Mourners bid farewell to ‘beguiling’ critic Eileen Battersby

Grieving daughter Nadia pays tribute to mother and friend ‘inspired by generosity’

 

Literary critic, author and journalist Eileen Battersby was a “brilliant”, “beguiling”, “beautiful”, “courageous”, “dynamic” romantic who lived by her principles and eschewed social pretension, her funeral has heard.

“You never took leave of the kingdom of childhood,” said her daughter Nadia in a moving farewell to her mother at St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Co Louth, on New Year’s Eve.

“True to form, you were unique, never subtle, bold as brass,” she told a packed congregation in the restored 18th-century church overlooking the river Boyne.

Mourners at the funeral of Eileen Battersby in Drogheda at St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Co Louth. Photograph: Donall Farmer
Mourners at the funeral of Eileen Battersby in Drogheda at St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Co Louth. Photograph: Donall Farmer

The award-winning former Irish Times literary correspondent – who latterly contributed to the Financial Times and Los Angeles Review of Books among other publications – was en route to feed horses with her daughter when she sustained fatal injuries in a single-vehicle crash in Co Meath on December 22nd.

She died in hospital on December 23rd.

President Michael D Higgins has led the many tributes which have been paid to her by national and international writers, artists, publishers, colleagues and friends.

Nadia recalled a happy atmosphere in the car in those few moments before the crash. Her mother had just sent her last literary review, they had shared a coffee, were listening to “techno” music, and were planning a trip to Prague together – “your first two weeks off in years”, she said.

“And then I lost you . . . ,” she said, expressing gratitude that her mother had sustained no lingering injuries, and had felt no pain.

“ Your heart kept beating for 34 hours, and I . . . was exactly where I needed to be,” Nadia continued.

She described her mother as romantic, who brooked “no pretension”, was “incapable of cunning or guile” and was “disturbed by hypocrisy, inspired by generosity, forgiveness and redemption”.

Qualities of wit, courage, brilliance, vision, loyalty, grace, elegance, and capacity to love imbued her upbringing and “like most romantics, you were very vulnerable”, and easily hurt, she said.

“You never took leave of the kingdom of childhood,” said Nadia, instead finding “purity” in music, art, literature and in the animals that they both loved at their Boyne valley home.

Eileen Battersby’s daughter helps bear her mother’s remains on the final journey. Photograph: Donall Farmer
Eileen Battersby’s daughter helps bear her mother’s remains on the final journey. Photograph: Donall Farmer

“No words can describe the violence of this pain,” she concluded, expressing her grief and regret that her mother would never see her own children.

“No daughter had a better mother . . . ,” she said, turning to her “singular, dynamic friend”, before reading the words of Francis Ledwidge’s poem, Lullaby.

Nadia’s father, former attorney general and barrister John Rogers, paid tribute to Battersby’s “maverick spirit” and her “principled position on the big issues and the everyday”.

She led an “endlessly working life”, he said, recalling her journalistic career which began in London. During a series of memorable interviews for The Irish Times, her method had involved not so much posing questions as “talking about herself”, he said.

It proved highly successful, although it was not a technique he could have employed in his own legal profession, he observed.

Mr Rogers described the high esteem in which she held certain writers, ranging from Joseph Roth to WG Sebald to Dostoevsky, and recalled their detailed walks with Nadia through the archaeologically-rich landscapes of Kildare and Meath.

Eileen Battersby’s daughter Nadia among grieving mourners. Photograph Donall Farmer
Eileen Battersby’s daughter Nadia among grieving mourners. Photograph Donall Farmer

An Irishwoman’s Diary, published in The Irish Times on December 22nd, 2001, encapsulated Eileen’s spirit, he said. In her diary, the journalist recalled how she was driving with Nadia, then aged five, in Co Offaly when the door of a trailer carrying their dogs inadvertently opened.

All dogs were eventually recovered, even a missing puppy after a search of nine miles of bog road”on foot, by bike and by car” into the night. All the while, Nadia had insisted the puppy was alive – “ please keep on looking”.

