Two weeks ago in London, I got a call that changed everything
Every emigrant knows they will some day get that dreaded call from home
Paul Breen’s father Eugene and mother Maureen at a recent wedding.
Paul Breen with his father Eugene: ‘The reality of my father’s death will hit again next time I go back to Ireland, when there’s only one parent in the house and nobody to make conversation with about Mayo’s chances of winning the All Ireland.’
Everyone who lives outside their own country knows some day they will get the call telling them what they don’t want to hear. This is a call like no other - death’s cold and unexpected knock on the door of routine.
You might be walking the streets of London or Baltimore, as in Liam Reilly’s lyrics for The Flight of the Earls. My father loved such songs, as he loved everything about Irish culture; he never understood why anyone could leave his beloved island.
This story is about him, even though I never expected to be telling it so soon, without warning.
Liam Reilly’s song starts out in a lonely waiting room, listening to familiar sounds in the moments before catching a transatlantic plane and embarking on a new life. I know the intensity of that experience. It’s all-consuming; thoughts and memories flash through your mind about what’s gone before and what’s coming after.
Most people who have left Ireland know this sense of excitement, hope, fear - and perhaps even bitterness - all at the same time. Every sensation is concentrated in the heart at the moment; sadness, nostalgia, hunger, a quest for betterment.
You’ve probably said goodbye to friends and family as you left, making small talk about when you’ll see them again. My father used to always say, “ring us when you get there”.
Writing those words, I feel a sudden struggle with present and past tense. That’s strange for somebody who makes a living out of language as I do, through writing and teaching.
Two weeks ago, I got the call that has changed the tense of life ever since. My father was driving home to Fermanagh from a holiday in the south when he suddenly pulled the car over on the roadside and had a heart attack, at only 69 years of age.
Meanwhile over in London, where I have lived and worked for nearly a decade, the sun was shining on a beautiful summer’s afternoon. With nothing particular in mind, I set out on a train journey across the city, to do some sightseeing. My wife was working that afternoon so I had time to kill.
I’d reached the posh surroundings of Kensington and Chelsea when I got a call from my brother to say something was terribly wrong. He couldn’t paint an accurate picture of what was happening because the circumstances were uncertain. Words came in fragments, like bits of a broken jigsaw: “father, car, ambulance, stop, drive, road, signs not good”.
As I walked over London’s vast and lonesome Albert Bridge, things didn’t make sense, especially the speed of events. One minute I was looking up at Chelsea’s posh riverside apartments. The next I’d been pummelled with an image of my father dying on the roadside. Even that was a haze, for it hadn’t been clear if he’d been injured in a car crash, or suffered a heart attack while driving. Even my mother, who’d been in the car with him, didn’t know for sure.
Looking out on the Thames bathed in sunshine, I wondered if it was all a dream. I made my way towards Victoria’s bustling train station, passing the actress Helen Worth coming out of her house. It still felt like I was dreaming, wide-awake and walking.
But as I entered Victoria train station, there was no route back to a time before the phone call from my brother. The reality was confirmed when he called back, after I had travelled a couple of tube stops to my office. It was a journey through purgatory on a sticky sweltering underground, which reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s poems about these dark and dripping tunnels which echo all the hidden parts of history that come back to us in times of grief.
Though nobody said the word “dead” I was told to book a flight. I should come home at once. I’d need to be there as soon as possible. The whole family should be home, and they’d see me there later in the evening along with other relatives, once the calls were made.
I bought a ticket to Belfast, and started out on the slow road home. I wasn’t sure how my brain, in shock, might react if I had a drink. I had to stay sober and sensible, even if I could find little sense in having set out on a train across London in the afternoon, and ending the evening heading across the water to Ireland.
The hard part was keeping control. I had to switch off mentally and emotionally, and focus on getting through each leg of the return. Going back to the house, packing, getting to the airport, passing through security, boarding the plane, sucking down the slow seconds of the journey, and going out the other end of this dark and surreal tunnel into Belfast Airport.
From there my nephew picked me up, and we drove to the small village in Fermanagh where my father was from and spent his whole life, unlike several brothers and sisters who joined the emigrant trail to America and England.
Born in 1947, he’d built up a drainage business in this area, and acquired a reputation as a man who rose early and got things done without fuss, often at personal expense. Going up the misty, pine-flanked road out of that village and into the countryside, past the Catholic Chapel and the graveyard where he would be buried, the reality began to dawn.
Time moved slow. The cold reserve of London’s train carriages gave way to the warm claustrophobic sadness of a wake house without a body, as now happens in cases of sudden death.
My father had suffered a massive heart attack on the road between Garrison and Belleek, towns on the Irish border, now memorials to the frail boundary between life and death.
My brain found it hard to migrate from England’s choked emotion to the realities of an Irish country house stripped of its figurehead. After the first onset of grief, part of my brain still expected my father to walk in the door, among all these people gathered in his kitchen in my mother’s company.
It was next morning before my brain got up to speed, and out of the compartments that I had bolted shut in London. I wept more violently then than I ever have before.
The days that followed brought visits to a funeral home, the transfer of the remains to the family home, and an old style Irish wake. I saw people I hadn’t seen in years, and others I’d never met before. Neighbours came from far and near to pay their respects, from both sides of the northern community. Even Father Brian D’Arcy, a friend of my father’s and another very proud Fermanagh man, gave an oration at the side of his coffin telling how selfless he had been in so many aspects of his life.
Three days burned away in blessed candles, trays of scones, and hushed voices flickering in a furnace of grief with the doors left open in public view. This was communal grief with nothing private, hidden, or reserved. Over three days, hundreds of people passed through the house that, like the family dog, still seemed to be lying in wait for the return of its figurehead.
Each stage passed slow and quick at the same time, in that surreal haze which had followed me from Chelsea to Carrickaheenan. After the funeral on the rainy Wednesday morning, when the crowds had all drifted off to normality, I had my first beer in nearly a week. It didn’t help to rationalise things or act as a sponge for the shock. It just felt like another small, slow step back to regular life.
At the weekend I returned to London. I’ve had to compartmentalise the grief at times, but in a way that doesn’t hide it, or push it to the margins. I found many people at work and in my neighbourhood far more sympathetic and compassionate than we might have expected from the “big city” stereotype. The great metropolis of London could have seemed a cold environment for grieving but the warmth of people as individuals has been just the same as those nights in a wake house across the water in Fermanagh.
The reality of my father’s death will hit again next time I go back to Ireland, when there’s only one parent in the house and nobody to make conversation with about Mayo’s chances of winning the All Ireland.
I didn’t think I’d have made this journey so soon, so suddenly. It’s one that as emigrants we always expect in our worst fears but we anticipate something in the far distance, not a moment that comes upon us all too soon like a snowfall in the autumn.
All those emotions mentioned so poetically in The Flight of the Earls are magnified a hundred times when you lose someone close. The human heart, in the end, is both a strong and a fragile thing. I felt the full range of its emotions on this journey I never expected to make when I set out for a walk that Sunday morning in London.
Maybe, as emigrants, we have a slight advantage over those who stayed behind, of saying those small goodbyes every time we leave our Irish homes. It just takes time to realise there will be no more “call us when you get there”. Wherever the dead go to when they pass out of this life, they don’t call to say the plane has landed, or that they’ve had a great weekend and are looking forward to the next time they’re back.