Sunday 16 December 2018

I taught Brian Latin when he was a little boy, and he taught me the... Language of courage

Mary O'Rourke pays a Christmas tribute to her brave nephew, the late Brian Lenihan

Brian Lenihan
Brian Lenihan

Mary O'Rourke

Brian Lenihan May 21, 1959 -- June 10, 2011: Eight days ago I went to St David's Church at Kilsallaghan in Co Dublin. I was there because it is the last resting place of my dear, lovely nephew, Brian Lenihan, who died in June.

I had gone there on his burial day when the wild flowers were in the hedges and the sun shone down from a brilliant sky. I had wanted to visit the grave again, but knew I would never find it on my own.

However, an early morning appointment in RTÉ led me to make the arrangements with his mother, Ann, and his sister, Anita, who had said they would come with me.

That Friday was a harsh, frosty day. We set off from Athlone before 6.30am, got to RTÉ, did my programme, and went straight out to Castleknock to Ann Lenihan and Anita.

They had fulfilled a promise of a Christmas breakfast -- bacon, egg, sausage, pudding, toast and scones, and we scoffed and talked loudly together as if by so doing we could ward off the memories and the sadness which we knew we would be encountering shortly.

Then we bundled into the car and away we went, on and on -- some of it familiar, some of it not.

But I remembered vividly the hedgerows laden with wild roses and blossom on that day of Brian's burial, back when the sun shone and crowds came out and we all bowed our heads in grief.

Why Kilsallaghan? Why this small St David's Church? The area had been added to Brian's Dublin West constituency some years earlier in a redrawing and he had embraced it with gusto.

In turn, the new, mostly rural, area embraced him -- recognising in him a country man who would deal with them in a country way of friendship and support. So it was that some three to four weeks before his death, Brian and a dear friend of his went to St David's Church and made the arrangements for his own grave plot.

Just thinking of that deed brings everything that was Brian Lenihan into sharp focus -- resolute and determined always to do the right thing.

He didn't want any panic or scrambling for a grave plot to bring more stress on what he knew would be an already anguished and overstretched family.

He wanted to do as much for them as he could before he slipped fatally away. So he and his friend made the lonely journey to Kilsallaghan, met the rector there and arranged the space in the small hilly rural graveyard.

No serried rows of graves here, no paths upon paths, no cypress trees, just a sweet sunny resting place.

And so it was when we went again: out of the frozen sky and onto the frozen earth the sun shone bright right down on Brian's simple Celtic cross and simple plot facing the sun.

We said our prayers, we cried and we wended our way homewards to make more Christmas visits.

Of course since then my mind has gone over Brian's whole life again and the invitation from the Irish Independent to write this piece sparked me into thinking back, back, back...

Back to May 21, 1959, when Brian Lenihan (Jnr) was born. The first-born child to Brian and Ann Lenihan of Athlone.

Brian and Ann christened him Breen -- the Irish version of Brian -- but as time went on, inevitably it became Brian Snr and Brian Jnr and people used the names so.

He was a bonny, quiet, strong child and as far as I can recall, caused very little of the usual childish upset in the household. As was the custom that time, Ann, for her first-born, bought a big high blue pram and away she would go every day wheeling Brian.

I can see him yet as he learned to sit up and gaze solemnly out at the world from the comfort of being pushed along and admired everywhere he went. I called often to them and was always delighted to see the contented, strong way in which baby Brian was growing up.

In September 1963, when Brian was four years and three months, Ann enrolled him in his local primary school, the Infants Bower Fair Green School, which was at that time run by the Bower Nuns as they were called, the Nuns of La Sainte Union.

Sister Mel was the headmistress of that little school, and by a sheer coincidence she later was living in a community house in Clonsilla in Brian's constituency, and continued the friendship she had made originally on Brian's first steps into school life.

The nun who taught him on his first day was a Sister Theckla, who just recently in Athlone stepped up on the altar at Brian's remembrance Mass and spoke the Words of the Faithful.

I introduced her as being Brian's first teacher, and she was as perky and sweet that day as she must have seemed to young Brian when he went into her class.

Those Bower Nuns moulded him and schooled him and shaped him and when he had his Holy Communion made from that school, he translated to the big boys' school across the road -- the Marist Boys' National School. He stayed until he was 12, and it has often struck me that the influence of the Bower Nuns and the influence of the Marist Brothers must have had a huge bearing on the man that Brian became.

He was a steady student, reading early, asking questions, but most of all engrossed in the game of soccer. Early on he set up a street soccer league and had the headquarters in his grandpa's house in Athlone, where they would meet and work out their schedule of games, etc.

When Brian was 12, the family moved to Dublin. His father had lost his seat in Roscommon and decided that he would go to the capital where there would be a likely vacancy in what was eventually Dublin West.

So, young Brian was enrolled in the Jesuit College of Belvedere. Most of the boys going into first year would have come from the junior school attached to the Belvedere, and would have studied French and Latin in their primary to allow them to transition easily.

Brian had not had that advantage, so that summer before they travelled to Dublin he was despatched once a week to his Grandma Lenihan, who taught him French, and once a week to his Aunt Mary, who taught him Latin.

I can see him yet, a good earnest student. I gave him homework which he was able to do easily and he was always asking questions so it behoved me to be ahead of him, which as any teacher knows, you have to be when you are preparing your lesson. I was determined that he would be the best 12-year-old Latin scholar going into Belvedere College.

