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Paul Breen: One minute I was looking up at Chelsea apartments the next I was pummelled with an image of my father dying on roadside

In a moving tribute, Paul Breen recalls being on a London street and receiving the news his dad back home had suddenly died from a massive heart attack

Published 09/09/2016

Figurehead: Eugene Breen
Figurehead: Eugene Breen
Family gathering: from left, Paul Breen, dad Eugene, mum Maureen, sister Christine and brothers Colin and Martin
Eugene Breen with his wife Maureen in Greenwich, London

Everyone who lives outside their own country knows that some day they might get the call they don't want to hear. This is a call like no other - death's cold and unexpected knock on the door of routine. Unlike other visitors this dark figure needs no passport to shift across the boundaries that Irish people inhabit. These might be the streets of London or those of Baltimore, as in Liam Reilly's lyrics for The Flight of the Earls.

My father loved such songs, as he loved everything about Irish culture to the extent that he never understood why anyone left his beloved island, and this story is about him, even though I never expected to be telling it - not so soon, without some kind of warning at least.

Liam Reilly's song starts out with an image of being in a lonely waiting room, listening to familiar sounds, in the moments before catching a trans-Atlantic plane, and embarking on a whole new life. Having been there, I know the intensity of that experience. It's all-consuming, almost addictive, as thoughts and memories flash through your mind about what's gone before and what's coming after. You're setting off on a journey into a whole new territory.

All those who have left Ireland know this sense of excitement, hope, fear, and perhaps even bitterness at the same time. Every sensation known to human beings is concentrated in the heart at the moment - sadness, nostalgia, hunger, quest for betterment, and all those other feelings mentioned before.

If you've been there, you've probably said goodbye to friends and family as you left, making small talk about when you'll see them again. As my own father used to say 'ring us when you get there'.

Writing those words, I feel a sudden struggle with tense and tension. That's strange for somebody who makes a living out of language as I do, through writing and teaching. Strange for anybody I suppose who has lost a parent whether they live in Melbourne or Mullingar, New York or Newtownbutler.

Two weeks ago, I got the call that has changed the tense of life ever since. My father was driving home to Fermanagh from a holiday in the far south when he suddenly pulled the car over on the roadside and had a massive heart attack at only 69 years of age.

Meanwhile over in London, where I have lived and worked for nearly a decade, the sun was shining on a beautiful summer's afternoon. With nothing particular in mind, I set out on a train journey across the city, just to do some sightseeing. My wife was working that afternoon, so I had time to kill and nothing particular in mind.

I'd reached the posh surroundings of Kensington and Chelsea where I'd randomly ended up when I got a call from my brother that something was terribly wrong. But at this stage he couldn't paint an accurate picture of what was happening because the circumstances were uncertain. Words came in fragments, like bits of a broken jigsaw that didn't fit together - "father, car, ambulance, stop, drive, road, signs not good".

"Anyway," I told myself, "people always exaggerate things in phone calls. He'll pull through and everything will be alright."

Yet as the minutes passed and I walked over London's vast and lonesome Albert Bridge, I had a strange sense that my heart was fighting a losing battle with my head. But some things didn't make sense, especially the speed of events and reflection on the circumstances. One minute I was looking up at Chelsea's posh riverside apartments. Then the next I'd been pummelled with an image of my father dying on the roadside. Even that was a haze for it hadn't been made clear if he'd been injured in a car crash, or suffered a heart attack while driving. Even my mother who'd been in the car with him didn't know for sure what was happening.

Looking out on the Thames in glorious sunshine and thinking of that foggy situation in Ireland, I wondered if this was all a dream. Minutes later the surrealism of the moment was confirmed, as I made my way towards Victoria's bustling train station and I passed the actress Helen Worth coming out of her house. At that moment it still felt like I was dreaming, wide-awake and walking, but about to open my eyes to the morning that had just passed.

"I mean, this is what happens in dreams," I fought the growing reality as time passed and I waited for calls back to confirm the exaggeration. "You're in a strange place for no good reason and you get a call out of the blue, and then you walk down a street that you've never been in before, and Gail from Coronation Street comes walking along, again for no good reason." Some moment soon I was going to waken up and it would be 4am all over again.

But as I entered Victoria train station, there was no route back to a time before the phone call from my brother. The reality slowly dawned and was confirmed by another phone call from my same brother just after I had travelled a couple of tube stops to my office.

That was a journey through purgatory on a sticky sweltering underground that reminded me of Seamus Heaney's poems about these dark and dripping tunnels echoing all the hidden parts of history that come back to us in times of grief. Though nobody said the word 'dead' I was told that I should book a flight. I should come home at once. I'd need to be there as soon as possible. The whole family should be home, and they'd see me there later in the evening along with other relatives, once the calls were made.

