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Postcard from Ireland: the Passing of a Matriarch

December 10, 2017

Last week, Ireland had one of its rare moments in the international media spotlight, as Theresa May struggled to satisfy the Irish government and her obdurate partners in the north over the issue of what kind of border will exist between the two Irelands post-Brexit.

I was in the country for an entirely different reason: to attend the funeral of my mother-in-law Blaithín Meade in a country town thirty miles from Dublin.

Blaithín was a mother of six, a school teacher, music teacher and a tireless worker for many local charities. She died after an illness that caused her to spend the last ten weeks of her life in hospital. Like many mothers – especially Irish ones – she was the hub of her family, even more so in the fifteen years since the death of her husband Pat.

I was at Pat’s funeral as well, but this was before the death of my own parents in England, so I had no opportunity to compare different approaches to death in the two islands.

When my mother died three years ago, it took three weeks to book the church and the crematorium, and for the four of us siblings to agree a date for the funeral.

In Ireland, things work very differently. Funerals are held within a maximum of three days from the person’s death, regardless of who can or cannot attend. And so it was with Blaithín.

I arrived at the family home the night before the funeral. The wake had taken place on that day. Blaithín lay in an open coffin in the front room. A stream of visitors came to the house to pay their respects. Tea, cakes and sandwiches were on hand.

If you’ve ever seen movies in which an Irish wake is portrayed, you might immediately think of men like Milo O’Shea or Brendan Behan with cloth caps supping Guinness long into the night, occasionally bursting into song. That may still happen deep in the country, but not in Navan.

When I arrived late at night I looked at the condolence book, where visitors had signed their names. There were two pages of names, which seemed quite a lot. But that was by no means all. I looked further and found another six. Around two hundred people stopped by in the course of one day. Each would stay for between ten minutes and half an hour, say goodbye to Blaithín, pay their respects to the family and leave.

By the time I arrived, my wife and her brothers and sisters sat in a state of numb exhaustion.

Then there was the funeral itself. The rituals started with the removal of the coffin. The priest came into the house, said a prayer, and after the relatives had had the chance to say goodbye, the coffin was closed, and carried out to the hearse.

A slow procession headed for the church. As the hearse passed, people in the street instinctively stopped, faced the coffin, crossed themselves and waited for it to pass before resuming their business.

As with funerals more or less anywhere, loved ones carried the coffin on to a trolley, and it moved into into the church, where hundreds of mourners were waiting.

Inside the church, an innovation. The parish has installed a webcam, which allows anyone not able to attend in person to log in and view the ceremony. And so they did, from Galway in the west of Ireland to America, Australia, Spain and Germany. One set of relatives, who were delayed by traffic at the start of the mass, even watched it in their car.

It fell to me to introduce a sweet little tribute from Blaithín’s children, wherein each carried up an object that symbolised one aspect of her life. A book, a sheet of music, a teddy bear and a family photo.

On the day when the border controversy was at its peak, I had to resist the temptation to introduce myself to the mourners as a visitor from the land of Brexit, and to tell them how pleasant it was to be among sane people again. But I didn’t, because this occasion wasn’t about me. God knows what Donald Trump would have said.

The funeral mass took about an hour, with the usual words of comfort from the priest. He was a young guy with jet-black hair and a long beard. Afterwards, a few people agreed that he would look the part in a black turban, Ayatollah-style. Or perhaps in the regalia of a Russian Orthodox priest. One denizen of Islington even compared him to a Shoreditch hipster. Whatever – he was impressive, eloquent and compassionate.

After the customary conversations outside the church, we then made our way to the graveyard. Cremations are not common in Ireland except in the cities where burial space is limited.

At the grave, more prayers, a piece of Blaithín’s favourite music and a poem read by the undertaker, a family friend. Tears and linked arms as the coffin was lowered into the grave. More holy water, flowers from her sister and a handful of earth.

Then those of us who made it to the grave ceremony moved on to a local hotel, where a three-course lunch big enough to sink a battleship awaited.

And that was what my Irish relatives would describe as a decent funeral, as indeed it was.

But what was just as impressive was the way the family pulled together during Blaithín’s last weeks in hospital. Not a day went past when there weren’t two or three visits from her children and grandchildren, from her sister and brother-in-law in Galway, who were themselves not in the best of health, and from others who knew her well. Not ten-minute visits either – hours sitting by her bed, holding her hand, helping her with physio that they hoped would pave the way to the recovery that never came. Never giving up hope, even as the patient took one step forward and two steps back.

What made the difference was that five out of her six children live locally. That would have been quite normal fifty years ago, but less so now. After all, Ireland has always been a land of diaspora, whose children spread their wings and end up far from home. But in Blaithin’s case, those who had lived abroad – apart from my wife – eventually returned. She was surrounded by loved ones who cared for her until the end.

