Last week Gertie Healy was laid to rest in St. Michael’s Cemetery. She had been absent from her usual place at 12 o’clock Sunday mass for a number of weeks but it was only following her passing that I learned she had been seriously ill. Her final farewell in the church where she attended mass for so many years was marked by what may have been a unique contribution by her brother Joe and her sister Carmel.
Carmel, who is married to Brendan Kehoe formerly of Offaly Street, played the organ accompaniment for her brother Joe singing at Gertie’s funeral mass. It was a wonderful example of filial love and personalised a service which on too many occasions in the past has been marked by inappropriate and overwrought eulogies of doubtful accuracy.
Joe May’s singing was a pleasure to hear. His is a voice of character which was shown at its best with his interpretation of ‘The Prayer’, a song made famous by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli. I understand it was at Gertie’s request that ‘The Prayer’ was sung and its moving words added to the reverence of the occasion:-
‘I pray you’ll be our eyes, and watch us where we go
And teach us to be wise, in times when we don’t know
Let this be our prayer, when we lose our way
Lead us to the place, guide us with your grace
To a place, where we’ll be safe.’
As members of the local community we walked behind the hearse as Gertie made her final journey to St. Michael’s Cemetery. It’s a journey which has been made thousands of times over the years, ever since the first Parish Church, now in ruins, was erected outside the walls of the medieval village of Athy. The new St. Michael’s Cemetery laid out in fields which once adjoined the Glebe lands and the towns ancient fairgreen is steadily filling up. Since it was first opened 50 years ago St. Michael’s new cemetery has received the remains of men folk and women folk well known to us all. It shows on its tombstones familiar names which in a few decades will be lost to later generations. I am often reminded of the fleeting nature of fame and fortune when, walking through old St. Michael’s Cemetery, I read without recognition the names etched on the scattered tombstones. Names once familiar in this area are no longer represented in the Athy of today. With them has gone the shared memories of a past community, memories which can never again be recovered.
I mentioned in last week’s article the Forgotten People project initiated by the Local History Federations and with Gertie Healy’s passing last week I was reminded yet again of that part of our history which for so long was neglected and overlooked. Gertie’s parents, Joe May and Hester Dooley, were part of the mainstream of Irish republicanism and in the years following the 1916 Rising they risked their freedom and, if truth be known, their very lives in pursuit of ideals first championed by the United Irishmen of 1798.
Gertie’s father was imprisoned for several months during the War of Independence in Ballykinler Camp, Co. Down, while her mother underwent much privation and difficulties while working as secretary to Piaras Béaslaí and later General Ginger O’Connell. As a young fellow growing up in Athy in the 1950s I knew nothing of the part Joe May and Hester Dooley and others from Athy played in that War of Independence. That omission has been in part remedied but much yet remains to be uncovered and acknowledged.
Gertie Healy in her last months faced her illness with a courage which was reminiscent of that displayed by her parents so many decades ago. Gertie’s family cared for her at home during her last illness and the musical contribution by her brother Joe and sister Carmel at the funeral mass was a fitting tribute to a wonderful lady whose adult nursing life was spent amongst the elderly patients of St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Colm McNulty, formerly of this parish but now living and teaching in Wellington, New Zealand is the author of a recently published book ‘A Brotherhood so Splendid’. It tells the story of the teachers and former pupils of Wellington College where Colm now teaches, who enlisted to fight in the First World War. Copies are available for sale in the Gem and if you are interested in an interesting and imaginative mixture of history and dialogue this is a book you should get.