Saturday 3 December 2016

How a song request on a napkin led to family reunion after 47 years

Tomás Heneghan

Published 26/08/2016 | 21:21

A man who left Ireland as a child 65 years ago was reunited with his family through a chance song request on a napkin.

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Speaking to the Ryan Tubridy Show on RTÉ Radio 1 on Friday, a Limerick man explained how he brought a family together after 47 years apart.

Ger Hanrahan, who is now a postman in Limerick, told the show he had been playing a concert in the US in 1992 when he decided to speak to a member of the audience after the show about his song request.

“We kept on getting these requests that were written on serviettes and I turned to our banjo player, Ronan and I said ‘Ronan, we’re going to have to get rid of half of these, there’s no way we’ll get through this amount of requests’.

“So we ditched half of them down behind the stage and picked one up then and I read it and it said ‘Will you guys please play Sean South from Garryowen because I came from the Pike area in Limerick’.

“And I said ‘God, this is strange because I came from the Pike and Ronan, our banjo player, is only up the road from the Pike’.

“So I asked the people that sent up that request would they identify themselves to the band. So he did, so we went down to speak to him afterwards and what unfurled after that was just an amazing story.”

Ger went to speak to the audience member later and he told him his name was Michael Forrestal and that he had left Ireland in 1951 following the death of his mother.

Ger explained: “His mam had died young and he had a brother and two sisters. His brother was allowed stay at home because he was a year or two older. So he was sent to Brooklyn in New York to be reared by his aunt in 1951. He was ten years of age.

“From 1951 to 1992 the only contact he had at home was that he got a note to say his beloved brother Jack had died in an accident in a meat factory in Limerick which was known as Shaws or Clover Meats.

“Other than that he had absolutely no contact at all with Ireland, good, bad or indifferent – nothing.”

Ger then returned to Ireland and one day while out at a local bar with some friends, he discovered people in the area knew Michael but by his nickname, Brophy.

“So they told me about him and he had quite a number of friends around my area where I live and the one thing they loved about him as a child was that he had absolutely sensational handwriting, and they loved him that if they wanted to mitch from school that they could always get Brophy to write the letter from the supposed mother saying that little Johnny was sick or something and that was it,” Ger told the show’s presenter Ryan Tubridy.

Ger explained that when he was returning to the US again his friend Breda gave him a photo to give to Michael of him and his brother taken the day before he was sent away to the US in the 1950s.

“So I contacted Michael and his lovely wife Barbara and went to dinner with them and I said ‘Michael, you’ve left a bit of a mark at home. Although it’s so long ago, there’s so many people that remember you’ and his wife’s eyes basically lit up.

“He said ‘Ger, the one big I regret I have, you know my brother Jack died? Well I don’t have a photograph of my brother Jack’ and I put my hand in my inside pocket and said ‘Well now you do’. And he started bawling crying. ”

Eventually Michael’s family sent him back to Ireland again and while there he created the photo, with the only person missing being his brother Jack.

“When he came home then his wife Barbara asked me if I’d stay with her outside the bar because there was a long corridor into the bar and he was going back to meet his childhood friends and she wanted him to do it on his own.

“And it was just an overwhelming experience. It overwhelmed him in the sense that so many were saying ‘do you remember me?’

“The following day then I brought him down to the school, the classroom where he sat. I brought him to St. John’s Cathedral where he made his First Communion before he was sent off to America. And the whole thing was very, very surreal.”

Ger said Breda later managed to track down Michael’s two sisters who were living in Coventry in the UK by that time.

He explained: “Now Michael not only had never been back in Ireland before but he was never in England in his life. So he was here for three days and went off to Coventry with his wife and he went then to see his two younger sisters that he hadn’t seen in 47 years.”

“It was meant to happen,” he added.

He explained: “There was something like 160 or 170 serviettes piled up at the side of the stage. They could have ended up on the ground like any other slip of a request. But this one came up and it resonated with us, me and the other two lads from the band.

“Ever since those years Breda and a lot of friends and Michael email one another and Michael’s nephews have been over to stay in his house in New Jersey, Michael’s kids have been in Coventry to meet their aunts and it was the reuniting of a family that Michael thought was only a dream, that he never had a family, and it just blew him away.”

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