Seamus Culleton says the hardest part about losing his sister Alice earlier this month was that none of their family could be with her in her final moments.
Alice Kennedy (83), originally from Clonaslee, Co Laois, died from Covid-19 on April 1st in a London hospital.
A former chairwoman of the Irish Elderly Advice Network in London, Ms Kennedy was described as a "stalwart" of the London-Irish community by the Irish Ambassador to the UK, Adrian O'Neill, and "a most noble daughter of Ireland" by President Michael D Higgins.
"We're devastated, absolutely devastated," her younger brother says, speaking from his home in Kilcormack, Co Offaly.
Life in London
Ms Kennedy moved to London in 1962 and worked at the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street for almost 40 years.
She met her husband, Frank, originally from Lorrha, Co Tipperary, in the city. He died more than 10 years ago.
The fourth-youngest in a family of 12, Ms Kennedy is survived by her brothers Seamus (79), Christy (74) and Michael (80), who all live in Ireland.
“We don’t believe it yet,” Seamus Culleton said. “She was extremely lively and very active, and now to think she’s just gone. It’s hard to believe.”
Ms Kennedy was admitted to hospital on March 25th having shown flu-like symptoms and died a week later.
“I had been getting daily reports from the doctors that they were very impressed with her,” Mr Culleton said. “Then on Monday they told me she was slipping back and they were finding it very hard to hold onto her. She died on the Wednesday.
“I told the hospital I’d like to have a priest with her and they said no problem at all. The priest was with her when she died, that was some consolation to us.
“It really killed us, not being there with her. She had dozens of friends in London and family here but we had to stay home.”
Ms Kennedy was also heavily involved with the London Irish Pensioners’ Choir and the Irish Pensioners of East London Forum.
Following her death, Mr Culleton received a letter from President Michael D Higgins to say he had met Ms Kennedy on a number of occasions in recent years.
“Alice epitomised what is best in Ireland’s diaspora, having made such a valuable contribution over several decades as an active leader within London’s Irish community,” Mr Higgins wrote.
“She worked tirelessly for others in her adoptive city, with the interests of the most vulnerable closest to Alice’s heart. It is poignant, but perhaps not surprising, that her concern in recent weeks was to ensure that the most vulnerable of London’s Irish community were kept safe from Covid-19, the disease to which Alice herself was to succumb.”
The Irish Chaplaincy in London said Ms Kennedy stood out because of her “constant, warm smile and her beautiful charm”. They said tributes had been flowing in “from near and far” remembering Ms Kennedy.
“There have been dozens of people in touch,” Mr Culleton added. “It’s unbelievable, the phone didn’t stop ringing the day after she died.
“But that was Alice, she was an amazing person and moved in every kind of circle . . . I was so close to her.
“When Frank died I was worried about her and we rang each other every Saturday morning. We kept in touch that way, we had a great relationship.
“She had a great relationship with all of us, she kind of tied us all together.”
Ms Kennedy’s family are trying to get her remains back to Ireland for a private funeral.
"We're not sure how long it will take to get her body back. Sally Mulready [chief executive of the Irish Advice Network] has been helping out.
"There's talk about having a celebration Mass for Alice in England when all this is over . . . It's hard to believe everything that's happening really, they are terrible times."