This Man's Life: Imelda was the sweetest thing for her runaway love Brian Bell
This world is not a vale of sorrows if you will recognise discriminatingly what is truly excellent in it; and if you will avail yourself of it for mutual happiness and well-being. My mother taught me that as much as Kurt Vonnegut (who wrote those words) did.
Recently, there have been vale-of-sorrow-ish moments when I wished I had my mother to talk to. Even for a second. The numbing emotional pain is as unsettling and ever-present as the sense of loss, the sense of a vast void in everything - in me. So I can only imagine how my friend David Bell felt last week when he lost his dear mother, Imelda.
Ironically, the last time I met David was on January 23 when we drove to Dolores O'Riordan's funeral in Co Limerick and sat in the Church of Saint Ailbe in Ballybricken together for the Mass. Three months later, I am looking up at poor David and his family in the Church of St Peter & Paul in Baldoyle. David is reading from the pulpit a piece that was written by Henry Scott Holland, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. It was part of a sermon he delivered at the funeral of King Edward VII in St Paul's Cathedral, London, in 1910, entitled Death the King of Terrors. "We know our mum would have appreciated it," explained David, before reading it beautifully:
"Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name..."
David then added that his mother Imelda had a wish that they would play a certain piece of music at her funeral: Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from the third act of Giuseppe Verdi's opera Nabucco. Before playing it, David explained that when Verdi wrote it, his wife and his children had recently died. "Under such awful circumstances, he composed arguably, his finest, most emotive work." And so it proved as Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves rang out spiritually in the Church of St Peter & Paul last Wednesday morning.
"There is a line in it when translated that reads 'Or Let the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices which may instil virtue to suffering'; something that resonates when you hear this beautiful piece of music and the astonishing voices that will undoubtedly make your heart swell," said David. "No wonder my mother adored it."
Born on June 4, 1936, Imelda O'Reilly passed away last Sunday, April 8, with dawn breaking over the city, recalled Imelda's youngest child Raymond - and with "birds hovering in the dappled light, and Mum, after having been lost to us for so long, seemed now to be returning to us, to her room, to her body, in order to finally leave, her head lifting from the pillow and tilting toward us, her eyes fixing on us in a moment of pure grace, and then slowly closing. Her last breath was scarcely a breath at all but rather a contented sigh, the same we all heard frequently whenever we watched Mum resting at home. And here she was resting before us now, at peace, at last."
David's big sister, Alison, had earlier recounted how 60 years ago in August in this very church, their mother "rocked up outside the door in a stunning wedding gown she had bought in a London dress shop to marry my dad. Dad booked the church and the wedding venue so Mum's first visit was to walk down this aisle".
Alison also recalled what a superb dressmaker her mother was. She'd buy yards of material in Hickeys and within an hour have turned a plain piece of material into something she'd seen in a magazine or on the telly. "Which is why," Alison said, "I came to be wearing a pair of yellow hot pants the Monday after a Eurovision Song Contest many years ago in homage to Clodagh Rodgers."
Raymond also remembered how it was on Monday, July 12, 1954, when fate - and faith - first brought their parents together. Their dad Brian had the previous Saturday smashed the Irish three-mile record. "But it was a triumph marked by sadness and much regret; home life wasn't great," Raymond said.
Brian Bell told me the story himself later. His father, an army officer, was quite a domineering man and home life was not all it should be. (The one positive for Brian, who would go on to become a legend of sorts of Irish running, was that living in The Curragh meant that he "learned to run, chasing around the place".) A man of faith, young Brian found himself in St Canice's Church in Finglas village that fateful Monday morning in 1954 asking for a sign that all would be well. His prayers would soon be answered. Moments later, with God guiding him, Brian's near-legendary feet took him across the road to Clarke's newsagents, a confectionery store Brian had previously visited some seven years earlier. The moment he crossed the threshold, and this girl looked up at him, Brian says he knew instinctively that she would be the girl he would eventually marry.
"I asked her for a bar of Cadbury's chocolate - 4p then," Brian recalls, "and as she went to fetch one, the van driver glanced over and said, 'Well done, Brian. Great running'. He turned out to be a former colleague of mine on the Dublin senior cross-country team." A brief conversation ensued, names were shyly exchanged, and Imelda returned with the bar of chocolate, broke it in two, offering Brian half and keeping half for herself.
Brian told her he was going to London the following week and that he would send her a card. "Every year on our anniversary, we would get a bar of Cadbury's," Brian tells me. "She was an absolutely extraordinary lady. So kind, so loving, so beautiful. She was the image of Julie Andrews when she was younger. Everybody said that. Some people thought it was Julie Andrews.
"I will never get over her. I can never forget her. She was the jewel in my crown."