Reading from Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, Is, Mr Rogers recalled how an argument about it with Eileen convinced him that she did not accept that it was enough to “look on”, and that life was about “engagement and participation”.

Mourners gather at at St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Co Louth, on New Year’s Eve for the funeral of former Irish Times journalist Eileen Battersby. Photograph: Donall Farmer
Mourners gather at at St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Co Louth, on New Year’s Eve for the funeral of former Irish Times journalist Eileen Battersby. Photograph: Donall Farmer

She left “nothing unchallenged”, he said.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 was read by Prof Cecily Kelleher, William Blake’s Tyger, Tyger was read by barrister Frank Callanan, and an extract from Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb was read by editorial director Neil Belton, publisher of Ms Battersby’s recent novel Teethmarks on My Tongue.

Writer and close friend John Banville was moved to tears when reciting Philip Larkin’s poem, Cut Grass:

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.

Music by organists Brian McIvor and David Lambe, pianist Michael Holohan, cellist and organist Claire Fitch, and singers Niamh Browne and Brí­d Ní­ Ghruagín included some of Ms Battersby’s most loved pieces by Chopin and JS Bach – the latter once described by her as “God’s own composer”.

Hymns included the carol, Silent Night, which had informed her last contribution to RTÉ Radio’s Sunday Miscellany – broadcast on Christmas Day.

The service in the Protestant church, dating from the 12th century with centuries old bells - and once attacked by Cromwellian forces as Ms Battersby had recorded in this newspaper- was led by Rev Iain Jamieson.

Her wicker coffin – bedecked in roses, lilies, heather, and with a photograph of her with one of her horses,Sophie – was borne out by her daughter Nadia, with close friends Lauren Savage, Jessica Kinsey, Venetia Taylor, Lydia Roche, Olivia Gray and Sophie Soar.

Chief mourners with Nadia and Mr Rogers were Ms Battersby’s mother, Elizabeth Whiston, sister Elizabeth, brothers Bill and Breffini, and Barry and Ann Battersby.

President Michael D Higgins was represented by his aide-de-camp Comdt Dorothy Donnelly. And among the many in attendance were colleagues from literature and publishing, including Susan Curtis, Katie Donovan, Peter Fallon, Luke Gibbons, Anthony Glavin, Alan Hayes, Sinead MacAodha, Michael McLoughlin, Declan Meade, James Ryan, Ronan Sheehan, Dermot Somers, Gerard Smyth and Jonathan Williams. Friends and neighbours included Johnny Burke from Kiltale, Co Meath, who was due to supply her with hay for her horses on the day she died.

Colleagues from the legal profession included Frank Callanan, Patrick Gageby, Hugh Hartnett, John Maher, former Court of Appeals judge Garrett Sheehan, Mr Justice John Mac Menamin, Jim McCullough, Pól Ó Murchu, Donal Spring and undertaker and solicitor Billy Loughnane.

The Irish Times was represented by Managing Director Liam Kavanagh, Deputy Editor Deirdre Veldon, Human Resources Director Majella Gallagher, Managing Editor (Features) Brian Kilmartin, Picture Editor Brenda Fitzsimons, Arts Editor Hugh Linehan, Deputy Features Editor Róisín Ingle, News Editor Mark Hennessy and Sports Editor Malachy Logan.

Colleagues from past and present in journalism included Sarah Binchy, John Burns, Joe Carroll, Gerard Cavanagh, Carol Coulter, Deaglan de Breadun, NUJ Irish secretary Séamus Dooley, Deirdre Falvey, Michael Foley, Yvonne Haugh, Paul Gillespie, Sarah Geraghty, Bernice Harrison, Joyce Hickey, Mary Maher, Audrey Magee, Helen Meany, Mairin McGrath, Frank Miller, Susan McKay, Orna Mulcahy, Patsey Murphy, Kathy Sheridan, Mary Sheridan, Campbell Spray, Paddy Smyth, Irene Stevenson, Maol Muire Tynan, Joe St Leger, Eddie Longworth, Paul Barry, Carol Kirwan and Sheila Wayman.

Cremation took place at Glasnevin Crematorium.