What did he say to her, Dad?
Treasa repeated the question emphatically, so that he might hear it better. Being 91 years old brought its gentle challenges.
The table had fallen to silence, all attention directed warmly to Muiris, sitting at its head, and to the moment of history he was about to describe.
What did Parnell say to your mother?
Growing up, Muiris Leahy was the first parent of friends to become fully a person. In 1979, he had undergone bypass surgery, part of the first wave of Irish people to do so. His ill-health was a cause of much concern for my parents – they were neighbours and friends – and, in consequence, for me.
Awareness of his mortality brought him more to life; he was no longer Mr Leahy, he was Muiris.
I can still see him now, disciplined, methodical, as he would take his brisk daily walks after heart surgery, past our house – determined to mend, and to stay mended.
He was a man whose spirit was shaped by the landscape of his birthplace in the West Kerry Gaelteacht – expansive, inviting, and with a softness of line that pulled one in. My parents may have called him ‘Maurice’ but, to me, his name as Gaeilge always felt more beautiful, and more essentially true.
As I went through Irish exams, he and his wife, Treasa Mór, were the only reference a student could ever need. And the blas on their Gaeilge would make you cry anew for the pity of the Penal Laws.
In 1987, having retired from a life of teaching in Dublin, Muiris acted as one of my second readers for my college thesis, laboriously going through jargonistic marketing prose – in English this time – in pursuit of weak grammar or bad spelling.
‘You might think of a better way to say that’, he would gently suggest. And I would.
Today I returned, cycling the bóthar fada from Dingle, through blood-orange explosions of montbretia and fuschia, to Ballyferriter, to see him and his two daughters. It has been several years now since he has lived back in West Kerry, all the closer to his beloved GAA and to his people.
‘There is a gathering tonight. You may sing for your supper’, Treasa’s text said.
‘Leg of lamb looking good. Maurice’s legs looking dodgy’
We were a table of eight, old friends and family, and together we ate that West Kerry lamb, drank wine, laughed, sang and told stories. Stories of generations past and of young kids vibrantly alive-but-absent, busy making their ways in the world.
Muiris listened, smiled and even joined in on The Cliffs of Dooneen.
His movements were now frail and his daily exercise had become much circumscribed. It consisted of a walk, on black stone flags, around the kitchen table.
And still, he walked resolute and with spirit.
The facts of his life were both ordinary and mythic. This man’s parents were married in 1903, 110 years ago. He himself was born, the youngest of ten, in 1922, the year of the creation of the Irish Free State. He had married his late and beloved Treasa Mór, from a neighbouring parish, young. They each qualified as teachers and became principals of National Schools (he the boys, she the girls) in Crumlin, Dublin. They had four children, one of whom had recently been ordained a bishop.
I reflected on how much he had seen in his life. Through those clear blue eyes, how much he had observed our country grow and convulse, and how, through thick and thin, he had just kept walking on.
And his mother! His mother had actually met Charles Stewart Parnell.
‘So, did Parnell say anything to her, Dad?’, Treasa asked again.
There was a pause.
‘No!’ came his emphatic response.
And we all laughed, in appreciation of all that had come before, and that which lay ahead.
Brian McIntyre. August 2013
About Rothar Republic
My name is Brian McIntyre. During late July and August 2013 I am cycling the coast and borders of the Republic of Ireland, and using the opportunity to raise money for charity (The Peter McVerry Trust).
In the lead-up to the 100th anniversary of 1916, I’m interested to see how our little country is doing. Cycling its perimeter, observing and talking to its people, is my own way of taking the lie of the land.
I figure this is a 28 day-long expedition covering about 2,500km.
All monies go directly to the Peter McVerry Trust which supports young homeless people in Dublin to break the cycle of homelessness and move towards independent living.
If easier, consider sending me a pledge through private message.