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Great men are not always the famous ones

May 4, 2021

Time, once again, to commemorate the life of a person who was never famous except to those who loved him. The other day, my wife lost a beloved uncle. For her, he was the latest and one of the best of many elderly relatives who have passed on in recent years. I, on the other hand, grew up without uncles and aunts. There were a few second cousins dotted around, but as a family, we rarely saw them. Sadly, they ended up as curiosities rather than friends. People with shared genes, yet few shared experiences.

My wife had a very different childhood. She grew up in Ireland as the oldest of six siblings. There were cousins everywhere. The magic number seemed to be six. Six from her father’s twin brother, and six from her mother’s sister. To me, whose relatives were remote and thin on the ground, it seemed her character was formed by many influences beyond those of her parents. A beloved grandmother, uncles and aunts who were also godparents, cousins who were like brothers and sisters, running in and out of each other’s houses or arriving from the other side of the country with great fanfare.

If I could have had a choice of a favourite uncle, I would have had to have selected them from Paula’s tribe. My choice would have been between Aiden Meade, a thoughtful, softly-spoken doctor, who was the twin brother of her father, and Tom Bourke, who married her mother’s sister, Jean.

By the time I met Tom and Jean, their roles as parents of growing children were largely done. The younger ones were still at school, but most of their offspring were out in the world, either at university or into careers. But the family home never stopped being a centre of gravity for a clan whose members ended up at various times in Germany, Spain, Australia, Britain, New Zealand and Dublin.

Tom died last week at the age of 92. He spent part of his youth in London, where he worked as a pharmacist. By the time I got to know him, he had settled with Jean in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. Only a couple of their six sons were still living at home, but the rest would drop in on a regular basis whenever they could.

Paula and I met when the Troubles were still raging in the north. Whenever we visited Ireland, those we encountered were always welcoming, yet deep down I used to ask myself what these people who had successfully broken away from my country fifty years before really thought of us Brits.

I had no such misgivings about Tom Bourke. From the very first time we went to Galway, his welcome was genuine and wholehearted. He was a big man with a booming voice, full of stories, opinion and jokes. For Tom and Jean, hospitality was not only a family obligation but an exuberant performance. If we arrived in the morning, Tom would lay on a fry-up, which for much of his life was his favourite way of starting the day. There would be songs, with Jean on the piano. If the weather was good, he’d take us out to Salthill, where the family would swim, or on boat trips down the Shannon. And no evening would pass without Tom insisting on a swift pint at his favourite bar down the road. When we left, no departure would be complete without a parade of Bourkes on the pavement, lining up to sing a raucous farewell anthem.

Unlike Aiden, who was quietly analytical, and whose views on medicine were always interesting, Tom would start with an opinion, and then find the means to back it up. He had no time for the bomb-blasting nationalists of the north, and little time for the rituals of the church, though he rarely missed a good funeral. He and Jean were Fine Gael supporters, and would go to great lengths to excoriate Eamon De Valera, the Republic’s dominant patriarch. According to Jean, one of her distant forebears, a Michael Collins man, once had the opportunity to take a pot shot at Dev, but chose to let him live. Cursed be the day, thought Tom, though in truth he was not a man to wish anyone dead.

He loved his time in London, hinting with a sly grin at what devilment took place in the house where he rented a room. But when he married Jean, there was no place but Ireland to raise a family.

You can use what cliché you like – a force of nature, larger than life, a big man – and Tom fitted the bill. He needed to be all of those things, with six sons, each a strong character in his own right, to raise. But he was perhaps unusual in that the relationship between him and Jean was one of equals. I never felt that one or the other was the dominant partner. Both were exuberant extroverts. Life around them was never boring.

His funeral was a muted affair, not just because of COVID’s dulling influence, but because Tom didn’t want a big send-off. He often said that he would prefer to be buried before anyone knew he was dead. Unusually in Catholic Ireland, he chose to be cremated.

I’ve always been fond of my Irish relatives-by-marriage, but none more so than Tom Bourke. We shared a love of history and politics. He had the same respect and affection for my country as I do for his. I can think of no recent piece of writing that would have warmed his heart more than an article by my favourite historian, Tom Holland, on the influence of the Irish on England before strife and conquest muddied the waters between our two nations. He begins What England Owes the Irish with these words:

Once, long before Partition, the Potato Famine, Drogheda, the Plantation of Ulster, the Statutes of Kilkenny and Henry II’s landing at Waterford, Anglo-Irish relations stood on an even and happy keel. “A people who never did anyone any harm, and were always most friendly to the English.” So wrote Bede, the greatest scholar of the Northumbrian golden age, in the early 8th century. Ireland was celebrated not just for the asceticism of its holy men and women, the formidable quality of its learning, and the indefatigability of its missionaries, but also for its hospitality. Many in Northumbria travelled there, Bede wrote, to learn from the example of its inhabitants. “The Irish welcomed them all gladly, gave them their daily food, and also provided them with books to read and with instruction, without asking for any payment.”

Holland could have been writing about Tom Bourke’s sense of hospitality, even if the idea of being a holy man would have sent him staggering into the nearest bog in a paroxysm of laughter.

To all who knew him, me included, he was indeed a great man.

  1. John O’Reilly permalink

    Lovely words Steve.
    Deepest sympathies to Tom’s family and all the Navan & Weybridge Meade Family.
    RIP Tom.
    John & Geraldine O’Reilly

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