I booked my flight to Belfast and started out on the slow road home. Everything remained surreal at this stage, part of a distant dream, one of those moments when you need a beer to rationalise things, but in these circumstances a beer wouldn't be advisable. I wasn't sure how my brain, in shock, might react if I had a drink. I had to stay sober and sensible, even if there was little sense in having set out on a train across London in the afternoon, and ending the evening heading across the water to Ireland.

The hard part was keeping control, of compartmentalising the situation until such times as I had got over each stage of the journey. You can't be weird and emotional in airports these days, or even on planes. I had to switch off mentally and emotionally, focusing on getting through each leg of the return.

Going back to the house, packing, getting to the airport, passing through security, boarding the plane, sucking down the slow seconds of the journey, and going out the other end of this dark and surreal tunnel into Belfast Airport. From there my nephew picked me up, and we drove to the small village in Fermanagh where my father was from, and where he spent his whole life, unlike several brothers and sisters who joined the emigrant trail to America and England.

Born in 1947, he'd built up a drainage business in this area, and acquired a reputation as a man who rose early, got things done, and did the job without any fuss, often at personal expense. Slowly, going up the misty, pine-flanked road out of that village and into the countryside, past the Catholic Chapel and the graveyard where he would be buried, the reality began to dawn.

Time moved slow and in the same breath faster than the Olympic sprinters gearing up for action in Rio. The cold reserve of London's train carriages gave way to the warm claustrophobic sadness of a wake house without a body, as now happens in cases of sudden death. My father had suffered a massive heart attack on the road between Garrison and Belleek, towns on the Irish border, now memorials to the frail boundary between life and death.

Of course with all that switching off, my brain found it hard to migrate from England's choked emotion to the realities of an Irish country house stripped of its figurehead. After the first onset of grief, part of my brain still expected my father to walk in the door, amongst all these people gathered in his kitchen in my mother's company. In fact it was next morning before some parts of my brain got up to speed, and out of the compartments that I had bolted shut in London. Then I wept more violently than anything I have ever known before, and feel unashamed to admit that.

The days that followed brought visits to a funeral home, and then the transfer of the remains to the family home followed by an old style Irish wake. Over a couple of days I saw people I hadn't seen in years, and others I'd never met before. Neighbours came from far and near, several thousand people paying their respects, and these from both sides of the northern community.

Even Father Brian D'Arcy, a friend of my father's and another very proud down to earth Fermanagh man, gave an oration at the side of his coffin to say how selfless he had been in so many aspects of his life.

Three days burned away in blessed candles, trays of scones, and hushed voices flickering in a furnace of grief with the doors left open in public view. Unlike England's closed boxes and death pushed to the margins, this was communal grief with nothing private, hidden, or reserved. In the space of three days, a couple of thousand people must have passed through the house that, like the family dog, still seemed to be lying in wait for the return of its figurehead laid out in a coffin.

Each stage passed slow and quick at the same time, in that surreal haze which had followed me from Chelsea to the townland of Carrickaheenan. Eventually the funeral came around on a rainy Wednesday morning, and afterwards when the crowds had all drifted off to normality I had my first beer in nearly a week. And no, it didn't help to rationalise things or act as a sponge for the shock. It just felt one more small, slow step back to regular life.

Then at the weekend I returned to London where again there has been a need to compartmentalise the grief at times, but in a way that doesn't hide it, and push it to the margins. I found many people at work and in my neighbourhood far more sympathetic and compassionate than we might expect from some of the stereotypes of big cities. The great metropolis of London, at first, might have seemed a cold environment for grieving but the warmth of people, as individuals, has been just the same as those nights in a wake house across the water in Fermanagh.

Of course, I think the fact of my father's death is mainly going to hit again next time I leave London and go back to Ireland, and there's only one parent in the house, or nobody to make conversation with about Mayo's chances of winning this year's All Ireland final. I didn't think I'd have made this journey so soon, so suddenly. It's one that as emigrants we always expect in our worst fears but we anticipate something in the far distance, not a moment that comes upon us all too soon like a snowfall in the autumn, as happened in the case of my father's life.

I don't think there's anything tougher for anyone than the death of a parent, a spouse, or the death of a child, and all those emotions mentioned so poetically in The Flight of the Earls are magnified a hundred times when one of these terrors happen. The human heart, I suppose in the end, is both a strong and a fragile thing. I felt the full range of its emotions on this journey I never expected to make when I set out for a walk one Sunday morning in London.

It's a hard journey and a long, emptier road ahead not just for those of us who experience this as emigrants but our families left behind, dealing with it in a more immediate everyday manner. Maybe, as emigrants, we even have that slight, but poor, advantage, of saying those small goodbyes every time we leave our Irish homes, those phrases like "ring us when you get there".

It just takes time to realise there will be no more ringing, no more phone calls, and wherever the dead go to when they pass out of this life, they don't call to say the plane has landed, or that they've had a great weekend and looking forward to the next time they're back.

Dedicated to Eugene Breen 1947-2016 and all parents of Irish emigrants wherever they may be in the world

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