Tuesday 27 September 2016

The pain – and fun – of saying goodbye while you're still here

Published 28/04/2014 | 02:30

"Friends came up. It was sort of an alive ‘sorry for your troubles’"

THIS is the true story of Paddy Joe Keane, the man who attended his own wake while he was still alive.

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Paddy Joe's farewell was a traditional Irish wake with lashings of drink and a sing-song. But even Paddy couldn't cheat death, and three weeks after the living wake, hundreds of mourners paid tribute to a brave and funny man who finally lost his battle with lung cancer. Paddy Joe was a 40-a-day man and in the end it was the cigarettes that got him. He was only 53.

Paddy Joe lived in Killenard in Coy Laois, the puck of a five iron away from the palatial Heritage Golf and Spa club.

His widow Bernie welcomed me to her comfortable home. The tea was made and we were told Paddy Joe's father was a Kerryman. In an amazing coincidence it seems we are far out cousins.

Her husband died over two years ago, but, Bernie says, "I still wait for him to come in the door."

"He was mad, but in a good way. Paddy Joe always made me laugh and he had a great oul' brain. He thought of things other people couldn't do. Didn't he climb up that tree there outside the house and put up a bird box. He could do anything with his hands."

Paddy Joe was in the army and worked as a caretaker in a local hotel until the recession struck. The couple have three children and son Paddy comes in from cutting the grass. "Paddy Joe was gas," says his son. "He loved a good piss-up and he told us the thought of us all drinking away without him at the wake would kill him. That was the way he talked."

Says Bernie: "He was even going to bring in a coffin and get up out of it with a drink in his hand."

"He was only winding you up, Mam," adds Paddy. But Paddy Joe was serious about having the wake.

"He was a great man for Facebook and he contacted all his friends." Bernie still laughs at her husband's carry-on. "Paddy Joe was told he only had a few weeks left. He said to us right here in the house, 'I don't want everyone to be at the wake when I can't be at it myself.'" She laughs all the time when she talks about him. You could see that was why she fell for him when they met in a pub over 30 years ago.

The Thatch is only a few minutes' walk up the hill from the Keane family home and the pub was packed for Paddy Joe's big night. It was your typical wake. Half celebration for a life lived, and half lament for a life lost. Paddy Joe pumped himself up with his secret stash of steroids. He smoked his share of cigarettes and drank a good few pints of Bud. Says Paddy: "Dad wanted for us to be happy with him. He got us into a place where we were all comfortable."

Paddy Joe and Bernie even went out dancing. "It was our last dance," she recalls and the tears come now.

Paddy Joe planned the wake meticulously. "One of his favourite songs was Roger Whittaker's 'The Last Farewell' and he went up on stage with the band to sing that one," recalls Paddy.

Paddy Joe's sister Rose had the band play 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother', and they had the place rocking and swaying. He joined his sister Nuala in a song sung in Irish.

Friends came up to the family like you would at a wake for a dead person. One woman said "he'd do anything for anyone". It was a sort of an alive sorry for your troubles. Paddy couldn't handle his Dad's farewell speech. He had to go outside for a smoke. His Dad thanked everyone for coming and bade his friends goodbye. He finished up with "I love everyone here."

The mourners were in tears. Paddy Joe didn't cry. He went back to his pint, his smokes and his jokes. Paddy Joe kicked on, full belt, until one o'clock. He was worn out by then. Paddy Joe had no more to give.

Paddy Joe wasn't a wealthy man. He gathered together a precious and varied collection of CDs and he divided up his music between his children a few days after the wake.

He died on February 16, 2012, just three weeks after the last night in The Thatch. He was brave and cheerful, but this time the wake was for real.

So why did Paddy Joe decide he would be the chief celebrant at his own wake? He was fond of the drink and he loved to talk. That much we do know. Bernie is very much in love with Paddy Joe. The memory of that last party keeps her laughing. She sees the wake as her man's last fling. No more than that.

The walls of the house are decorated with Paddy's pyrography. The burnt images on timber were presents for his family. Paddy has inherited his father's gifted hands. He knows what his Dad was up to.

We drive to Portarlington where Paddy lives now and he tells us the why.

"Paddy Joe knew we would be heartbroken. He was taking the pressure off the funeral. Paddy Joe was guiding us through to his death.

"Paddy Joe loved the laugh of it all and the session but I think the wake was just his way of saying I'm off and I'll be all right and so will ye.

"My take is, Paddy Joe was saying to his family and friends, the memories of the last stand will keep me alive and keep ye happy."

Paddy Joe Keane, the clever handyman from Killenard, might just have figured out a new and better way of dying.

Irish Independent

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