Thursday 12 December 2019

The joys of being an uncle

Tomorrow morning, fathers everywhere will be waking up to breakfast in bed and a new pair of socks from their beloved children. But there's another man equally devoted to the little people in his life - the uncle. Doting - and of course, cool - uncle to five nieces and nephews, John Brennan tells us why it really is the best job in the world

Doting uncle: John Brennan. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Doting uncle: John Brennan. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Writer John Brennan and his uncle Pa in Disneyland
Writer John Brennan and his goddaughter Cliodhna
Family man: John Brennan and his newest nephew Ruan, born earlier this month.

It's the waiting that is the worst part. I'd sent my sister Orna a message on Whatsapp on Wednesday evening - suspiciously, it had been seen but not responded to. That was my first inkling that the newest member of our brood was imminently arriving into this world. Sure enough, the following morning I received a call just after 7am from my elated brother-in-law letting me know that baby Ruan Brennan Young had arrived. I was an uncle again.

In total, I have five nieces and nephews - Neassa (8), Cliodhna (6), Tom (5), Aoibhinn (3) and now Ruan - that I get to shower with irresponsible gifts and unconditional love. I've always felt an uncle can act as a happy medium between a dad and a brother, because that's been the experience I had as a child. A perfect uncle is a blend of silliness and seriousness, of care and compassion, of tickles and advice, as well as irresponsible and over-the-top presents. You can fill your nieces and nephews with sweets, buy them stuff that their parents wouldn't normally want them to have, play hide and go seek - and when they get over-excited, you just give them back.

I am the youngest of six children and have always been seen as the joker/messer of the family. My nieces and nephews see me that way, too. My eldest niece Neassa has called me "ridiculous" with wide-eyed amazement and laughter when I told both her and her little sister Cliodhna stories about how dragons (they're real, after all) scoff chilli peppers instead of ice cream as a treat on hot days. My nephew Tom refers to me as "tricky" or "silly" with a big smile when we craft impossibly intricate and structurally unsound trainsets on his sitting room floor.

Here's a top uncle tip: pretend your niece or nephew have suddenly, as if by magic, turned invisible. Now search for them theatrically while they try to convince you they are right in front of you. These are guaranteed laughs every time for all involved. This is what being an uncle boils down to for me: to be someone bigger, someone fun, someone silly and someone sensible for the little people in your life.

Writer John Brennan and his goddaughter Cliodhna
Writer John Brennan and his goddaughter Cliodhna

Of course, sometimes it's me learning from them. I remember dying my hair bright red when I was 20, thinking I was all cool, hip and worldly. My siblings bit their tongues and said nothing, however, the same could not be said of Neassa, who at only four months of age brought me crashing back down to earth. The first time she saw me with my dyed hair she 'made strange' and roared crying - I dyed it back brown that evening and the following day she was happy to see me again.

The role of an uncle is an important one. I often think I won the uncle lottery in terms of the calibre of uncle I got in my mom's youngest brother Patrick (Pa to us). As a child, he'd tickle me senseless and swing me around by my arms in the garden until dizziness got the better of me. He wasn't aloof, awkward and unfamiliar like other relations that we had - he managed to somehow bridge a gap between being a scary and boring adult and actually being one of us. I think because he was so close to my mom he was always going to be extremely close to us too. He looked at us like his own in many ways.

The greatest of uncles can seem wise. I remember thinking he'd be my 'phone-a-friend' if I somehow managed to blag my way onto Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? at the age of 11. He broadened my horizons - often inadvertently. On a car journey once, he introduced me to classical music - despite me being a moody disaffected Nirvana-loving teen at the time - which was no mean feat: "What do you mean Tiesto didn't write Adagio for Strings?"

My mom passed away when I was 13 and one of my strongest memories I have of the year in which she was sick was seeing a lot of my Uncle Pa. I remember my mom's last Christmas - all my siblings, my parents, my Nan, my uncle and his wife all sitting around playing cards and board games by the fire and the genuine fun and laughs we all had. He was as much a part of our immediate family as my brothers and sisters.

Two years after my mom passed away, Pa whisked the youngest of us off to Disneyland, Universal Studios and Busch Gardens in Florida for 10 days. To top that off, after we got back he also got me my first job in his office in Dublin - sure it was packing envelopes, but I had to wear a shirt and get on a Dublin bus in the evenings. It was the most grown up I'd ever felt to this point.

