31 December 2020

Farewell to a wonderful mother: a funeral tribute


A long time ago, Mam said that she wanted me to speak at her funeral, when the time came. ‘I want you to talk,’ she said, ‘and to make everyone laugh.’ I don’t think I can promise that, and with most people joining us today doing so remotely I’ll probably never know, but here goes.

Veronica – or Vera – Hynes was born in Liverpool in April 1939, just a few months before war broke out, the third daughter, after Doreen and Brenda, of William and Sally. She grew up in and around Scotland Road – Scottie as it’s fondly remembered by locals – and with William serving in the RAF during the war, it fell to Sally to keep the girls safe when the docks were being bombed, whether by hurrying them to a local bomb shelter or even taking them away to stay with Auntie Mary in the then-peaceful suburb of Fazakerly.

Mam was only three or four when her eldest sister Doreen died, aged seven, from diphtheria, but Brenda and herself weren’t to be only Hynes girls, joined as they were by Eileen and a few years later by Joyce.

Dad came to Liverpool in the 1950s, working as a fitter in the docks, and gradually getting involved in the social life of the city, including the ceilidhs organised at St Alphonsus’ Parish, where his friend Martin McNamara introduced him to Brenda, later telling him about her younger sister. ‘She’s like Brenda, but she’s mad,’ he said.

Dad was immediately taken with Brenda’s clever, laughing younger sister, but thought no more of it, though as the years passed and Dad got to know the Hynes girls better, with him always getting a warm welcome in the family home, whether in Liverpool proper or eventually in Kirkby’s Lognor Walk, he began to realise that maybe, just maybe, there might be something there.

Over these years, aside from being fun at ceilidhs and dances, Vera displayed the quick wits and organisational gifts she’d later be well known for, especially loving her time working at PSN – the Pacific Steam Navigation Company in the iconic red-and-white Albion House just off Liverpool’s Pier Head. Mam was always proud of her time there, and last time she passed it she told her taxi driver of how she had worked there when she was young.

During this period Vera was heavily involved with the Young Christian Worker movement, organising the younger groups and being the teenage co-ordinator for Liverpool. It was in connection with this that she travelled in Rome in 1957 as part of a large English and Welsh delegation to an international pilgrimage. One of those who filled St Peter’s Square to hear the Pope of the day, she didn’t cope as well as she’d have liked with the Roman heat, while worse was to come on the way home, with her train across France being derailed in an accident that saw her knocked unconscious and briefly hospitalised.

Mam and Dad married in 1960, moving to Ireland where Dad worked on Boora Bog, and where they had a little house in the Bord na Mona cottages in Kilcormac. It beggars belief, really, to think of this young Liverpool woman moving to a tiny town in the very centre of Ireland, where she was probably the only Englishwoman in all of Offaly, but somehow she made it work, learning to ride a bike, getting involved in the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, and throwing her herself into local social life. Decorating her new home was a delight for her, and when Dad apologised for not having got a slightly bigger house, she was incredulous: people like us, she said, live in one-room apartments!

A couple of years later Vera and Eamonn moved to Dublin, settling in Palmerstown where they began to raise a young family in Anita and Colette – neither of whom, sadly, can be here today because of Covid restrictions – and then Liam. Mam got involved in the local youth club over those years, which seemingly meant that family A, as the older three would become known, would occasionally get soft drinks other than at Christmas, Mam now and again having bottles of Fanta or Coke stored in the house. She tried learning Irish too, with help from the girls, but she never made it much beyond a simple ‘How are you?’ or ‘Shut the door,’ the latter being pronounced ‘done on dohras’ rather than the more conventional ‘dún an doras’, perhaps because of the girls having a slightly Liverpudlian tilt to their own accents at the time.

The real driver of the family back then, Mam had energy, brains to burn, and a determination that things should be as good as possible. She may not have been a football fan, despite coming from a blue background in Liverpool, but she’d clearly imbibed the Everton motto ‘Nothing but the best’.

