Thursday 27 October 2016

This man's life: A family joke that took three generations to be funny

Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30

Barry Egan with his daughter. Photo: David Conachy
Barry Egan with his daughter. Photo: David Conachy

I visited my father's grave the other day with my laughing baby in her buggy. There was a certain irony to this. It might even have been a private joke between me and my dad. (Maybe this was the reason the baby was laughing. She got the joke?)

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In one of the last conversations I had with him before he died in the hospice in Harold's Cross in 2009, I mumbled to him that I didn't think I'd ever have children.

I didn't think I was cut out to be a father, ever, or even a good one. Too selfish. Too wrapped up in myself. Too something or other.

His face initially registered confusion then irritation. He told me to "grow up". It was a suggestion I eventually embraced with alacrity. But first I spent years deconstructing my father's sentence about growing up in my head.

My 17-month-old baby girl is now doing her best to chuck yoghurt all over this computer as I try to type up this column.

The face of an angel or not, she is an industrial wrecking machine in a nappy. She chucked my phone down the toilet last Monday morning before I went out to work and managed to chuck my wife's phone into the bath that evening. She must be trying to tell us something.

Trying to tell her something, I used to sing her U2's One before bed. Unfortunately, my crow-y rendition of Bono's homage to a higher power seemed to annoy her (and as consequence, her mother) more than soothing her off to baby dreamland. So I now sing her, more successfully, the song from CBeebies channel's programme In the Night Garden: 'Yes - my name is Igglepiggle/ Igglepiggle, wiggle, niggle, diggle!!'

There are other conversations in the hospice with my dad that still linger in my subconscious.

At first those chats about emotion and real stuff were uncomfortable. It was like we had been asked to download a software that we were not designed to receive - like emotions between a son and a father weren't in our hard-drives. Then it kicked in, not spectacularly, but I had the kind of open, real conversations with him I was never able to have before.

My father believed in God, not overly, but my assertion that oblivion and the endless nothing is what awaited him, and all of us, he dismissed, perhaps rightly, as a bit immature, a bit silly. (He possibly thought the same about what I did for a living, but he kept it to himself. He was in the car business all his life. He had become a driving instructor in the years before he died aged 82. Most silly and immature of all is, of course, that at the age of 48 his son is now learning to drive a car.)

He was a romantic man, again not overly, but he loved my mother completely. (I was always breaking up with girls and it annoyed him. He told me so. But he also told me it was all right to be alone; not all the time, but just long enough to hear yourself and have time to think about what you actually want.)

He met my mother at the Four Provinces Ballroom in Harcourt Street in 1943: She was dancing with a man with two left feet to Hey Around The Corner when my father excused him.

There were 400 US marines on shore leave also dancing inside the ballroom in Harcourt Street that night. A fight broke out between 20 of the biggest Marines. It wasn't long before a US shore patrol roared up Harcourt Street in an army Jeep, ran in to the ballroom, blew their whistles and all of the Marines were ordered back to the ship.

My dad and mother had one more dance together, to Frank Sinatra's I'll Be Seeing You. I don't doubt that as James Joyce wrote in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, my father's heart 'danced upon her movements like a cork upon a tide'.

He then walked her to the door of her home in Westland Row. Her father was away in Tobruk with the British Army fighting the fascists in the desert.

"I work in the Royal," 17-year-old Maureen told Peter, three years her senior. (She never told what she did at the Royal.) When he kissed her chastely goodbye she suggested he stop by some Saturday afternoon. The war was raging throughout Europe and my dad, barely 20, was in the FCA. (They would cycle out to Bray and Brittas and shine torches at night on the beach, looking for the Nazis in the sand dunes.)

The following Saturday, my dad's FCA battalion, together with battalions from the Home Guard and the Local Defence Force, were marched from Portobello Barracks (opposite where I live; so I often look across the canal and think of him marching off to meet my mum) through Rathmines and into the Theatre Royal on Hawkins Street for the afternoon show as a bit of a treat.

They were allowed one glass of stout each in the Upper Circle Bar. My dad never drank.

Still he must have been intoxicated when the young girl he met in the ballroom in Harcourt Street the weekend before suddenly walked onto the stage and sang Pennies From Heaven.

They married in January, 1952.

He had an unshakeable devotion to my mother for all the years they were together (she died, not long after him, in 2010, and they are buried together in Mount Jerome, a stone's throw from my house).

My father's unswerving devotion to my mother was the virtue I sought most to emulate in my life. I think it was only after he died that I started to put the jigsaw pieces together. I eventually found true love with my wife Aoife and I became a father, the most wonderful experience.

It was like sun piercing fog. Life had an absolute meaning. I am a daddy. A good daddy, even.

Like my father, I am given to playing ostrich whenever it comes to emotions, which perhaps leaves my poor wife and my family and friends completely flummoxed at times. I have become a balding, middle-aged embodiment of that rubbish song by The Beautiful South about "you know your problem - you keep it all in. . ."

I withdraw, easily. And I find it almost impossible to cry. Apart, tellingly - and my dad would have loved this- from when my baby was born. When I am shuffling home to them in Portobello after work at the Sindo in Talbot Street, I am usually shuffling through in my head all the things my father said to me about life.

Unprompted a man on the street last Friday evening as I shuffled home burst out: "You're not a real journalist."

I was tempted to reply: "Yes - my name is Igglepiggle, Igglepiggle, wiggle, niggle, diggle!"

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