As I got older, the silliness that had defined our relationship subsided somewhat and he began to treat me very much as an adult and became someone I could go to for advice. I would ring Pa to chat about essays, projects or debate topics that had bamboozled me during my day in school. This continued when I headed off to university, he'd lend me history and law books to help out with my course work without ever being remotely overbearing.

Writer John Brennan and his uncle Pa in Disneyland
Writer John Brennan and his uncle Pa in Disneyland

Having lost both my parents before I turned 21, the support he provided over the years - following my mother's death in particular - was both invaluable and unquantifiable. Ultimately this nephew-uncle relationship shaped me as a person and I only realised how much so as I got older.

The whole "they grow up so fast" mantra is something you feel as an uncle, too. Language is obviously key in little ones' development. For me a major milestone is when "Don Don" transforms into "Jawn Jawn" and eventually arrives at "John".

I can't explain the feeling of hearing them say "hiya" down the phone to me for the first time. You'll laugh as they are coached through how to converse with you on the phone. "Say hi to uncle John" or "Tell uncle John what you did today" - it's great stuff to listen to.

My darling niece Aoibhinn - who just turned three - took the phone off of my brother recently and exclaimed, "Hi Jawn!" before promptly telling me about a "naughty Care Bear" she had spotted on television earlier. When I visited their house a few days later, she told me about a "spooky bridge" immediately upon my arrival, as if it was the most pressing news she ever had to deliver.

Probably the most important facet of being an uncle is that you get to be cool. To my siblings I'm just the bearded 27-year-old baby of the family living and working in Dublin. To the littlest members of my family I'm a cool tattooed uncle who arrives with silly toys and treats. I'm the uncle who has travelled the world, jumped out of planes, swam with sharks, bungee jumped - to a five-year-old, I am as cool as I could have ever imagined being.

Nothing convinced me more of this than when Neassa began primary school. One December morning her mum and I dropped her to school. I will always remember going into the schoolyard and seeing her chat, laugh and run around with her equally tiny friends - the realisation that she had her own little life, her own circle of friends and was very much an independent little person really amazed me.

I remember Neassa running up to me, taking me by the hand to show me off to her little friends in the yard. "This is my cool uncle John," she declared as the cohort of smallies stared at me, as if waiting for me to showcase a level of cool Neassa had just talked up. I still remember feeling the most preposterous weight of expectation to impress a bunch of four-year-olds but importantly not to embarrass Neassa in front of her crew. She was still my little hobbit, who laughed at fart noises, silly jokes, who liked bedtime stories but her world and the world she knew had grown a little and she wanted me to be a part of that.

Your nieces and nephews are generally better craic than their parents, too. I brought Neassa and Cliodhna for breakfast one morning and let them choose what they wanted to eat. They both agreed that babycinos (hot frothy milk with chocolate powder in an espresso cup), pancakes with ice cream and some juice to wash it all down were the best options. I remember having to be reminded that I had to cut up Cliodhna's pancakes - rookie mistake - by her bigger sister. What followed was a chorus of "Silly uncle Jawn Jawn" and raucous laughter from the hobbits as well as myself.

Afterwards, we played on the beach and got some ice creams, and later went back to my apartment for orange juice and Pixar movies. When their parents came to collect them at the end of the day, they bounced like ping pong balls into the car and waved frantically out the windows as they headed home. I felt for their parents in a sense - a sugar crash was imminent.

In a sense, I have been continuing to grow up as they are. I don't have kids yet myself, but becoming an uncle for the fifth time at 27 is something that has deeply impacted me - more so than when I became an uncle at the ages of 19, 21, 22 and 24. For me, the sense of wonder and awe I feel towards my siblings embarking on this greatest of adventures is indescribable but there is also an undercurrent of terror. The older I get the closer parenthood looms, eventually I won't be able to give them back.

In the meantime, my hallmark as an uncle is in buying the most impractical giant stuffed teddy I can find in their first few months of life. It started with a 6ft-long pink and green snake named 'Sizzle' who I bought for Neassa for her first Christmas. I wore him like a scarf on the Galway-Dublin train in my second year of college and arrived back home armed with him as well as laundry in dire need of washing.

Then it was a ridiculously oversized bouncy stuffed hedgehog called 'Harry' who I got for my goddaughter Cliodhna. When Tom arrived, he got a giant stuffed squirrel. Despite the pleas of my sister Orna not to get anything for Ruan, I still arrived up to meet him with a giant stuffed crocodile named 'Courage'. I've never felt cooler.

Irish Independent

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