Trips home to Liverpool were a regular feature of those years, with Mam typically taking the ferry to Holyhead and the train across North Wales, which she loved; the girls, meanwhile, loved the playground behind their grandmother’s house in Kirkby. There were even a few family holidays back then too, first in Ardamine in Wexford, then in Ardmore in Waterford, and in 1974 in Castlegregory in Kerry, where several days of incessant rain saw the family decamp from their soaked canvas tents to a caravan!

1974 was also the year where Mam first got involved in a movement that in many ways would define much of her life, and would shape many of ours, as Dad opened an account at Palmerstown Credit Union, and then suggested that Mam do so too, and even that she might enjoy helping out there too. To say she took to it like a duck to water would be an understatement: over the next 33 years she would be a volunteer teller, a session supervisor, and a clerical worker there, as well as being on a host of committees and spending almost 30 of her years on the local board of directors, where she served as vice-chairperson and secretary, with Palmerstown nominating her to serve on the national League Board in 2000. Over the years she held every single position at the regional chapter level too, taking in all the credit unions of West Dublin, even stretching into Kildare and Meath.

Mam was hugely devoted to the whole credit union ethos, promoting it through art competitions and quizzes – especially schools quizzes, which she really loved – and even around the dining room table, memorably hosting people in the house for dinner who’d come over from Birmingham to learn how to set up their own credit unions. Just hours after her death the other day, a friend of Elaine texted her to say that the odds were that Mam was probably busy with Frank Beggan and Molly O’Callaghan, who died just weeks ago, setting up a credit union in Heaven. They might have a trick working out the common bond, Liam pointed out, but I don’t think that would stump them too long; as Dad says, if he’s someone who tends to see problems, Mam was always someone who could find solutions.

The social side of the credit union movement shouldn’t be played down of course, and I don’t just mean the dinner dances that felt like a constant of my childhood! She made so many wonderful friendships in her decades involved in Palmerstown Credit Union and Chapter 25, and would have been a well-known figure at national conventions too. Conventions seem to have been a marvellous blend of work and play, and it was fun to hear Mam talk of how John Hume, who famously saw his role in introducing the credit union movement to Ireland as his greatest achievement because of how it helped so many people pull themselves out of poverty, would bash out ‘The Sash My Father Wore’ as a party piece there.

Myself, Elaine, and Adam would be family B, of course, coming along a decade or so after the first batch, so we were very much credit union children in this way – Adam perhaps most especially, with his playpen set up in the office – and ours in many ways were different childhoods: if trips to the beach for older siblings meant piling into a train to Galway, for us it meant sitting in the back of a roasting car and driving to Malahide or Loughshinny or somewhere. I’m told it was on one of those Galway adventures, complete with an obscenely early start and a mountain of Tupperware-packed salad sandwiches, that Dad tried to teach Mam how to swim. He held her chin while she tried to doggy paddle in the Atlantic at Salthill, and after she had proudly covered a few feet she nearly choked when Dad said, ‘Watch out, the Statue of Liberty is just over there.’

Having a car also meant Mam could boost one of her greatest talents, as Dad could now ferry infinite numbers of cakes all across Palmerstown and much further beyond. Mam catered for events, as it happens, even doing so right up to 2010 or so, but it was baking she was best known for. Indeed, when they heard of her death, it didn’t take long for neighbours from over the road to start reminiscing and salivating over them: ‘She was a fun person and a great cook… such a great person and neighbour, I have fond memories of her famous coffee cake, Black Forest Gateau, and mince pies… she was a great baker, fond memories of her coffee and the occasional mint cake, remember her coming over for a chat and a smoke with Ma… Jesus, the coffee cake!’

