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A family divided... why Joe Cushnan will not be going to older brother's funeral

Belfast man Joe Cushnan says his brother Sean, who died earlier this month, was like a stranger to him, having left the city for England in the late 1970s and only rarely returned

My brothers, my sisters and me, first we were seven, then we were six and now we are five. My older brother Sean died at 68 on August 1 this year. I have made the decision not to attend his funeral and I will attempt an explanation later. But first, in the interests of context, I need to go back to December 6, 1974.

A dark and sad time for our family was the death of my brother Paul. He was 25, married, with three young children. When my father walked out on us in 1960, Paul was the senior man of the house, at that time aged 11. I was five years younger. I looked up to him. Sean was a year younger than Paul. But, to me, Paul was always the 'big brother', someone to look up to and learn from.

I never felt the same way about Sean, for reasons that escape me.

In Paul's working life, he was a sheet-metal worker, then a garage worker but he moved on to become a long-distance lorry driver to earn more money. He made frequent ferry trips from Larne to Stranraer and Cairnryan in Scotland. On that December day in 1974 at approximately 11.15pm, he drove off the ferry at Cairnryan and took the A77 south before joining the A751, a short link road to the A75. Not far along this road, less than four miles from the ferry, near a farm called Inchparks, his lorry ended up in a ditch for unclear reasons, but it was assumed he had misjudged a curve in the road.

We were told that Paul had gone through the windscreen and landed face-down in shallow water that was deep enough to drown him.

On the death certificate, the incident was recorded as a road traffic accident, the cause of death as asphyxia, drowning and a depressed fracture of the skull.

In Belfast, in the early hours of the next morning, there was urgent knocking at our front door and on a bedroom window. During those bad years of the Troubles, the police travelled with a military escort as they had to take security precautions in volatile Catholic areas. They had driven Paul's wife to our house to tell us what had happened.

We were all devastated, especially my mother. Family and friends rallied round, as they do in tragic circumstances. But this was a tough time, only weeks before Christmas, a lost brother, husband and father. And so young.

In the following days I travelled by ferry to Cairnryan to identify Paul's body and complete any necessary administration. The identification procedure is pretty much how you see it in television dramas.

You are escorted into a room. The corpse is on a table covered in a white sheet. The sheet is lowered to reveal the face. When he was alive, Paul had a fringe. Lying dead on the table, his hair had been swept back. I nodded and confirmed his identity. His face was re-covered. It was over in a matter of moments, some of the saddest moments of my life. I was just into my 20s.

Paul was a typical young man of his day. He smoked, he drank beer, he hung around with his pals and he got up to some minor mischief. He was a good husband and father. He was a great brother. As a youngster, he was what I wanted to be, grown up and confident.

I felt close to him and protected in a way. He once scattered several lads who were hassling me down our street. Like Superman, he appeared out of nowhere and delivered a mighty kick to one of their backsides. They got the message and I learned a few new swear words as he shouted after them.

One day he was the life and soul of our family and his own. The next day, he was gone. First seven of us, then six.

I have vague memories of Sean as an unpredictable personality prone to getting into trouble for all kinds of reasons.

He was one of us, he was my brother but we were never that close. At some point in the late 1970s, I think, he made the decision to go to England to find work. He lived for a time in Muswell Hill but he spent most of his life in Bedfordshire. He had relationships with women and fathered three sons.

At some point, maybe in the early 1980s, I remember staying with him and his soon-to-be wife in their flat. I was probably in London for a job interview or a training course. I didn't detect a great deal of warmth in his relationship with the woman, but I did hear them talking about urging friends to provide cash instead of wedding presents for their forthcoming nuptials.

After that overnight stay, I didn't see him again for 30 years and had no contact with him during that time.

In January 2012, he travelled to Belfast to attend our mother's funeral and I didn't see him again after that. Two years ago, he contacted me by phone to test out, as he admitted, his new mobile and to have a catch-up chat.

His speech was slurred and incomprehensible. Sean was an alcoholic and the attempted conversation lasted a matter of minutes before the line at his end went dead. He had a troubled life mainly due to self-inflicted problems mostly connected with drink and his health suffered badly. He was in and out of hospital several times, in a desperate state on more than one occasion.

When I wrote about Paul earlier, it was to illustrate that he was a part of my life, fundamental in my formative years and such an important ingredient in our one-parent family home. I saw him when he lived, I laughed at his silly jokes, I sang along with him as he belted out showband songs and I shared his joy when his children were born. I identified his body. There is some kind of a permanent bond there.

When I think of Sean, he wasn't around much anyway and he had little or no influence on me. He got himself into a few scrapes in his time and I remember my mother, a generally placid woman, giving him what for whenever he brought any shame or embarrassment to the family through his petty misdemeanours.

I do remember a few of our LPs disappearing over time and I know where the finger of suspicion pointed. Sean, like our father, was pretty hopeless with money and the temptation to make a few shillings was irresistible. He would play dumb as we scratched our heads and searched the house for a favourite Marty Robbins or a Joe Dolan or a Billy Connolly album.

He dropped out of contact for much of the time he was in England and I have little knowledge of his life, work and family. I have never met his sons.

Sean indicated once that he would like to take the lads on a nostalgic trip back to Belfast for a tour of his roots.

I don't know if that would ever have happened but now it never will.

He was, when all is said and done, a stranger and I cannot find any emotional urge to be at his funeral.

Other family members will attend as we have all made individual decisions. But, for me, although he is blood kin, as they say in westerns, there is nothing else to connect us, no real memories or experiences to speak of between us. It is sad but true.

Over the years, I have been to funerals to say goodbye to other family members, friends and work colleagues, and they have been very emotional occasions because all of these people were real to me domestically, socially and professionally. I would see them often, in some cases every day. Sean was adrift from my life, barely part of i t.

I agree with anyone who concludes there is a coldness in what I'm saying but that's the way I feel about it. I'm not so heartless that I do not feel sympathy for Sean and those who were closest to him. I'm not distancing myself from the fact that he was my sibling.

It is simply that I didn't know him in any deep or meaningful way. He was what he was and I truly and sincerely hope and pray he rests in peace.

Belfast Telegraph

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