‘The only direction life allows is forward – that’s what Dad would have said’

Rosemary Hennigan on her father and fellow author, his huge loss and his lessons in life

Rosemary Hennigan with her father Brendan: “Dad was writing about Tom Barry and the Kilmichael Ambush, while I was writing a story about a girl desperately trying to get out of her own head.”

Rosemary Hennigan with her father Brendan: “Dad was writing about Tom Barry and the Kilmichael Ambush, while I was writing a story about a girl desperately trying to get out of her own head.”

 

The last time I saw my Dad was in a cafe in town over eggs and coffee. It was our usual Sunday morning routine and we had no hint at all that it would be our last. We talked about our books, as usual. We were both writing novels at the same time. Dad was writing about Tom Barry and the Kilmichael Ambush, while I was writing a story about a girl desperately trying to get out of her own head.

The night before, Dad had dreamt that he was at his book launch – someday, we said wistfully. He told me his plans for his next book, about a patient who spent decades in the now-closed mental hospital on the cliffs at Portrane. I asked if he would take a break between novels. He had been working so hard to finish his first. But he shook his head, adamant that he would push on. He felt he was running out of time. There were too many stories left to tell, too much life left to live.

Outside, it was a dank and dreary November day, the kind that makes a home in your bones. He had a train to catch and was late. I was worried about him getting cold while he waited on the platform at Connolly Station. We barely said goodbye – “go, quick, you’ll miss it. It’s an hour till the next train!”

And then he was gone.

I can still picture his departing back.

On the Wednesday night, I got the call we all dread. My Dad had died at home very suddenly. A heart attack at 64. His book was unfinished. He really had run out of time.

For 40 years, he was an educator – a primary school teacher first, and then school principal. Dad was drawn to the hard cases. He opened an autistic unit at the junior school where he was principal, then left to work with children living with mental and physical disabilities, children with the odds stacked against them.

At his wake, a young man I didn’t know approached me to shake my hand. “I have to tell you, your father changed my life,” he said. “He helped me when I was really struggling at school – I can’t tell you what he did for me.”

I’ve always known my Dad was loved by his students – they’d tell me effusively, whenever they discovered the connection. “Mr Hennigan’s daughter” has always been a special status – but standing there with my heart in pieces, it meant the world to know that the special person Dad was had been recognised, that it had been so appreciated.

With a career history like that, it was a surprise to find “author” listed as Dad’s occupation on his death certificate. None of us can remember how it happened. In the blur of grief and shock, we must have communicated something about the book to the first responders, something about Dad’s days now spent writing, squirrelled away “fighting with his book”, as he used to say. But we took huge comfort from it.

The book was his final adventure. He had only started writing fiction in retirement: a great embrace of a new and difficult endeavour, a great shout to the world that he was here and this was his story to tell, his contribution to the great conversation.

The manuscript is unfinished and none of us want to change it or finish it: it wouldn’t be his anymore. I have tried to read bits and pieces, though I’ve never managed more than a few lines without the words blurring, without eyes turning to tears, grief rising.

I will publish a novel next year, a story my father never got to read. I will do it for both of us because he deserved more time, a chance to finish his novel, to see it live. It has made the experience of finishing my novel feel more precious to me. Every step in the process is an enormous privilege, something rare and beautiful. And though I wish my writing partner were here with me and we were experiencing it together, the only direction life allows is forward – that’s what Dad would have said.

Sunday mornings are still difficult. I see Dad in all the familiar places, in the cafes where we used to meet, in the bookshops he used to frequent. When I doubt myself, it’s his voice that still spurs me on. When I worry about failing – the book falling flat or generally embarrassing myself in front of everyone I know – I remember that even that failure would be a privilege. We’re all running out of time and life’s direction is forward. So, I go forward, but I will carry Dad with me still, in all the adventures to come.

Rosemary Hennigan is a writer living in Dublin. Her debut novel, The Truth Will Out, will be published by Orion next March. She is also a lawyer by training, working in advocacy for an NGO.

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