Monday 19 February 2018

Hugh Cooney was 'as brave as a lion' to the end

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen opens up to Daniel McConnell about his friend Hugh Cooney, who died last week

Hugh Cooney
Hugh Cooney
The remains of Hugh Cooney are taken from the church in Foxrock following his funeral mass
Daniel McConnell

Daniel McConnell

Just over four weeks ago, I travelled out to Foxrock to the home of Hugh Cooney, the well-known former Enterprise Ireland chairman and businessman.

Along with photographer Gerry Mooney we went out to interview Hugh who was then terminally ill with stage four colon cancer.

Over the course of almost two hours, he told me he had just weeks to live, that the cancer bus was on its way to take him on his final journey. Hugh laid his illness bare, with brutal honesty and almost a cold detachment. He did so for an important reason.

Even in his last few remaining days, he wanted to raise the alarm to men, and middle age men in particular, to be alert to the early signs of cancer. He didn't listen to his body and his failure to do so in time killed him.

Interviewing Hugh was one of if not the most difficult interviews I have ever done. Having lost my own mother to cancer at the age of 46 when I was 12 and other close relatives and friends to cancer, Hugh's condition was far too reminiscent of many dark days gone past for me.

I hadn't seen Hugh for several years before the interview and was shocked at how frail he had become. But his drive, his determination and his sheer courage simply astounded me.

The interview, entitled 'I'm about to die... the cancer bus is on its way for my final journey' ran in this newspaper on Sunday, September 20, the day of the All-Ireland football final. Hugh, as a former inter-country footballer and hurler for Offaly, had hoped to make it - but he was too ill.

The reaction to the piece was phenomenal and it was to led to Hugh appearing on The Late Late Show with host Ryan Tubridy the following Friday night.

Even in the few days since our interview, Hugh had weakened further, his voice more fragile.

But his courage was incredible and the impact he made that night was immense.

His message again was for men to wake up and listen to their bodies. He and his family were and are fundraising to put in place a full time psychologist in St Vincent's Hospital, where Hugh was treated.

Such was the reaction to the interview, 'Hugh Cooney' trended on Twitter that evening.

Recently retired hurling legend Henry Shefflin, who was also on the show that night, posed for a picture with a clearly happy Hugh backstage.

Shefflin posted the picture and a message online a short while later: "Great nite [sic] on the Late Late. But what a pleasure to meet Hugh Cooney. #brave #inspirational."

Hugh managed to host and speak at a major fundraising golf classic event just two weekends ago. It was to be his last major outing as tragically, Hugh finally lost his battle last Monday at the age of 63. He died peacefully at home.

Before he died I asked him about his faith and whether he believed that death meant the end.

"I do believe there is something else. I am ending one career and starting another, but I don't believe this next career is seven foot under with an Offaly jersey wrapped around me," he said.

Last Wednesday, in Foxrock church where it was filled to overcapacity with scores of people forced to stand outside, Hugh Cooney's requiem mass took place.

His son Hugh junior gave a moving and fitting eulogy to his father on behalf of the family.

He spoke warmly and honestly about how Hugh had wanted to live until he was 70, despite his adverse diagnosis back in 2013. He spoke of the joy his Dad had on being able to walk three of his daughters down the isle within the last year.

At the end of our interview, Hugh and his daughter Gwen told me of how they had been planning his funeral and in particular the songs he wanted sung at it.

They included the hymns 'Be Not Afraid' and 'On Eagles' Wings'.

After Hugh's coffin was carried shoulder high out from the church into the bright autumn sunshine, the vast crowds waited their turn to pay their respects to Hugh's family.

Many spoke of his business acumen, his stellar career, others spoke of his devotion to his family, his children and grandchildren.

Since news of his death emerged, warm tributes from the worlds of politics, sport and business have been paid to Hugh.

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, in an especially composed message for this article, says Hugh Cooney was "as brave as a lion" in how he faced into his adversity.

"He was very proud of his Offaly roots. I was privileged to count him as a close and dear friend. Above all else, he was a loving husband of Nuala and proud father of five wonderful children whose welfare was his primary concern always. He will be greatly missed by his wife and family and his wide circle of friends from all walks of life," Cowen said.

"A good and decent man in all his dealings never shirking his responsibilities while gently reminding us of our own. Positive always. As brave as a lion. Leaves a wonderful legacy in both his professional and public career," he added.

"Hugh was a good friend whom I first encountered professionally when I was Minister of Transport and he was appointed as examiner to Team Aer Lingus. I was always impressed by the clarity of his thinking," he added.

"A straight shooter who was focussed and fair, always looking for solutions while never avoiding the commercial realities. A team player who never sought the limelight. A credit to his profession," Cowen said.

His Tanaiste Mary Coughlan also described Hugh as a "great man" who came to the aid of the country at its most difficult hour.

Tubridy, on hearing of Hugh's death, paid a heartfelt tribute to Hugh on his RTE Radio 1 show.

"Every so often you meet someone on The Late Late Show and it kinda knocks you out by their bravery. It was [a difficult interview] in many ways but he was an extraordinary man to come in and see us," he said.

"By the time he came on The Late Late Show, while he was certainly brimming with life and enthusiasm, physically he had diminished somewhat, but not in a sense of spirit."

Tubridy also paid tribute to Hugh Cooney's daughters who had so much love for their father. "They were gathered around him like a phalanx of support which was quite beautiful to see in full flight. I hugged Hugh and I said 'thank you' and I was really hopeful to see him again, that this isn't goodbye, it's 'see you later'. But it wasn't to be the case, it was goodbye."

Even in his final days, Hugh Cooney sought to make a difference, particularly in alerting middle age men to listen to their bodies in helping them avoid his fate.

May he rest in peace.

Sunday Independent

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