Sunday 9 December 2018

In memory of two patriots: Maurice Hayes, Donal Barrington

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

The recent deaths of Maurice Hayes and Donal Barrington deprived Ireland of two of our greatest public men and left me mourning two of my long-time personal heroes.

Sadly, I never met Donal Barrington in person, and only met Maurice Hayes once, in 2012, when Paddy Burke, Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, invited Drew Nelson, secretary of the Orange Order, to address the Seanad. Seems long ago.

But those few hours with Hayes reminded me of what Dr Johnson said about meeting Edmund Burke.

"You could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen."

Luckily, I had read all his memoirs, and he read my columns, so we had a meeting of minds on the Provisional IRA campaign, about which he wrote in his compelling and often caustic memoir, Minority Verdict.

"There was in all that time no injustice, no unfairness, no degree of discrimination, that was worth the sacrifice of a single life."

Even in his 80s Hayes retained some of the physique that won him an All-Ireland medal for Down; a strong, stocky body that must have made him hard to handle on the playing field.

Topping that tough body was an equally strong face, set off by horn-rimmed spectacles through which he gazed at you with benign but penetrating eyes.

Crowning it all was a thatch of luxuriant thick grey locks, that in retrospect conjures up an irresistible image of the aged Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi.

He was born in 1927 in a small religiously mixed fishing village in Co Down. In his wry and moving memoir Sweet Killough, Let Go Your Anchor, he recalls it as a small paradise of tolerance before the serpents of terrorism surfaced in Northern Ireland.

Hayes read English at Queen's University and his two childhood memoirs and the acute character studies in Minority Verdict suggest that his true vocation was that of a writer.

Selfishly, however, we must be grateful that in the late 1940s he joined the Northern Ireland health service, his first step in a stellar career.

In spite of discrimination against Roman Catholics at the time, Hayes overcame these prejudices to become permanent secretary to Health and Social Services.

Confirmation that his promotion came from superior merit came my way from a chance meeting a few days ago in Insomnia at Deansgrange, with Andrew, a northern Protestant who had worked under Hayes before coming South.

When I asked Andrew how he remembered Hayes, he smiled, "we just called him God".

For an hour he spoke of Hayes's managerial skills with a mixture of awe and affection that explained Hayes's later successes in countless complex public tasks like the Patten Report, power-sharing and his role as Ombudsman.

As Andrew told me anecdote after anecdote, I realised that, for Hayes, administration was an art form. He came across as a master of the memo, the casual but crucial chat over coffee, the trench warfare of bureaucracy.

Clearly, these years in the civil service honed his natural skill at negotiation. He was adept at persuading people to shift their position slightly so as to offer them a fresh view of the situation - but doing it without ego so they felt they had found it for themselves.

But Andrew also remembered Hayes with affection because his boss never let bureaucracy get between his staff and doing the right thing.

Andrew recalled one challenge with particular pride. He had asked for Hayes's help in dealing with the difficult problem of a large family, suddenly orphaned, but cared for by the eldest, a capable 16-year-old girl.

The girl was willing and able to rear her siblings but regulations said the family must be placed in orphanages. A tenancy problem with their house made it more certain.

But Hayes somehow got around the rules so that the eldest was allowed to look after the children.

Not only that - here Andrew thumped the table in retrospective triumph, "he fixed it so the family could stay in the house until the youngest - the youngest mind you - was of age".

Years later, a grown woman stopped Andrew in the street to tell him that only for Mr Hayes her family, now all settled happily, would have been taken into care.

On reflection, I feel that for the past 40 years the same Mr Hayes helped to save the entire Irish family, Catholic, Protestant and dissenter, from being taken into care.

Some of our supine civil servants could learn a lot, too, from his tough advice in Minority Verdict.

"The true role of the senior public servant is to exercise a challenge function, to remind the emperor that he has no clothes."

Finally, it is not fanciful to think of Hayes as an Irish Jedi in the light of William Stephens's study, Star Wars and Philosophy, where he lists virtues common to Jedi and the Stoics.

Hayes had them all, too: patience, timeliness, deep commitment, seriousness, calmness, peacefulness, benevolence, joy and wisdom.

His son Dara summed him up: "The nation state he didn't consider a useful concept. He was a European, an Irishman, an Ulsterman. Most important of all he was a Co Down man."

Maurice Hayes lies in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Downpatrick. He found us a fine mooring.

We should never let go his anchor.


The death of Donal Barrington was rightly marked by a roll call of his distinguished contributions to law and public life. But the first tributes failed to mark his greatest act of public service back in 1957.

Barrington was a young barrister when the Catholic boycott of Protestant shops broke out at Fethard-on-Sea in 1957. The boycott was backed by the Bishop of Galway and given tacit support by the craven silence of politicians.

Barrington bravely broke that shameful silence at a Catholic conference, calling the boycott "the most terrible thing that has happened in this country since the Civil War".

I can still remember my father - who liked rural Protestants - calling me in from play to tell me Eamon de Valera called the boycott "ill-conceived and ill-considered" and to correctly predict this would help finish the boycott.

Barrington and the boycott taught me the lasting lesson - that southern Catholics could be bigoted, too, a theme that surfaces in my writing since, particularly in my play Souper Sullivan.

After its production at the Abbey in 1985, Eileen Cloney, who had been the child in the case, filled me in on the almost forgotten saga of Fethard-on-Sea.

Gripped by the story, I took it to Gerry Gregg who wasted no time in starting the process that led to the making of the movie, A Love Divided.

Tim Fanning, author of The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott, believes the boycott had an economic motive - keeping farms in Catholic hands.

North and South, we will always need a Maurice Hayes, a Donal Barrington.

Sunday Independent

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