As I played my limited part in the proceedings, I kept remembering my mother’s funeral. It was a far quieter affair, which reflected her personality – far more introverted than Blaithín, not someone who made friends so easily. She was 94 when she died, ten years older than my mother-in-law. Most of her life-long friends had gone before her.

She spent her last few years in a care home, slowly succumbing to dementia, whereas Blaithín was sharp as a pin to the end. Three of my mother’s four children lived some way away, and for various reasons were not able to visit her often. The burden of care fell largely on my wife, and on me when I was in the country.

Many of her fellow-residents in the care home rarely had visitors, which we found desperately sad. When we visited, we took our dog, and made the rounds of the old ladies sitting aimlessly in their armchairs.

At her funeral there were far less mourners – ourselves, a few family friends and some who knew her from the local church. The wake, such as it was, consisted of light refreshments in the church after the visit to the crematorium.

Two very different endings to life. I’m not saying either was typical of the countries in which they took place, and it would be wrong to draw conclusions from them about the cultures of England and Ireland. Blaithín lived her life in a country town. My mother in a city. A couple of years ago, a close friend died in rural Essex, and his funeral was similar to Blaithín’s. No doubt some urban funerals in Ireland would resemble my mother’s.

There are not many upsides to death, unless it serves to release us from pain and suffering. Yet at the funeral of someone who has lived to old age, we console each other with the thought that they lived a full life and a good one, even if in some cases – though not in Blaithín’s – they haven’t.

With her passing we, the children and in-laws, have become the next generation that will be expected to go. It’s an uneasy feeling when you realise that one of you is likely to be next. Personally, if someone came to me and gave me the choice of not knowing when I would die, or the certainty that I would live to 87, I’d take the latter, even if I might feel differently as the time approached.

Whether you leave this life quietly and hardly noticed, or your passing is accompanied by a cast of thousands, as long as you live your full span, then your loved ones should be grateful that you were so privileged, when others in the past and still today are cut down before their time by untreatable disease, war and the capricious intervention of accidents.

If Blaithín’s funeral followed time-honoured traditions, so did her death – surrounded by people who loved her and cared deeply for her. What more could you ask for?

From → Postcards, Social, Travel, UK

  1. Elif permalink

    Enjoyed reading this very much, Steve. So glad you write…

  2. Thanks Elif. Hope you and yours are well. S

  3. Sorry Steve but I’ve been a bit “otherwise disposed” lately as is commonly said, and have some catching up on your blog to do. Oh boyo yes I do. This is a masterly and deeply moving piece of writing. Like Elif who left a comment, I too am so glad that you write. Thank you, and RIP Blaithin Meade. Of course I never knew her personally, as I don’t know you or Elif personally either, but this is one Welshman who shall raise a good pint of Guinness to the woman’s memory this very day, and to your fine writing as well, which allows us all to know you in a kind of way perhaps?… And a very kind and enjoyable way that is. Diolch yn Fawr (Thanks, again, in Welsh). I shall raise my glass in this very pub in Hastings, and if you’re ever around this way I’ll be more than happy to buy you a pint or two as well brother…

  4. Thanks Ronnie! Haven’t been to Hastings for a while, but you never know… S

  5. Hope so. It’s not just The Guardian that reckons The Crown is the best pub in Britain, the youngest of my three kids, my daughter Rhian, thinks it is too!… And they do serve a cracking pint of Guinness 🙂

  6. So how come the other two don’t?

  7. ??? The other two what?

  8. Kids!

    • Hahaha! Of course. I forgot to tell you, I’m a moron. I thought you meant the other two pubs, which don’t serve a good pint of Guinness, when there are about 200 in Hastings which don’t. Hahaha! To answer your question non-moronically, my other two, both boys – Rhys and Kerry, haven’t visited Hastings since I moved here last May, but I reckon they’ll love The Crown too Steve 🙂 🙂

    • Thank you so much Debra. Whenever someone close to me passes away, I try and make sense of the loss by writing about the person, and looking at different aspects of death. Fortunately there have not been too many occasions thus far! Steve

  9. Thank you for a beautiful post about the funeral, and I’m sorry for your loss. I loved this line that you ended with: “If Blaithín’s funeral followed time-honoured traditions, so did her death – surrounded by people who loved her and cared deeply for her. What more could you ask for?” This is so true. Being surrounded by people who loved her and cared for her must have been a large parting gift.

  10. P.S. Talking of morons, have you read this yet?

    • Yes, saw that. He replied by denying that he watches TV 4-8 hours a day. Are we to assume it’s ten hours a day??? S

  11. S’pose so, when he isn’t otherwise occupied playing golf, sexually assaulting women and racially abusing minorities, lying, stealing, bragging, cocking America and the world up, and furiously tweeting in the early hours about how brilliant and courageous he’s being in all of those things… The best ever, ever, ever…

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