John was with me on our first day at school. We sat next to each other at Scoil Bhrid in Ranelagh. There was one harsh teacher there who made my young life a misery. When I was afraid, when I cried at her scolding, it was John who comforted me. That was his nature from our earliest days. Kindness defined him. He had steadiness, too. That came in great quantities from his dad, John senior.
But young John had a taste for devilment that was pure Keane. Because we lived nearby in Terenure I saw more of the Schusters than other relatives. Trips to their home in St Kevin's Gardens in Dartry always summoned the prospect of adventure. There were six boys - Alex, John, Bill, Ivan, Pierre and Milan - and a glad, often wild energy pulsed through their home. There could be dramas. Once I recall the entire clan being rushed to hospital to have their stomachs pumped after they'd consumed seeds from the laburnum tree in their garden.
John and I were born within months of each other. His mother Peg was my father's younger sister. Glamorous aunty Peg had been an air hostess for Aer Lingus before marrying John Schuster, who had escaped the clutches of communism in Czechoslovakia. My Schuster cousins were an exotic mix of Bohemia and the closer shores of North Kerry. Peg believed in letting her boys enjoy freedom, and her bracing wit was the best corrective when youthful exuberance risked straying into the terrain of blackguarding.
Birthdays, communions, confirmations intersected. One of the few photographs I have retained from childhood is of myself and the Schuster cousins squinting into the sunlight on the day of my communion. John is the other communion boy in the photograph. It was taken by his dad, the devoted chronicler of family occasions.
On school holidays, we would meet in Listowel. The Dublin Keanes and Schusters collided with the Listowel Keanes and the O'Connor first cousins from Cahirciveen. Numerous Purtills from the farmlands of Lisselton were added to this ebullient mix. That rural world was enchanting to the city children: we rode on Willie Purtill's ass and cart to the creamery, looked in wonderment at the stuffed fox and pheasant above Alla Sheehy's bar, smelled the turf burning on the range, heard of a wild granduncle who lived in the attic and came down to rail at priests. By the fire in my grandmother Hannie's kitchen, we listened to ghost stories with a lingering chill of truth. In uncle John B's pub, we tasted the tart cream of porter for the first time and heard the tap of his typewriter from the upstairs room overlooking the square.
Once I remember my uncle Denis taking us all to the cinema in Listowel. Denis lived in Dublin too and was closest of all to the Schusters. The film was Fiddler on the Roof in which none of us had the slightest interest. Boredom ignited our desire for mischief. The trouble began with my cousin Conor cracking a loud joke at the expense of the usher. It was a joke related to what Mark Twain would have called his "premature balditude". He was a man with a very shiny head. The Schusters joined in. Hardboiled sweets were launched. I remember an infuriated employee shouting: "Ye think ye're smart arses, ye Keanes." Which was true. We thought we were very smart. In all of this, John Schuster was a laughing presence. Especially when we were ordered out.
He grew to be the most decent and reliable of men. John married Graziella, who brought him the warmth of her great heart. Graz sits at the centre of our wide family. She was the one who organised the first family gathering of all the Keanes in Blarney many years ago when my son Daniel played with his cousins Niccolai and Alexei, small boys untouched by the future. Last year, she and John were the ones who staged a 70th birthday party for Uncle Denis. It was a sultry summer evening and young and old mingled, laughed and engaged in devilment. That was the last time I saw Niccolai. He was just getting ready to go travelling in Thailand. John and Graz quizzed me about the pitfalls of the road in Asia. I reassured them. Nicc would be just fine. How could he not be? They had raised him with that mix of strength and tenderness that marks the best of parenting. And, like them, he met the world with a smile and an open heart. Who could refuse to open their door to that beautiful boy?
I was back in that garden last week. Nicc lay in repose in the house. But John and Graz and Alexei were moving around us, through us, filling us with their humanity. Oh God, what a privilege it is to share life with such people.
When John spoke at the funeral about parents needing to let their children go, of allowing them to be free to explore the world, he spoke a wisdom that cannot have been easy for him. But it was typical. He looked beyond his own grief to speak to the fears of so many Irish parents in the wake of Berkeley. "Don't wrap them in cotton wool," he said. That was my cousin John. The man with the biggest heart of all.
I have no words of consolation. There are none. When a child, a beloved brother is lost, words like 'healing' or phrases like 'moving on' have no meaning. They miss the point entirely.
But what does count is love. It is the only damn thing that always counts. Every second of his life, Nicc knew that he was loved. And in his passing, love has flowed outwards from John and Graz and Alexei to envelop his family and his nation. In the words of Thornton Wilder, such love "is the only survival, the only meaning".
It flows back to the Schusters from those of us who know them and from those who have only read of their tragedy. It will endure. That much we can promise the dead and those who mourn them. Rest in peace, dear Niccolai.