Father’s Day: My father before he was a dad

Malachy Clerkin, Amy Huberman, Una Mullally and more on their fathers as young men

Malachy Clerkin on his father, Oliver

I had never seen this photograph before Mam dug it out for me, last week, and now I can’t stop looking at it. He was never a poser, my dad. At least I never knew him to be one. He was always smart, and he liked to dress well – a trait he passed on to his youngest son, if not his eldest. But he wasn’t the look-at-me type.

Yet the Oliver Clerkin in this photo appears to have notions. He's 21 in it, about three years short of my arrival as the first of his four children. He seems to be deliberately not looking at the camera. This was a wedding at a hotel in Co Louth in 1975. Surely everybody looked at the camera back then, didn't they?

It's so at odds with the person he became, a man whose tolerance for what he would term That Shite was hilariously low

But, no, here’s the bould Ollie looking like he was posing for an album cover. I should point out that the pipe wasn’t an affectation. He continued take a fill of it until the day said youngest son was born, in January 1991. But the rest of it – the GAA kneel, the flexed arm, the ever-so-slight hint of a smirk – is surely a put-on.

I love it. Mostly because it’s so at odds with the person he became, a man whose tolerance for what he would term That Shite was hilariously low. If he were alive, I’m guessing, he’d take a dim enough view of its publication.


Of course, I should have known there was more to it. I asked Mam about it, and it turned out I’d been looking at the wrong thing all along.

“It’s on the grounds of Castle Bellingham on June 10th 1975,” she texted. “He knelt down beside the bush and said we’d have one like it in the garden some day . . . And we have.”

Amy Huberman on her father, Harold

The son of a Polish immigrant, my Dad Harold Huberman was born in London in 1938. These photos were taken in 1942 when he was 4 years old. He had just returned home from Doncaster where he had been evacuated for 7 months, away from his parents and two brothers when the air raids were hitting London. He remembers the day his Mother took him on the train, a number around his neck, clutching on to her hand. And he says he will never forget the moment she had to leave him. She returned to bring him home when it was safer, saying whatever the uncertainty, at least they would all be together. The heartbreak of that overwhelms me.

The spirit of that little boy in the photos has never left my Dad. I can still see that glint in his eye, that cheeky grin, that curiosity. My Dad has always been a joke teller. He always has and still does, communicate in jokes. So if I was ever to get a telling off from my Dad, I knew it was serious.

After leaving school early and later going back and putting himself through college, he went on to become a successful fashion designer running his own company. I’ve always valued his tenacity, his conviction and commitment, his bravery, his decisiveness, his spirit of adventure and his belief in, at the very least, simply trying.

He has lived with Parkinson’s for the last 6 years which has come with a barrage of limiting challenges. He has always loved art and expressing his creativity and I admire his courage and willing to still paint, despite the shake in his hand, despite the fact that he can no longer write, despite everything else. I am lucky to know him. I am lucky to call him Dad.

Patrick Freyne on his father, Walter

This is a picture of my dad when he had just joined the cadet school in the Curragh Camp in 1966. He was straight out of school. He’s closer in age to my seven-year-old nephew in this photo than my own current age. I’m not sure what he’s thinking here but I imagine it’s, “Soon I’ll get to shoot a gun”. And who could blame him?

It was cool having an army dad. He was in the Rangers. He sometimes wore a pistol in a shoulder holster and would, when I was in my teens, ring me from a field telephone on a helicopter before jumping into the Irish Sea. For a long time I wanted to be in the army and collected army paraphernalia that I’d find around the Curragh Camp, but at a certain point I veered off into artier pursuits and a lifetime of being completely impractical (as I have to keep explaining: my mind is on higher things).

Dad was always supportive of my arty nonsense, because that’s the kind of person he is. He shows affection by doing stuff. He cooks; he cleans; he babysits; he does tax returns; he cleans gutters; he builds extensions; he walks casually by carrying a tray of concrete blocks over his head followed by a three-year-old grandchild clutching a drill (he wouldn’t trust me with a drill).

As everyone gets older they realise that their parents are human. However, I am still confident that my dad could beat up your dad and am willing to set up some sort of “dad fight club” to prove it. Contact me at the usual email address.

Maia Dunphy on her father, Tom

This photograph is of my dad, Tom, on his confirmation day, in New Ross in 1952. I'm not sure if his half-smile is apprehensive or because he was planning some mischief. I hope it was the latter. Dad was born in a time when you just had to get on with life, irrespective of what happened.

When he was just four his own father passed away suddenly. I have no idea how my granny coped. She then lived with her mother-in-law and ran Dunphy's shop on the quays in New Ross, and my dad went to boarding school in Wexford. He dreamed of weekends at home and my granny's roast dinners and apple pies, which were a welcome respite from the school's grisly offerings. I worry that he's too thin in this photo because of them.

He is so progressive and has an innate empathy for people that can't be learnt. I grew up never thinking that being female was an obstacle to be overcome

Dad was always a grafter – although the doodles in a couple of his school books I still have might imply otherwise – but is phenomenally modest. I recently found an album, collated by my granny, of postcards and photos from around the world that he had sent her while working as an auditor in the 1960s. It’s extraordinary, yet he had never shown it to me before.

