Monday 19 February 2018

Ties that bind are broken - Liam Collins on being an orphan at 63

As a child, Liam Collins took a keen interest in the nuns' motherless charges. Now, at 63, he's an orphan too

Liam Collins
Liam Collins

When my sister rang and said, "It's about your mother", I knew instinctively that she had died.

Liam Collins

We had been having dinner, and the rest of the family looked at me expectantly when I put the phone down.

"I'm an orphan now," I said.

At 63 years of age.

My mother was a healthy 99 years of age when she died in January, while my father, who had died almost exactly a year earlier, was 90.

Being an orphan has been on my mind since I was a little boy, and now I embraced my new status almost with a sense of relief.

We grew up at a time when the Upper Kilmacud Road in south Dublin was literally the border between suburbia and a way of life which had changed little in decades. On the other side of the road, behind a stone wall, were old farmhouses, convents, and rolling fields with stands of trees and grazing cattle.

One of the convents was called St Philomena's; it was an orphanage run by a stern order of French nuns who all wore a huge, intimidating white bonnet, known, I believe, as a cornette. I can still remember, having robbed their orchard, looking behind as I fled down a tree-lined avenue, at the terrifying sight of one of these nuns bearing down on me. Just as she was about to seize me, I put on a spurt and escaped.

Every Sunday we would watch, enthralled, as hundreds of young orphan boys marched silently out of what are now the gates of the Stillorgan Wood estate. They were graded according to height, and clad in identical suits, as they marched to the terminus of the number five bus for a weekly excursion.

A group of us frequently sat on the wall watching this procession of 'the orphans' with a mixture of awe and apprehension. Once, my mother, as she was coming along the road, stopped to talk to myself and my pals as we were observing the nuns and their charges, and, looking across as the boys were shepherded onto the bus, she remarked, "I hope you realise how lucky you are!"

Of course, I didn't.

My mother came from a small farm in Co Longford, and was probably the only girl from the townland to go to college. She taught for a while after graduating, before emigrating to Northampton in England, where she met my father, who was the son of a blacksmith from Doon, Co Limerick.

They led a frugal, almost simple, life, although they travelled the world. But when you asked where they stayed, it was always in a convent in some obscure corner of a piazza in Rome, or with a cousin in Omaha, or a niece in Harare, or with the niece's daughter in Bergen. No four-star hotels for them.

They lived together until my mother's body outlived her mind about three years ago.

Most Saturdays, I would bring my father up to the gloriously surreal Kilternan Ward in Leopardstown Park Hospital, which was built in 1917 for soldiers coming home from the war. My mother had a beatific smile and she held my hand in a firm grip, but, try as she would, the words would no longer come, except in an occasional jumble.

On one of his last visits, as he struggled back down the long corridor towards the front door, my father turned and said wistfully, "She'll see me down, you know."

He was right.

The front cover of my mother's funeral booklet was a picture of her in her graduation gown and mortar-board hat, bearing the legend:1917-2017.

It was only a week or two later that, despite my initial reaction, an unexpected sense of loss came over me. I finally realised what it is like to be an orphan, and, to some extent, what it must have been like for all those little boys we used to see; boys who had experienced that empty feeling more than half a century before I did and never knew the joy of a mother's love.

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