I still remember vividly his round face, his lovely smile and his willingness to learn. My own two sons, who were younger, knew that this was a time they could not break into, and so we had our special hour or two each week together, a memory which has given me huge comfort and solace now that he is gone.

Anyway, he trotted into Belvedere the same way as he had trotted into schools in Athlone, and he made of the teachers his own. He was a willing, studious schoolboy -- but always with a great sense of humour.

He quickly flew through the years in Belvedere and then became head prefect. I think the sense of authority he later wore so lightly began to emerge in him. We would meet on and off during those years and I would always ask him about his Latin and how that was going and he would tell me. He was so respectful and so decent to older people.

Trinity beckoned and away he went to study law and to become one of their most honoured students and graduates. He became a scholar at Trinity, and away to Oxford, where more honours beckoned. Every study he touched he obtained summa cum laude, and it was as if life before him was to be traversed cum laude everywhere he went.

In Dublin he met and wooed and married the lovely Patricia Ryan, the love of his life, and they set up family home together in the Strawberry Beds, and so life assumed a pattern.

Brian spent many hours at his legal work -- but was always involved with his father in the Dublin West political business. His father went through his health traumas, and in his absence, Brian was helped in the Comhairle Dáil of the constituency of Dublin West.

I had made my own way politically in Longford/Westmeath, had become a TD and a minister under Charlie Haughey, and Brian's path and mine would cross often. In the Irish sense I always kept an eye on him and I knew one day that he would be political too.

Sadly Brian Snr's health failed, and in the ensuing by-election, Brian Jnr was the candidate in Dublin West. Bertie Ahern was the leader of Fianna Fáil and I was one of the strongest canvassers for young Brian.

After he won the seat, Brian and I began a new phase of our relationship in the same workplace, Leinster House, where we traversed the same corridors, the same committee rooms, the same canteens and gradually a strong friendship, not just born of the relationship values we shared, but a friendship born of work and shared political beliefs developed and grew.

After the '07 election, Bertie Ahern put him in cabinet as Minister for Justice -- a role he adored as he could exercise his legal and forensic skills to the utmost. That election was lucky for me too and our friendship continued undimmed.

Then Brian Cowen appointed him Minister for Finance to the surprise of many, but he set to with typical diligence and dedication to master that role too.

Part of that period, '08-11, in political terms is fully documented. In personal terms Brian faced into endless challenges, which he met always full head-on, having reflected, studied and come to conclusions.

Christmas '09 saw the dreaded news of his pancreatic cancer. We knew immediately that life in front of him would be short, but he met that challenge too with typical bravery and in steadfast resolution that he would do the job and he would carry out his duties -- all of which he did and the country rallied to him.

On this last road he travelled, all of his qualities came to the fore, of course buttressed up by his intense love for his wife and two children, Tom and Clare, for his mother, for his family, and the intensity of the relationship between himself and myself blossomed in that arid period.

He would telephone me often and I would telephone back and we would have long conversations about work, about life, about the future, which he knew was not to be.

The amazing aspect of him during this time was his readiness to talk. He would be going through the corridors of Leinster House and he would be stopped by TDs and senators of all political parties, by visitors to the House who wanted just to talk with him.

Just as everyone had time for him he had time for everyone, and his officials wearied of trying to pull him away -- on, on, on to the next appointment, the next meeting, the next decision -- but Brian wanted to talk. It was as if he wanted to cram into those short months interaction with everyone he met, so in that way he touched so many.

The highlight of 2010 was the invitation to him to visit Béal na mBláth and to give the commemorative address there on the anniversary of the death of Michael Collins. He accepted gladly and a few of us went down from Athlone to be witness to what I knew would forever be a truly historic evening.

Ican't remember what he said, but I can remember how he looked -- tall and strong and happy and outgoing, and it was easy to believe on that sunny August afternoon that the medical diagnoses were wrong and that somehow Brian's indomitable spirit would overcome.

Thousands came forward to meet him, to talk with him, to kiss him, to be photographed with him, and he wanted to stay on and on and meet more and more, but of course that false hope of health was not to be and in fact he was living longer than his health prognosis had laid out for him.

His last Christmas was spent quietly followed by the general election, which as we know wrought a tsunami on 58 Fianna Fáil candidates, but Brian shone through. He won his seat in Dublin West. That gave him, I know, huge joy -- the fact that his constituents stood with him.

In April and May he went in and out of Dáil Éireann, but infrequently, and it was clear that life was ebbing.

I was alarmed towards the end when he told me he wanted to sleep all the time. He would get up and get dressed and no sooner had he done that then he wanted to lie down again. I noticed the tone of his voice changing. I knew the end was coming and it was -- quickly and swiftly and as can sometimes happen, almost painlessly.

He died in his own house with his wife and his two children lying down with him.

On June 10, early in the morning at about 6.30am, my phone rang loud and shrill. I grabbed it and said immediately, "Brian's dead, Brian's dead", and so he was. It was his mother Ann telling me he had passed away that night/early morning around two o'clock.

What have we left? The happy, joyful, proud memories of a man who was a simple star, who lit up so many lives, who gave so much joy and hope and love to so many.

He chose his favourite prayer from John Henry Newman to be the prayer on his mortuary card as follows: "O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy word is hushed and the fever of life is over and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at last". Amen.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis

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