An intimate family farewell to a real man of peace
THEY could have asked any number of distinguished politicians, judges, medics or members of the business community, any of whom would have been honoured to be selected for this small but significant honour at a State funeral.
But instead it was Chris and Peaches, the Filipino carers of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who both proudly and humbly carried up the gifts of bread and wine to the altar. It was a defiant and infinitely lovely gesture by the Reynolds family which seemed to pay tribute to the uncomplicated ‘I’ll take you as I find you’ philosophy of Albert Reynolds, the self-professed ‘unsophisticated outsider’.
It also spoke volumes about the deep love and respect his brokenhearted family had for the man himself, with nobody given a more important status than those who had cared for him so well in his last difficult years.
Homespun and homely, with a flourish of gaudy showband glitter but an overriding sense of true class, this perfectly pitched celebration of the life of the former Taoiseach seemed to distill all the complicated elements precisely.
We had a telegram of sympathy from the Pope and the illustrious roll-call of mourners, with John Major, President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Chief Justice Susan Denham, Attorney General Marie Whelan, 32 members of the judiciary, 50 members of the diplomatic corps and countless politicians past and present.
And then, unashamedly and without apology, alongside a copy of the Downing Street declaration, a tin of dog food and a deck of cards were placed on the altar – earthy and rough-hewn, yes, but most refreshingly honest.
Even in death, Albert Reynolds had the power to summon up shockwaves, it seemed, as an incredulous guffaw at the dog food rocked the respectable church in Dublin Four where Albert had made his home – but which had never been his heartland.
“The first time in Donnybrook church, I suspect,” observed chief celebrant Fr Brian Darcy of the deck of cards, provoking another shout of laughter at how Albert was still ruffling establishment feathers.
The music too was a curious and yet deeply fitting blend of the pure and beautiful tones of the Palestrina choir, the fluting traditional sound of singer Eimear Quinn and the glitzy glamour of the showband era with Red Hurley and Paddy Cole.
The formal trappings of the State occasion came purely as an aside – an unexpected shock, almost – at the end of a loyal and true family gathering to mourn the death of ‘Poppy’ – an adored husband, a beloved dad to seven children and a grandfather to 12, grandchildren whom sadly many had never had the chance to get to know before his cruel disease had taken hold.
The unflinching honesty of this unique affair extended to the family’s carefully chosen words. There was no glossing over the past here and they did more than hint at the bitterness which had dogged the end of Albert’s political career.
Eldest daughter Miriam Reynolds was the first to show that the Reynolds family were not afraid of telling the truth, when in a prayer of the faithful delivered in a voice filled with strength, determination and quiet anger at how her father had been frequently “isolated, shunned and villified - the lonesome boatman”.
“Fortunately for all of us he was blessed with noble qualities which sustained him through those bruising, gruelling years,” she said.
In a reflection, Andrea Reynolds told how the core lesson her father had taught the family was not to be afraid of failure, as she read aloud a passage from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous 1910 speech about the man in the arena.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” she read. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
“That man in the arena was our dad,” she said, with deep emotion. “And we will be forever proud, Go raibh mile, mile maith agat, Poppy,” she said, breaking down in tears amid applause.
The honesty was compounded again by Philip Reynolds in the eulogy, when he dryly observed how there had been “many beautiful things said and written about dad these last few days.”
“It’s some quare and peculiar trait, character in the Irish that seems to suggest that we can all look forward to a generosity in death we are so hard to give in life.”
An uneasy and loaded silence lay in the church for a moment and then Philip continued, saying that to know his father was to understand him.
“He was a simple, innately good and brilliant man,” he said.
Fr Brian D’Arcy told how Albert Reynolds’ “homely spirituality had been based on love, joyous meals, a home not a house.”
In the homily, he revealed how two years ago, he had come to say a mass for the Golden Jubilee wedding anniversary of Albert and Kathleen which “like every Reynolds family occasion was uplifting and joyous.”
A little prayer had come to him, he told mourners, and he had given thanks that the Lord had used Albert as a key figure in the peace process.
Albert, despite his illness “understood the gist and a little tear rested at the top of his cheek and he whispered: “Ah sure, thanks be to God.”
It was a precious and intimate cameo of the Taoiseach which told us where his heart really lay.