Wednesday 23 October 2019

Notebook: The ordinary heroes

Richard Bourke
Richard Bourke

Cormac Bourke

It is hard to think now that the last time I spoke to him was this day 20 years ago, St Patrick's Day 1999.

There had been a match. My old school played in a final in which they did not normally play. The result had not gone our way but the playing of the match in itself was an event.

Afterwards, I rang to tell him.

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He commiserated. He said it didn't matter. Sure good to be there. I'll come down home soon. See you then.


It troubles me deeply to think how every year moves me closer to having lived more of my life without my father than with him.

Today, ahead of the 20th anniversary of his death tomorrow, I miss him. As I miss him most days.

It gives me pause for thought as we celebrate our national saint and contemplate our Irishness. We will reflect on the great deeds of the Irish men and women who have been cornerstones of our history and our Republic. We should, however, also consider more the ordinary people who live their lives and keep our country going: our unheralded everyday heroes.

This is a country where we like to bend the rules. Some love the rogue and those who can beat the system. Others less so.

Many, in fact, go about the simple task of raising a family, doing their work, paying their taxes, getting on with their lives. These are the people that are the fabric of our society.

And while we often think of ourselves as being in love with rogues, there is in our Irishness, deep down, an appreciation of the resilient stoicism of those who simply go about their daily business, fairly, freely and without causing others harm.

My father was one of those.

As most of them are, he was therefore a busy man.

Our time was spent together in activities, frequently DIY after a fashion, or 'jobs' as they were known.

He had the mind and education of an engineer. There was a method to be applied. A task required a plan. A plan usually required a diagram. And that usually required measurements. Perhaps the purchase of some materials.

The work was done carefully.

(I met an old teacher of mine recently; they had played golf together. I said I had been told my father had been a slow golfer. He was a careful golfer, the reply came.)

I remember those 'jobs' being done outside in the garden to the crackle of a paint-splattered transistor radio, carrying the commentary of that Sunday's GAA matches.

Somehow, in my mind, Wexford - his home county - always seemed to be losing a game to Offaly that they were expected to win, with Wexford's forwards unable to simply put the ball between the posts. I believe that memory comes from the Leinster hurling final of 1988 - Wexford's first in four years.

He had known the days of the Rackards, the brothers who starred on the grat All-Ireland winning teams of the 1950s and 1960s. I remember his disappointment that there was no new dawn for Wexford that day in 1988.

I remember ringing him from Paris when Wexford won the All-Ireland in 1996. His simple joy. But understated. I didn't know what to say to him really.

I have long treasured the letter he sent to me ahead of my trip to Paris when I was living and working in Germany in that summer of 1996.

Holding the letter in my hand and re-reading it reminds me how hand-writing is one of the few truly personal permanent physical marks we leave on this world.

We don't treasure it enough and seeing his handwriting makes me catch my breath still, as if he were about to enter the room.

He wrote three pages of a GAA update, promising to tape the All-Ireland hurling final.

He then wrote page after page about Paris - and Rome, where I was eventually headed too - detailing everything from the sights to be seen in both cities and their opening hours to the exchange rates. There are even some diagrams and, true to form, jokes dotted about the place.

"Don't forget to tell the Pope I was asking for him - just tell him it was the guy with the red hair who was waving at him in the Phoenix Park in 1979."

The final paragraph reads:

"So I will finish up by asking you to take care - keep to the main streets. Enjoy yourself and I shall see you either in Dublin Airport or at home in mid-September. You can let us know what flight you are coming to Dublin on and from where. Love Dad."

That was the way he lived his life - kind and practical. Doing the right thing. Taking care.

And I am lucky to say that as I move towards that point in my life where I have lived longer without him than with him, Richard Bourke remains my hero.

He always will.

Sunday Independent

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