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Billy Keane: Far from home -- but close to a mum's heart

IT has always been this way. Nearly all of my school pals emigrated. For a while in TigerTime I thought emigration was a thing of the past. There's a goodbye party every weekend in our town. Now my kid's pals are nearly all gone abroad. Handsome and pretty they are, brilliant and full of personality. I thought I'd never see the day and it breaks my heart.

There's Skype, cheaper travel, the net and a massive back-up of friends abroad. There is the dignity of work and the fine weather. But it's not home.

One day, a good few years ago, I spotted three down-and-outs roasting spuds in the embers of a fire near a fruit-and-veg depot in London's financial district. I gave the old boys a few coins for a bottle of Chateaux Monday and as I walked away a voice came as if from a dream: "I'm from Listowel. Co Kerry."

That's my home place.

We'll call him John and he was the caricature of a tramp with grey skin, a long white beard and unkempt hair. He was wearing smelly, old, outsize charity clothes and his sad eyes were vacant bloodshot slits under bushy eyebrows. We chatted and I knew his mother. She was in her 80s at the time.

John was staying in a nearby hostel. The drink and rough living had dimmed his thought processes.

Jerry Epstein, a wealthy Jewish-American film producer, did his best to look after the broken-down Irish man. Jeremiah O' Carroll, a friend from here living in London, called to see the poor fella most Saturdays and was very good to him.

Then one day, John vanished. That's what they do when you get too close and it was about three years before I came across John for the final time.

In the meantime I did my research. John's father was a well-to-do businessman and his mother came from a poor family. The businessman ignored John's mother after he got her pregnant. The mother brought him up as best she could. John was a handsome young lad. He drank but not to excess. The mother asked John's father for financial help on the eve of their son's departure for England. He chased John and his mammy out of the big house.

John went to London. He was a good worker but like many more he drank too much, due to loneliness, or possibly the rejection by his father. Bit by bit, the drink took over.

I asked an old friend of John's mother for advice. We came to the conclusion we would not tell her about the meeting in London. She was very old and the upset would be too much for her. It was easier that way for me.

John did come home -- in a small box, 40 or more years after he left Ireland on a big ship.

I closed the door of my pub as the small funeral cortege was pulling its way slowly up William Street. That's the custom around here.

As the funeral passed the bar window there was John's mother sitting in the front seat of the hearse.

I met her on the street a day or two later. "Sorry," I said. She was crying. "Ah but Billy, if only I knew where he was."

My heart sank.

I know the Irish abroad are very good to the fallen. If all else fails, contact parents or family back home before it's too late. The culture of keeping quiet must end. There are times when what goes on tour must go home.

If only I had told John's mother the truth, we might have been able to bring him back home for his final years. And she would have had some peace.

Such is the stuff of forever regret, and that irreversible 'if only' still haunts me, more than 20 years on.

Irish Independent