He has been so successful and is hugely respected by his family and peers alike. He was, and remains, so progressive in his thinking and has an innate awareness and empathy for people that can’t be learnt. I grew up never thinking that being female was an obstacle to be overcome.

I get my sense of humour and love of travel from my dad. He has always had a propensity for adventure and a bit of messing. There are stories I could tell, but he’d kill me.

I have never doubted how lucky I am to have Tom Dunphy as a father. But what has been revelatory is what an extraordinary grandad he has turned out to be to his namesake Tom. We love him more than he will ever know.

Seamas O’Reilly on his father, Joe

I love this photograph of my dad. We reckon he’s about 20, but, like all men in old photographs, he could be anything from 17 to 55. My dad doesn’t much like it when I make humorous generalisations about olden days, but I’m sure even he would agree that, back then, every Irishman looked as if he’d just come from a prayer meeting, and was on his way to cowproof a gate or take part in a leaping contest.

This photo represents a lot of things I love about my dad: his industrial work ethic; his love of all things mechanical; and a great head shape for a pair of sunglasses. I’ve spent my life in awe of these qualities, the last especially. If I wear sunglasses I look shifty, as if I’ve travelled from two parishes over to buy specialty magazines.

When I was five my mother died, and it was left to my father to bring us all up

At this time my dad was working as a civil engineer in Enniskillen, returning each evening to his parents in Belleek. Once home he would routinely put in a shift on the farm. Many years later the engineering job would take my parents (and their eight unremarkable children) to Derry. It was here that they'd have their ninth child, me, as well as two more children (both of whom are, again, best described as unremarkable).

When I was five my mother died, and it was left to my father to bring us all up. My father straightened up, put his shoulder to the wheel and got on with it, and he did all this with the maturity, grace and unerring good humour that have ever since informed my idea of what it means to be a man. You can infer most of those values from this image of a 20-year-old, just in from eight hours in the office, beaming at the prospect of a sunny evening on a tractor.

My dad’s love for mechanical details means that, even though he can’t remember when it was taken, he can tell me that the machine in question was a Ford Dexta, and shot on an Ilford 127 camera. Recall like this is especially impressive as I don’t believe he has ever addressed me by name without having a stab at six or seven of my siblings’ names first.

I finally ask him who took the picture, after which there is a pause. “Haven’t a clue,” says he. “But do you want to know the licence plate?”

Una Mullally on her father, Brendan

Here's my father, Brendan, in New York in 1973, the year after he and my mum got married. I love it. He looks either as if he's about to start a small-batch coffee roastery in Stoneybatter or as if he has a day off from his job as guitar tech with Haim. I think it's appropriate that this photograph was taken abroad, because my parents are mad into travelling, and instilled that love in me. My mum would have been working for Aer Lingus at the time. They got married in the church at Dublin Airport.

Myself and my siblings never called him Dad. Even his grandchildren call him Brendan, which sounds weirdly formal when a toddler is saying it. I’ve always been close to him, probably because we are quite similar.

I’ve inherited his love of cats, his terrible sense of direction and quality soup-making skills, and an infinite ability to give out about politicians. My childhood was steeped in the colours of his life: pink Leaving Cert papers, mucky football jerseys clogging up our washing machine, beige coffee flasks, his purple ties, his navy Ford Escort, and the greenness of gardening centres.

He pretends to be a pessimist but ultimately is an optimist, which I suppose is the only way to be when you are tied to Cavan football for life

My dad is retired now, but he was an English teacher at Coláiste Eoin in Dublin for ever, as well as the vice-principal, Gaelic football coach and athletics coach. He’s a legend among past pupils, and every time I meet one he shakes my hand that bit harder when he realises I’m Máistir Ó Maolalaidh’s daughter – and yet another story emerges about his unorthodox teaching methods, his brilliant one-liners, or an act of kindness or support he showed to a student.

As I’ve grown older, and got to know him more as an adult, I’ve realised some of his greatest attributes are things my mum shares: a sensitivity to injustice and inequality, and a hatred of cruelty and discrimination. He pretends to be a pessimist, but he sees the best in everyone, is interested in everything, and ultimately is an optimist, which I suppose is the only way to be when you are tied to Cavan football for life.

Damian Cullen on his father, Tom

This photograph of my (future) dad, Tom, and mum, Maureen, was taken at the Ormond Hotel in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, 48 years ago. They were attending a dinner held by Macra na Feirme, a rural youth organisation that my dad was heavily involved in at the time.

It was 1969, a few months before they were married and just before they chose to give up luxuries such as free time, money, silence and their general sanity and become, in the years that followed, the parents of four children.

As I would come to realise in more recent years, when children outnumber adults in a house it’s less about parenting and more about crowd control.

I spent a lot of time in fields with my dad growing up. If they weren't agricultural they were sporting

And although, in the early years, being a dad often seems to be 50 per cent wondering why one of your children looks guilty and 50 per cent trying not to get kneed, elbowed or punched in the balls, I know it is truly about time: what you do with it and who you spend it with. It’s something I learned from my dad.