The kitchen at home could be an industrial operation, with hundreds upon hundreds of mince pies or hot cross buns or Vienna whirls or – before my time – apple fritters, donuts, and Eccles cakes, not to mention the grand Black Forests or coffee cakes or lemon meringue pies or extravagant birthday cakes shaped like castles or palaces or log cabins adorned with battling cowboys and Indians long before such things were cool. I’d say ‘when doing so was neither popular nor profitable’, but I know Mam’s cakes were hugely popular, and I’m pretty sure they were at least a bit profitable. I hope so, anyway, given the work she put into them.

Mam had a real gift for making pennies go a long way, and aside from her cakes, the house could sometimes seem to be a knitting factory – especially once she got a knitting machine, though her Aran jumpers preceded that by a while. And of course we’d all do our bit: no pocket money for us, but at least in the summers we could sell rhubarb from the garden, so a fair few of us over the years would tramp round Palmerstown to friends of Mam to sell them a dozen or so juicy sticks of rhubarb for the princely sum of 50p. It was cheaper than the shops, in fairness, and better too.

Mam was pretty proud of her garden too, and especially her flowers, whether in the ground or in hanging baskets. She tended them lovingly all her life, able to keep doing so even as her dementia started to take a toll. Liam’s dog Sally was great company for her in those final years, and in truth Sally stood in a long line of dogs Mam had loved about her: Laddie in Liverpool, Tony, Captain, and in my lifetime Sandy especially. Dad’s habit of taking excellent photographs really pays dividends here, when I think of photos of Mam sledding down a snowy slope in Glenauline field and Sandy running and yapping about her. If there’d ever been a shadow of a doubt of how much fun she could be, just one of those shots should dispel it.

If she loved flowers and she loved dogs, well, she loved people more. Yes, there could be a bit of confusion between the two, and I’ll always remember Dad’s incredulity at Sandy being promoted to a person when Mam said that ‘Nobody was allowed to disturb Liam in the front room except for Adam and Sandy.’ Many of our older neighbours have passed on themselves in recent years, including such beloved ones as Mary and Paddy Hoare next door or Matt and Clare O’Reilly from over the road, but reading the tributes from their children online over the last few days has been deeply moving, as have those from her credit union friends and so many others whose lives she touched. A lovely lady, they say, a great neighbour, a truly wonderful human being of a sort who comes along very rarely.

She loved us all: Dad and Dad’s family – where she made some real friends, with Rita’s immediate reaction on hearing of her death was to cry ‘Ah, me pal!’ – her children and in-laws, her sisters and brothers-in-law and nephews and nieces and cousins and friends, whether in Ireland or at home in England, and over recent decades and years her grandchildren in whom she absolutely delighted: first Aaron, Ciaran, Devon, and Quinn, and then Ciara, Eleanor, Nathan, and most recently Dexter, who Adam was able to bring in to Mam the last time he saw her.

Again, there are images that stay with you, and one I love especially is of Mam in her stairlift, grinning broadly as an ecstatic little Eleanor sat in her lap, thrilled to be going upstairs in what she called ‘Nanny’s train’. She loved every single one of us, and did her best to encourage us along the way in whatever we were doing – Liam’s art and love of birds, say, or Colette going into nursing with Mam missing the Big Snow of 1982 here because she had accompanied Colette over to England when she was starting her studies. She did this even when we thought we didn’t have a chance, and she consoled us and cared for us when we fell along the way. For years I had thought that her sitting up whenever I came home from work in the Silver Granite in the early hours of the morning was just down to her not sleeping well; I had no idea that she was just waiting for me, making sure I came home okay, and would chat with me awhile before heading up to bed.

