Michael Viney’s gaze reached from his compost heap to the Milky Way, “from his own lovingly tended potato crops to the overgrown lazy-beds with their Famine ghosts across the ridge, from yesterday’s weather back to the ice age”.
That was how his friend the poet Michael Longley recalled him on Saturday at a service to remember the writer, artist, broadcaster and longtime Irish Times columnist who modestly never told friends he was a member of Aosdána or of the Royal Irish Academy.
His next-door neighbour in Thallabawn, Co Mayo, farmer Paddy Ruane, remembered Michael Viney differently but with no less affection at a service to celebrate Viney’s life at the Lakelands Crematorium, in Cavan on Saturday.
Paddy reckoned that he and his own father, Michael, were the first locals to greet “the man in the cottage” when he arrived as “a refugee” from Fleet Street, the then home of newspapers in London.
“He was a well-spoken, friendly man and always had time for a chat,” Ruane recalled. He drew knowing giggles when he remarked that while Viney had a keen interest in farming and always liked to help with the silage, he wasn’t a lot of use in the bog: “He wasn’t great at the turf but he learned how to cut – eventually.”
Celebrant Tricia Hudson told the gathering that when Michele Viney was a little girl she often asked her parents “who is coming to dinner” and the invariable reply was “the usual suspects”. This included a potential cast of many artists, poets, journalists, wildlife experts, conservationists and neighbours. A few of those paying tribute recalled that the chat around the dinner table – in a room which Hudson estimated contained about 4,000 books – sometimes got heated.
“We had some great nights in Michael’s house with his wife Ethna,” recalled Ruane who confirmed debate was often lively. “We didn’t always get along on certain things. Michael wouldn’t agree with our type of farming because he could farm on one acre.”
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina were among the gathering in Cavan to support Michael Viney’s wife and soulmate Ethna and their daughter Michele. But there was a marked absence of formality underlined by how the Viney’s French bulldog, Koby, stayed close to Michele throughout the proceedings.
On the wicker casket, a spray of wild flowers included wild iris picked from the field across from Michael and Ethna’s home, a wild rose found in his vegetable patch, vetch and ragged robbin, with rosemary – the herb of rememberance – scattered on top by Michele.
Friend, neighbour, writer and ornithologist David Cabot recalled that when Viney was buying his Co Mayo cottage with what Longley described as its “thorn-edged acre”, he was gazumped by €500, a significant sum in the 1970s, and he worried about whether he should go ahead. “Thank God he did,” said Cabot, who reckoned the landscape inspired so much good work. He also reminded those present that, as a journalist with The Irish Times, Viney showed “his strong social conscience” highlighting before anyone else what Mr Higgins described in his tribute as “the barbarisms being inflicted on young people in industrial and reformatory schools”.
To poet and neighbour Geraldine Mitchell, Viney was a listener “his ego in abeyance to keep all channels clear”. In a tribute, she said he was also a watcher “always seeing what was close, the world his acre, the acre his lens and magnifying glass. His footfall was gentle on the earth.”
Among those who made the journey from Thallabawn was local woman Christina Heneghan who remembered that when her father, Seamus, a lobster and salmon fisherman, caught something no one else wanted “like conger eel”, their soft-spoken neighbour received it graciously as a delicacy.
As a child if she found anything on the beach like eggs or fish bones, her father advised her to ask Viney what it was “because he knew everything and if he didn’t he had a reference book”.
Undertaker Peter Sweeney, who had the privilege of driving Viney on his last journey, recalled thinking as they crossed the Shannon (“just Michael and me”) that he would have enjoyed the journey. “Such a sunny day and the white thorn in full bloom.”
The attendance at the Lakeland’s crematorium also included John Hegarty, chairman of The Irish Times Trust; Shay Garvey, chairman of The Irish Times board; and former colleagues Conor Goodman, deputy editor; Liam Stebbing, online features editor; columnist Paul Gillespie and fashion editor Deirdre McQuillan.
As the time to say farewell came, Hudson said: “You experienced this earth for 90 years and in that time you have touched many hearts. Your determined spirit and incredible strength made a difference to people in ways that maybe you never knew.“
As Longley suggested, he won’t be forgotten. “For myself the name Viney rings out with the sandpiper’s peep from marram grass, or the ravens’ overhead conversation, or the curlews’ chirping beside the lake at evening,” the poet said.