Being a farmer helped, as my dad spent almost all my formative years no more than a few hundred metres from the farmhouse.

His dad was also a farmer, and his dad, and, well, when Brian Boru left Munster for Dublin 1,000 years ago he probably passed one of my ancestors trying to divert the cavalry on to a neighbour's land.

I spent a lot of time in fields with my dad growing up. If they weren’t agricultural they were sporting. I don’t remember the matches I went to in my very early years – don’t remember the teams, or the score, who scored or who played well, or even who played at all.

But I do remember I was with my dad.

Phillip McMahon on his father, Edward

This photograph was taken on November 27th, 1976, at the Church of the Annunciation in Finglas, in north Dublin. Edward McMahon is marrying Angela Lalor. When I look at my dad in this picture I recognise the strength in his grip and the authoritative gaze. I see a young man who is ready to lean into the world, and I see the wedding ring that now wraps around my finger – and I wonder, too, how a 20-year-old was able to grow that moustache.

Life is about to come at Eddie fast. My older sister will be born an un-Catholic number of months later, and soon after that they'll pack up their Ballymun flat and take their chances across the Irish Sea, in London, where I'll be thought up.

Eddie will spend his entire 20s in Margaret Thatcher's England. Every day he'll fight to provide for his family. He'll graft his way on to building sites and smooth-talk his way into painting rich folk's houses. He'll be spat at for being Irish and interrogated about the IRA. London will be hard, but for two twentysomethings it will also be an extraordinary playground.

In this picture I see a man who is about to burst into Technicolor

I'm struck by my dad's bravery. In this picture I see the brave man who dared to take his family on an adventure and, when it was time, brave enough to take them home again. He returned to Ireland, with Angela and two preteen kids under his arm, as the clock was turning on 1990.

My dad died on Christmas Day 35 years after this picture was taken. I adored him, and I miss him greatly. If I could talk to him today I'd say, Tell us them stories. Tell us about milling Millwall fans around Millwall. About Princess Di on the building site. Tell us about sheltered accommodation in Camden Town, and necking whiskey with the ambulance drivers as Ma went into labour with me. Tell us about cutting your teeth as a young fella in the big smoke, cos it sounds like your London was in Technicolor.

In this picture I see a man who is about to burst into Technicolor.

Frank McNally

The only photograph we have of my father between childhood and married middle age is one of him lining out for the Carrickmacross Emmets GAA team, circa 1937. He's fourth from the right at the back, looking a bit like Stan Laurel.

By the time I knew him he was in his 50s, and his sporting career – which, like most things, he never talked about – was well over. I only remember him ever kicking ball with us once. It stands out because it was so unusual. He was a farmer and so always working, but, like St Paul, he seemed to have put away all childish things by then.

I couldn't talk to my father about anything personal: there was too much distance between us.

Another revelation came in my 20s, when I bought a harmonica, intending to take lessons. “Give me that a minute,” he said and proceeded to play it, fairly well, something that I’d never seen him do previously and that he never repeated.

I couldn't talk to my father about anything personal: there was too much distance between us. But I did drag a few things out of him in later years, when time was scarce, such as learning that his father (whom I never met) had been a deputy sheriff in Montana, which he had also never seen fit to mention.

Other than that we talked about football mainly, although the philosophical alacrity with which he accepted Monaghan's annual failures – he went 40 years without seeing them win even an Ulster championship – used to infuriate me.

He reminds me of something John Updike wrote somewhere about men: that they were simple creatures compared with women, consisting mainly of "silence, stoicism, a few earthy appetites".

My father’s earthiest appetite was tobacco: Mick McQuaid. It was the only present you could ever be sure of him using. We grew up in a cloud of pipe smoke.

I’m a nonsmoker and played lots of football with my kids when they were smaller. I’m also fairly talkative with them, at least compared with him. But as they get noisier, and I get older, I find myself growing quieter. Maybe I passively inhaled some of the silence.

Róisín Ingle on her father, Peter

Here are some things I know about my father, Peter Ingle: he was a beautiful singer and could silence a crowded pub with the first plaintive notes of a Percy French tune. He drove a taxi, but he wasn't very good at it, because if his passengers were going somewhere interesting he was known to abandon the taxi and tag along. He had big hands. Daddy hands. He took mine once when we crossed the road, sometimes walking in the path of cars, as though our mission – a knickerbocker glory on O'Connell Street after he claimed his dole – was more important than theirs.

I tell them that their beautiful singing voices come directly from the man they would have called Grandpa

Recently, this photograph of him – he’s the man on the left – was framed and kindly given to me by Nora, the wife of the little boy he is holding, his nephew Sean, my cousin. I love how young he looks in the photo, how happy and how handsome. He was 18. My two daughters are eight now, the age I was when my father died by suicide. I look at them and see myself. I haven’t told them how he died, but I will one day. Until then I tell them that their beautiful singing voices come directly from the man they would have called Grandpa. Some other things I know: He loved my mother and his eight children “the best”. (He told us in the note.)