Of course, we all have our own memories and our own stories to tell: I think of endless cups of coffee and a very particular spoon, of a wooden spoon that terrified me as much as it must have delighted me through the meals it helped prepare, of the sound of Mam’s finger tips on the rim of a her ashtray or clacking lightning-fast on the keys of an office calculator, of Coronation Street and Frank Sinatra, of going to the cinema together to watch Gone With the Wind, of having the story of Lourdes explained to me when we watched The Song of Bernadette, or having eggs for breakfast after morning Mass in Lent, or having my whim that I might be an altar server rightly dismissed: ‘You? You don’t even pay attention at Mass!’ And she was so much fun too, and funny with it, sometimes intentionally, when – say – she’d refer to Anthony Hopkins at one point as ‘the man who owns our telly’ and sometimes not, when she’d mix up her words and call my friend Heinrich ‘Heineken’, or Groucho Marx ‘that Moncho fella’, or send me to the video library to rent out ‘Not The Glen of the Downs’. It’s probably not a great sign that it took me no time at all to realise she meant Dancing at Lughnasa.

It’s a source of deep pain to all of us that so few of us can be here today. She deserves a vast funeral, just like her beloved Brenda had last year or Dad’s sister Mauren had earlier this year, with the church packed down the aisles and out the door with family and friends and even people who just loved her cakes, a host of us to pray for her soul, to console each other, and to celebrate her life. But these are strange times, and it’s not to be. She’d have understood that. In truth, I’m sure she understands it now.

Her last few years were quieter ones, of course, as her dementia crept up on her. As the years passed she played Scrabble less, so her made-up words didn’t brighten evenings as they once had, though she stayed at her jigsaw puzzles a good while longer, and as I’ve said, kept tending to her flowers – I couldn’t help but think how much fun she’d have had with my own mother-in-law if they’d been able to meet, with such shared passions! But then, I’ve wished so often she could have got to know my own wife Julie, as I think they’d have truly loved each other.

Five years ago things got to a point where she couldn’t be cared from properly at home any more, and she moved briefly to St James’s hospital, before moving to Highfield in early 2016, where she’s received the most wonderful care over the last few years. It’s been a real community, and Mam really was loved there. Indeed, it was marvellous to visit and spend time there with her, and for a long time seeing her help care for other women who were further along than she was, sometimes just by holding their hands, or talking gently with them, or stroking their hair.

Mam’s last years were harsh on her, and so much she’d have valued about herself was stripped away: her ability to think properly, her memories, her speech. But we are more than these things, and while we’ve all missed her advice and guidance and wit and comfort, those of us who’ve had the privilege of visiting her often and spending lots of time with her will also have had lots of fun with her. Her hands, so rough and painful for so much of her life, became soft and smooth and a pleasure to sit and hold; she would laugh so often even in her final weeks; and her smile – her beaming, warm, radiant smile, with those twinkling eyes – never went away.

And perhaps most precious of all, every so often – and so rarely – there’d be a sudden, magical glimpse of her as she had been, with the fog clearing and her responding as she used to. I told her one day, not expecting any response, of how at Mass that morning the priest had told the only joke I’d ever told her that she’d gone on to tell herself – she’d normally respond to my jokes my tossing her head and snorting ‘comedian’ – and then, to fill the space, I told it simply myself; there was a quiet pause, and then Mam smiled, said ‘I remember that,’ and started to laugh.

Sometimes these windows were just fleeting things, a sceptical look, a raised eyebrow, a laughing nod towards the television when fretting staff were trying to figure out which of the residents in Mam’s unit was in trouble and Mam realised the alarm sound was coming from the telly. Sometimes it was absolutely joyful, as when she was at a concert in Highfield just before last Christmas, and sometimes rather sarkier, as when Julie and I came back from our honeymoon, and I asked her did she like my new shirt. Cue a level look and a dismissive ‘Not particularly.’

Last time I saw Mam was at the end of February – I was on the bus in to see her again in early March when I got word that the nursing home had had to close – but when I did, I got the first sentence from her in a few weeks, maybe since when she’d described that Christmas concert to me as beautiful. I was holding her hand, and chatting away, telling her what little news I had and generally just filling the air. I think I may have gone on a bit too long.

‘Oh,’ she said, rolling her eyes, ‘would you ever stop talking!?’

I will now. Goodbye, Mam. We’ll miss you.

– A tribute read after Mass in St Matthew's Church, Ballyfermot, 30 December 2020.

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