to home would forever remain a Will-O-the Wisp.

For the family there is the decision whether the last act for your father, mother, son or daughter is bringing them home and burying them with their own. It is hard, for home is not all hearth and handshakes for all that left. However in death there is belonging, there is blood, there is ancestry and there is allowing those that understand your place in the world the opportunity to mourn in your townland.

For the deceased there is their wishes. My father left two instructions: throw me in a ditch by the side of the road and bury me standing up looking out to sea from the top of Dunaff. I am not sure which was his last request, but you don’t get a really good ditch on the mainland.

It is not that burying or cremating your father in some foreign field is wrong, but there is a sadness about municipal graveyards where the names Byrne or Doherty are nestled in amongst the Smiths, Thwaites and Sutcliffes, names that belong to a different people from a different heritage who sing a different tune. It matters perhaps not to the deceased who will never know, but to those left behind. For some at least there is the irrational sense that the deceased would be lonely. While in life we are not always able to keep our kin close perhaps in death we can be more persuasive.

My dad emigrated to London in the 60s, a married 22-year-old with a wife and me, the baby. I remember him now as a man full of revelations, facts and fictions which he passed as truths. Some probably were, I had trouble separating out what happened from the imagined, the politics from the banter and hyperbole. His head was a cocktail of Celtic Ireland, of 60s London, of spoiled priests, of 50s Bogside Derry, of 40s Donegal, of westerns, of thousands of books, of supporting America in the war and ambivalence about England, of communism, of Michelin star restaurants.

In work he was a social worker, maths teacher, roofer, managing director of an advertising firm, kitchen porter and poet. In between, there were visits to pubs from Cis Farrens in Leenan to the Spaniards on Hampstead Heath. And on the way? Encounters with Behan, Hughes, Geoffrey Bernard and Robert Kennedy to name but a few, which I mention more as vignettes in a life rather than something he held as matters of any significance beyond the anecdotes they allowed over the dinner table or on the bar stool.

When he died, just before climbing into the ambulance in the heart of Glasgow, a fox walked by. My sister called: “look dad there’s a fox.” He turned and for a few seconds wasn’t dying. I think the cunning fox took him. I hope so, he worried about evil spirits, about what was in the dark, a mixture of his own demons and ghosts that the scapula round his neck kept at bay. For an Irishman the city fox would be the best spirit guide as it possesses the traits that Joyce believed the emigrant needed to survive “silence, exile and cunning”.

The journey from Glasgow to Donegal was a long one, nearly two weeks with autopsies and a Christmas backlog. Then the arrangements, the funeral director so pale and hands so soft, all the better to bury you with Mr Sharkey. You knew speaking to him that it was a familiar road, Stranrear to Larne, a well trodden path, the Ayrshire coast, the dark clouds of February, the slate grey sea, small towns waiting for the better times of summer, the spitting rain.

When you meet your dead father at the boat, you know this is it, the start of the final journey that would reach its crescendo with the wake and then more quietly at the headstone. Each mile was a mile never to be travelled again.

Can you wake someone 10 days dead in an open coffin? The answer is yes and it is remarkable how good they can still look, a testament to the art of funeral directing. He was waked in my mother’s house in Derry, my dad’s ex-wife.

My dad had lived and worked in Derry in the 70s so besides the friends from his youth, he had the four strands of the Sharkey clan, Derby bar friends, the Carrowmena 4 , politicians and poets, 6 priests and 4 spoiled priests, some political enemies, and ex lovers who discreetly entered and exited to avoid distress to the ex wife. Drink was taken, chat was lively, and tears were shed for my father, for other deaths, for loves lost, for lives with regrets. A ton of sandwiches and a gallon of soup, everyone saying how well he looked with his full head of hair and pony tail tucked away (“I won’t cut it till Ireland’s free”).

Would he have liked it? He would have loved it, revelled in the attention, charmed mostly but insulted where he thought appropriate. He would have confided and whispered to his son and daughter and the Maynooth triumvirate about past tales, jokes and slights real and imagined. There might have been more singing, he enjoyed the sound of unaccompanied singers, in Gaelic preferably, keening, that sort of nasal twang was his favourite sound, songs of past generations and love won and lost.

We stood him up to leave the house for the last time, he would not be coming back. Out the door, down the stairs into the car. Through the Brandywell past Free Derry corner, the Lecky road, out onto the Buncrana road, where dad would have ridden his green Hornet bike escaping the back to backs of the Bogside for the open road and Urris hills. Across the border and past the shell of a once vibrant hotel, a last view of Grianan Fort, the strand at Fahan, Bridie Sharkey’s house and onward. Dad liked to go on drives giving the history of names and land ownership. Past his friend Paidric O’Flaherty’s pub where music was heard, lock-ins engineered and assaults on Fleadhs planned.

Once out and across the Crana River, the funeral cortège snaking its way passed Slieve Snacht which had a dusting of white on its brown and gold surface. This was the last leg and the weather knew it, from black clouds and heavy rain to clear sharp winter sun, a wind to shift any hairdo, shadows dancing across the mountains. Up and down this road my father had driven in the 70s when we were last a family, each on our own journey. Once he saved a baby’s life when the only other car on the road had crashed and the baby been thrown into a stream, he had seen the bundle and investigated, finding the bairn.

And then Clonmany. Not long now, and the lump in your throat is harder to manage. Past Noon’s, Comiskeys (the undertakers and pub), the cursed landlord’s grave, the halfway house, the Englishman’s garden, Tullagh, close to Micky Boyle’s and where he lost his shoes (never to be found) on the first day at school, and up to the church.

Once in my youth I remember him putting on a purple bed spread and a Mitre he had made in a sort of Catholic origami fit. Armed with a crosier cut from a piece of Hazelwood, he had paraded round the drive, blessing and cursing the McGonigles and Dunagheys, cackling, while my mother laughed but also worried he would be seen. He was adamant that he would have made a great bishop and it was true that in the short period we lived in Urris in the 70s when we ran away from London. He took great pleasure in taking over the church, reading from the alter with my sister, confining the priest to only reading the words of Jesus while he narrated and read the rest of the gospel. Here he was back once again.

What of the funeral service? Fr Bill is a rare priest, a man who might make you believe. “We can do whatever you want Keith,” he told me. James, a dear friend whose life weaved with my father’s, another exile returned, and whose own had been blighted by the murder of his wife, spoke of my father’s humanity and friendship. Then I spoke, trying in part to explain why we had brought him here. In Urris chapel he was amongst his own, third and fourth cousins, “Our Tribe” as he called them. His brother’s tribute was to read the gospel in Gaelic, probably the first time in this church, where in living memory Fr Maurice told the men at the back of the chapel to come in and sit down because “there is no need to keep look out, the Redcoats aren’t coming today”. After the Eucharist a lone singer Padraigin Ni Uallachain sang also in Gaelic and unaccompanied and filled the church with the sound of loss.

And then we carried him out, stopping in the porch to place the flag on the coffin, a nod to a part played in keeping a dream alive in the 50s when many wished it forgotten. The wind blew hard rain stinging the eyes, some hugged the church wall looking down on the graveyard below.

At the grave four of us lowered him down, at his head Leenan and the Gap of Mamore, at his feet in the distance Sluiden, the North Atlantic shore awash with whitecap, and below him the Boyle family, his granny from whom he learnt his sacred Irish. Buried in the soil of Ireland yards from where he had first attended school, where he carried the sod of turf for the schoolroom fire, just yards from where the dreams of youth were formed. A circle of sorts was complete. The boy became a man, the man became an old man, and the old man became an ancestor. So it is… it was right, right and proper to return.