I got the call dreaded by emigrants: my da was poorly. There were no flights

Dubliner Bernard Rorke: On Covid-19 lockdown in Budapest, I could do nothing but wait

Bernard Rorke as a baby in his father arms and his mother in 1959 in Dublin. Photograph: Bernard Rorke

Bernard Rorke as a baby in his father arms and his mother in 1959 in Dublin. Photograph: Bernard Rorke

 

Then came the phone call dreaded by every emigrant. It was my brother on the line, saying the nursing home had phoned to say Da was poorly and to prepare ourselves. On lockdown in Budapest, with all direct flights between here and Dublin long since stopped, I could do nothing but wait for the inevitable news that my father had died peacefully from a long-term illness in the night.

A swift and private funeral is the new order in the time of Covid-19 restrictions, with memorial services postponed until after the coronavirus pandemic. It was warming to hear that as the hearse passed our old family home in Raheny, the neighbours all came out, lined the road and clapped by way of farewell. As a family we derived comfort from knowing how much the dedication of the health care staff at the nursing home added to his quality of life in the last couple of years. Deprived of our customary rituals of mourning, socially isolating in another country, all my wife Mariann, his three granddaughters and I could do in our Budapest kitchen was light a candle in his memory, and reminisce.

I have fleeting memories of summertime in the 1960s – as soon as my Da slept off his night shift as a printer, he’d drive all us kids out to Portmarnock beach in his grey Morris Minor, and we’d sing the Black Velvet Band and Off to Dublin in the Green at the tops of our voices, yelping in delight as the car flew over the bridge bump in the road.

As a kid in the 1960s, TV was a kind of magic. I vividly recall sitting between him and my Mam , and feeling spellbound as we watched the RTÉ’s Easter Rising drama Insurrection. More relaxed viewing included the Man from UNCLE, the Fugitive, Green Acres and the Lucy Show. He loved soccer, and I can remember winning sixpence betting against him on England winning the 1966 World Cup. Thinking back, it must have been a blow for him when one day I told him I didn’t want to go any more rainy day matches in Tolka Park to watch Drums get beaten again and again. Luckily my younger brothers shared his love for the beautiful game.

The 1970s was a bitter decade, but he eased it somewhat for me by suggesting I go to Sandymount High School, which was a secular run, co-ed school where corporal punishment was banned. It was also the decade when we bonded over politics, and a shared regard for James Connolly and Jim Larkin. He took me to my first anti-apartheid demonstration, and I remember being awestruck hearing Kader Asmal address the crowd. In the years that followed, we’d march together on many May Days, pickets and protests. I remember him and me covering my mother when mounted police, swinging long batons, charged the picketing printers and protesting crowds outside Rupert Murdoch’s print plant in Wapping, east London.

The late Barney Rorke working as a printer.
The late Barney Rorke working as a printer.

I admired my Da. He was a democratic socialist and a left-wing trade union leader, who also served as the workers’ representative in the Labour Court. I learned from him the importance of volunteering and doing the right thing, without being a pain about it. In his retirement, he was very committed to his work with the Samaritans, and enthusiastic about prison visits. I learned much from him about mental health issues among the many young men who end up doing time in prison. I’m forever grateful that as kids we were reared to be proud of being working class and to reject all forms of prejudice.

When the time came for me to emigrate in the mid-1980s, not much was said the morning he drove me to the Dún Laoghaire ferry terminal. But I remember him being taken aback at the sheer numbers of parents waving off their children. “It’s shocking, it’s as bad as the fifties,” he said, giving me a final hug before I got on the boat. When I disembarked in Holyhead, I was taken aside by British detectives to be searched and questioned. My vague replies to repeated enquiries about where I was going, who I knew and what I intended to do in London, irritated them no end. The truth was I didn’t have much of a clue and less of a plan.

The late Barney Rorke (L) with his son Bernard (C) and wife Kay (R) in Budapest castle in May 2015. Photograph: Bernard Rorke
The late Barney Rorke (L) with his son Bernard (C) and wife Kay (R) in Budapest castle in May 2015. Photograph: Bernard Rorke

Over the next 35-odd years I watched the late birth of modern Ireland from afar, with more than a little fascination. After a somewhat unsettled decade-and-a-half in London, I eventually settled in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, and a city my parents came to love. Now I’m the proud Da of three young daughters who tell me they’re not half this or half that, but fully Hungarian, fully Irish and fully antifascist.

It was sad that I couldn’t get home to say that last goodbye to my Da, but Barney Rorke is remembered with much love here in Budapest. As soon as the time is right and our respective countries shift beyond lockdown, we’ll all return to Dublin for a proper memorial to celebrate the life of a man you don’t meet every day.

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