How my wife’s death has helped Ireland become more inclusive

Anne Holliday donated her body to science and would have been proud of the plot in Glasnevin

My smart, sexy, funny and courageous wife, Anne Holliday, died of lung cancer four years ago last Thursday. We loved each other very much for all of the 25 years that we lived together with our tribe of rescue cats.

We loved every moment, from waking up with our manoeuvrability restricted by cats snuggled against us, to laughing and lovemaking on holidays in Paris and the Caribbean, to watching countless DVD box sets when Anne was tired from chemotherapy.

We also worked together to help build a peaceful, liberal and caring Ireland, challenging the influence of the Catholic Church on Irish law in areas like contraception, divorce and abortion, and opposing terrorism from all sides in Northern Ireland. If she were still alive Anne would be immersed in the marriage-equality referendum campaign.

For some reason, this year I am more often thinking something that my late father, Michael, often said in the years after my mother, Mary, died. He said it most eloquently at our wedding, which we celebrated after Anne was diagnosed with terminal cancer.


He said, “The one regret that I have is that another marvellous lady, Michael’s mother, isn’t here to give what I know would have been her nod of approval for this union between Anne’s family and the Nugent family.”

It is only really now, four years after Anne’s death, that I fully appreciate the strength of emotion that my father was conveying with that phrase. Often now, when I am doing something that I know Anne would have enjoyed, I wish that she had lived long enough to have experienced it.

And it is not just milestone events, like the return of I, Keano to the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, where I am meeting people whom I last met when Anne was alive, or the house renovations we had planned before Anne's diagnosis, after which she put them on her "list of things you can do after I am dead!"

It is also many simple day-to-day moments, like seeing two of our cats licking each other’s heads clean, or the click of the heating coming on the morning and knowing that we still have an hour in bed before we have to get up.

Now, when lying in bed with the cats, I remember possibly the most profound thing Anne said while she was dying. We were lovingly cuddled in bed with three of our cats, and Anne said, “You know, I’m really going to miss this.” Then she paused, and corrected herself. “Actually, I’m not going to miss this. You are going to miss this.”

I also wish that Anne were still alive whenever her sister Carrie or other family visit from Scotland, and whenever I meet Maggie, Clair, the two Marys or any of Anne’s close friends from work or politics or our neighbourhood.

My most irrational instance of this emotion came last September, when Anne was buried, three years after donating her body to the medical school of Trinity College Dublin.

In a positive move towards an inclusive Ireland, the Dublin Medical Schools – those of Trinity, University College Dublin and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland – had respected Anne’s wish for a secular burial and, at my request, they had replaced the decades-old religious memorial stone at their burial plot in Glasnevin Cemetery with a new, neutral, inclusive one.

This means that, from now on, when anybody donates their body for medical education and research in Dublin, their loved ones can remember them at their grave in accordance with their personal beliefs, whether those are religious or atheistic, and nobody need feel excluded or marginalised.

As I stood over the burial plot on the day of Anne’s funeral I looked at the new stone, with its inclusive secular inscription, and thought, I wish Anne had lived to see that stone: she would have been so proud. Then I realised that she could never have seen it, as it was there only because she had died.

I sometimes wonder if I feel these emotions more strongly than a religious person might, because I have no expectation of seeing Anne again in an afterlife. I doubt it. I suspect that most religious people feel the same emotions regardless of their beliefs.

But I am happy that Anne is still helping others through the only afterlife that we know actually exists, not in a comforting but untestable imagined heaven but in the reality of our memories of how she lived and loved, and our continuation of her life’s work for a peaceful, liberal and caring Ireland.

Michael Nugent is an author and playwright, including, most recently, with Arthur Mathews and Paul Woodfull, of I, Keano, and is chairman of Atheist Ireland