Brian and Vera O’Conaill

They met in Galway in 1932, in the central Post Office, their place of employment – my parents.

Vera O’Doherty was the ninth of eleven children of Susan O’Doherty, a primary school teacher in Malin, Inishowen, Co. Donegal, and James O’Doherty an officer in the RIC in Inishowen until 1915 – who hailed from Aghadooey, near Coleraine, Co. Derry.

Born in 1912 my mother had a brush with crown forces, c. 1922, near Malin – according to family history. Was this the original source of the mysterious malady that made of her at least two different people during my adolescence – one sensible and devoted, the second most disconcerting and challenging?

It is to the first of these two personalities that my memory now clings. I am sure she was the presence I remember during severe childhood fevers and headaches – utterly bent upon saving me from whatever.

My two surviving siblings, both brothers, remember that person also, and wonder what traumas gave birth to the other person – the woman who suffered, beginning in 1952, from paranoid schizophrenia.

My father’s father, John O’Connell, hailed from Ennis, Co. Clare. My Galway grandmother, Florence Boylan, was from that county. John too was an employee of the Galway post office – and a fanatical weekend angler in the Corrib river and lower lake.

It will be with the Corrib always I will associate my father. He loved its wildness, its danger, its mystery and peerless beauty – and taught me those above all. His younger brother, my uncle Maurice, allowed me, from the age of fifteen, to steer the outboard engine on his wooden angling boat. He taught me to navigate the reefs of the Corrib safely and to fish in his way. Maurice also taught me to make a catapult – from a forked stick, chicken wire, the rubber from a bicycle tyre and a piece of leather. Maurice was Galway for me, in my head, through the year.

It is for their utter constancy that I remember my parents – especially my father, fighting my mother’s unpredictability in my teenage years. That caused him periodic suffering of an intensity that made his devotion to us (looking back) all the more miraculous.

Was that what the phrase ‘valley of tears’ meant to him when we repeated it in the Salve Regina in the family Rosary every evening? We never got to discussing that – probably because my mother outlived my father by some months. They died in June and September, respectively, in 2006 – both aged 94.

Why my father took to spelling our name ‘O’Conaill’ I am not sure. He had been educated through Irish in Coláiste Muire Máthair, and for a time in the Jesuit College, Galway – and served as a postal official in the Aran Islands periodically – but did not insist on Irish in the home in Dublin, where we all grew up. He had been promoted to a GPO position there in 1939, the year he and Vera got married. My elder brother, also Brían, turned up in 1941 and I in 1943. Michael and Ciaran were born in 1945 and 1951.

Sandyford – in a single-bricked bungalow named ‘Malin’ on the hill running south from the village. That was where we were until 1952. I remember the deep snows of 1947, and a garden wall over which Brían tumbled once, onto his nose.

Beginning about 1948 I remember Brían and I going by bus to primary school in Dundrum, a Montessori school – led, I believe by a Miss Hearn. I remember being rigorously taught the multiplication tables – and to read phonetically, by associating sounds with letters, singly or grouped. This phonetic method made me an avid reader of almost everything that fell in front of me from then on, in English – well able to pronounce and look up any string of syllables. There was so much available in English, and of such a variety, that I never took to reading Irish. The general teachers of Irish I encountered afterwards never gave me a contrary inclination. (I regret that now, when this disability – and some laziness – separates me from a facility I should acquire.)

Parkmore Drive, Terenure, Dublin – to there we moved in 1953, with help from Vera’s sisters, my northern aunts. That must have been to facilitate our secondary schooling in St Mary’s, Rathmines – by the Holy Ghost fathers, now the Spiritans.

It is with Terenure above all that I associate the worst of my mother’s illness, and the best of my father’s care.

Whatever might have happened through the schooling months, the summers were always times of blessed relief – in Galway in the Corrib or in Tirnaleague House, Carndonagh where my Donegal grandparents had been settled  – in consequence of the successful hotel management of my aunts Bride and Susan in the postwar years. To their hotel, the Montagu Arms in Portstewart, we also went in some of the summers of the 1950s – making our adolescence eventful beyond measure.

Still disentangling this experience, to try to fathom what had happened to our mother, we three surviving brothers grieve still over the sudden death of our brother Brían – from secondary cancer – in 1962, in London. He had contracted a melanoma, on his arm, from sunburn some years earlier. An architectural student at UCD, he was in London on work experience in the summer of 1962 when sudden illness revealed widespread secondary cancer. It was a clot resulting from this that killed him, before we had even heard of his hospitalisation, in July.

This news, out of the blue, had a severe impact upon all of us, especially because my parents were sure they ‘had to be strong’ – suppressing emotions that should have been released, allowing all of us to do the same. Mistakenly I concluded that this event was just like any other – just another thing that happens – and tried to forget it. That was a postponement of the deepest grief of my life, a mistake unresolved until a midlife crisis.

But Brían’s death shaped my life in another way. Without any career guidance at school I had given in to my parents’ notion that I should study science at UCD in 1960. I had then failed dismally in the summer exams of 1961 and then, just as fatally, succumbed to a trial in accountancy over the following year. That was to be my fate in 1962 when Brian died. My Aunt Una, my mother’s younger sister, then offered me another ‘go’ at UCD, in the Arts faculty. That was how I came, in 1966, to be a teacher of English and History in Northern Ireland – soon exclusively of History and Current Affairs in Loreto College, Coleraine.

How patient they were with me, my parents and aunts and uncles! And how reliant upon their faith. I remember my father especially – holding me above a thrush’s nest to see the deepest blue and speckled eggs; unhooking deep green pike, red-finned perch, and spectacular brown trout, from a landing net on the Corrib; patting my head once when I had to confess the breaking of a window in Parkmore Drive. It was to him too I first looked for credit  when I began writing seriously, from 1994.

Without him, without Brian my Dad, how could I ever have to come to believe in the Father of all, certain that He too is always constant, and never one for rejection? I was to learn more of that theological father at UCD during Vatican II, and subsequently especially from Richard and René – but it was from my parents – and their siblings – that I learned most of what I now know of the unbreakable love of the Trinity for everyone – without exception.

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About Sean O'Conaill

Retired teacher of high school history and author. Now editing here and on acireland.ie - and campaigning for immediate implementation of Article 37 of Vatican II's 'Lumen Gentium'. A fuller profile can be found at 'About / Author' from the navigation menu above.

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