Thursday 29 September 2016

The brave ballad of James McHale

Fiona O'Connell

Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30

He lived here in a mobile home, Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the breeze on decking that looks out over fields, trees, and an old stone bridge. The same one where his hearse paused after the humanist service, so mourners could cast flowers into the river.
He lived here in a mobile home, Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the breeze on decking that looks out over fields, trees, and an old stone bridge. The same one where his hearse paused after the humanist service, so mourners could cast flowers into the river.

Joe tells me that he had to cut down his hundred-year-old apple trees, after big storms knocked them about. But hopefully, he adds, in a year or two they will grow back.

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It seems an appropriate answer, given that we are part of a gathering to bid farewell to James McHale. This actor and poet who hailed from Hell's Kitchen, New York, ended his days amid the loving support of his many friends around this country town that he long called home. But rallying around those in their hour of need is what we do so well. The Maria Keating Foundation meant that James was able to keep warm, without heating bills to add to the phenomenal woes of his last winter. His funeral service took place in the Kingsriver ­Community, where he spent his final weeks.

The centre provides residential and day-care programmes for adults and young people with special needs. But thanks to James's close friends, it extended its embrace to include this man whose days had been so starkly numbered.

He lived here in a mobile home, Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the breeze on decking that looks out over fields, trees, and an old stone bridge. The same one where his hearse paused after the humanist service, so mourners could cast ­flowers into the river.

They watched them float away, as James had done, going onwards in their journey. The next chapter of which has got to be better for all like him who are faced with a terminal illness.

Katie, who works in O'Keeffe's, had tears in her eyes as she recalled never once since his diagnosis hearing him complain. Though James was no quiet American. "Who is that guy?" strangers would ask about the tall figure cutting a dash about town. Known variously as "the Yank," "the pirate", even "Excalibur", he was loud and full of life.

Maybe loss is more keenly felt in small communities, where we form part of each other's landscape. On my way home, I passed a house opposite the one where James lived, as usual flying the county colours. But that day an American flag wavered beside it. While white ribbons were tied around pillars outside his former landlord's home.

A friend read excerpts from one of his journals. Gems like "Cupid's arrow sometimes lands in the crotch." "I've broken many hearts - mostly my own" had a poignant twist.

"You must strive to love life," he wrote, "even if it doesn't always love you." "Every day is a fresh canvas; every breath a brush." And "if you have hell to pay, best not ask for an itemised bill."

He followed his own advice that when "eventually death comes calling - make it crawl." While in another quip worthy of Oscar Wilde, he reckoned "a good eulogy is worth dying for."

Maybe so. But we'll miss such sound bites from this beloved blow-in from 'the big apple'.

Sunday Independent

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