I knew Steve Dunford for only five years, but it felt like 25. We first met at the French ambassador's Bastille Day party in 2016, when he was one of a group of eccentrics dressed in military costume from the Napoleonic era. Having recently witnessed a bicentennial re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, with 6,000 such enthusiasts from all over Europe, I was fascinated to meet local members of this strange cult.
And sure enough, it turned out that “General Dunford”, as he was known to his legion of admirers, has also been part of the Waterloo spectacular.
But while we chatted, he presented me with a silver lapel pin in the shape of a pike, commemorating 1798, Ireland’s Year of the French. Although I didn’t realise it then, I had just been recruited into his army reserve (albeit as a mere “private”, a station above which I never rose). I would see him present many pins in the years after.
One thing led to another until, on Bastille Day 2018, I found myself being fitted with one of Dunford's collection of uniforms and parading through the French town of Remiremont, home of the real-life General Humbert, who landed in Killala in 1798 and established the short-lived Republic of Connacht.
It was 30 degrees and felt like 40 under our woollen jackets and waistcoats, weighed down by swords and guns and various other bits of bondage gear. But we also marched 6km through the foothills of the Vosges to Humbert’s farm that day.
Then Dunford press-ganged me into joining him on a diplomatic side mission to Plombières-les-bains, a once famous spa town where in 1858, Napoleon III and Count Cavour negotiated a treaty while circling the streets in a carriage. We circled the streets too, driven by the mayor, who treated us to dinner and brought us to the local cinema where the World Cup final was being screened live.
When we got back to Remiremont, thirsty, after a long hot day promoting Mayo and Ireland (Dunford's unofficial job) we looked forward to celebrating the French victory late into the night. Imagine our horror when, instead, the local bourgeoisie went to bed early, as usual, and the pubs closed at 10pm.
As he and I walked the emptying streets in faint hope of finding a shebeen, we met a group of Vosgiennes getting into a car, carrying take-away pints. They were first astonished by the sight of two bedraggled Napoleonic soldiers, then surprised to learn we were Irish.
When I last met him, 10 days ago in the Mayo Hospice, he was in the wars for real
No, they’d never heard of Humbert. But a five-minute history lesson later, Dunford was presenting them with pike pins from his inexhaustible supply. The charmed recipients donated their beers in return. Thus we liberated the last two pints in Remiremont on World Cup night.
Speaking of fish, that was the other thing he got me into. We spent pleasant days on a boat off Killala, where he lived, fishing for ling and mackerel. It was an apt pastime for a man who, in an earlier musical career had earned a small piece of immortality via the Waterboys’ classic album, Fisherman’s Blues.
He happened to be at a party in Spiddal in 1988 when the band improvised a tune that somebody recorded on cassette. It ended up on the album as Dunford’s Fancy. In between fishing trips, there was always another excuse for him lending me a uniform to commemorate something or other. One was when he brought the French back to Mayo for a reciprocal visit in 2018.
Another, in 2019, was when he recreated Humbert’s march from Kilcummin to Castlebar. I joined it for the 23km leg over the Windy Gap. We were all squelching by the end. His commitment to historical detail included organising the heavy rain that had accompanied the 1798 original.
When I last met him, 10 days ago in the Mayo Hospice, he was in the wars for real. But he was in good spirits, surrounded by his loving family, and as usual we were soon laughing despite ourselves. I nearly missed the last train back to Dublin because of him, having to sprint to the station with a heavy backpack now further weighed down by the latest of the books he was always writing, a history of Killala.
I promised a longer visit soon and meant it, not realising how little time there was left.
Hearing of his death on Saturday last, I’m not ashamed to say I cried. Then I remembered his book, still in the bag, and belatedly read the dedication to “Private McNally”. It was in the past tense. “Thanks for all the madness – it was a blast,” he wrote, and signed off: “Your friend Steve Dunford (formerly General).”