Births, deaths and marriages underscore our experiences of life and each in its own way takes a toll of our emotions and our strengths. Last weekend a heavy toll was paid as firstly I visited graves of members of the Spellman family whom I first came to know over 38 years ago. Since then four of the Spellman’s have died. Both parents, after long and happy lives, but as well, a son and a daughter, one at 37 years of age, the other aged 55 years. Death has no respect for age or reputation and the cemetery at Bohermore in Galway bears mute testimony to the impermanence of life.
The following day I attended the wedding of the daughter of a school friend in a small church at Cratloe, Co. Clare, just a few miles from Bunratty Castle. Ted Wynne’s daughter Aileen, was marrying Eric Conroy and performing the ceremony in the church which was opened for religious services 198 years ago was Fr. Philip Dennehy, Parish Priest of this parish. The ceremony, as befitting one involving Fr. Dennehy, was at once graceful and moving, while the Limerick Gospel Singers added an unexpected infusion of inspirational singing. It was a wedding with a difference, the bride foregoing the usual triumphal wedding march for a graceful rhythmical a cappello singing of “Lean on Me”. A wonderful experience on a day graced by sunshine and good company which regrettably I could not stay to enjoy as I made a hasty journey to the Marble City to see a very special girl. For earlier that morning I had received a telephone call to tell me that I was a grandfather for the first time. It would seem that of all my school pals I was the last to achieve that plateau of ageism which brings with it a sense of venerability which owes nothing to one’s own flawed feelings of imperishable youth.
The cause of my sudden elevation to the ranks of an elder was a 7lb. 15oz. girl which the proud parents, my son Seamus and his wife Miriam, formerly of Kilkenny city called Rachel. What I wondered was to be my role as a grandfather. Do I give advice to young parents on what to do or what not to do? Apparently not, or so I was told by my wife before I had even ventured to express an opinion or a comment on the subject. My role is as yet undefined but inevitably must take the traditional route.
It made me think back to my own mother and father when my children were born. Of course being the fourth son, my children when they arrived, as they did with extraordinary rapidity, came after a rash of other grandchildren had already come on the scene. After the 14th or 15th grandchild grandparents are entitled to become somewhat blasé about new arrivals but it was the birth of our second child in Monaghan town in 1970 which demonstrated for me the depth or strength of feelings which my parents as grandparents had for their children’s children.
With the expected arrival of our second child, the first being one year old, I suffered a back injury, such as to make me immobile. Somehow or other my parents, living in Athy, got to hear of what happened and within hours made immediate arrangements, unknown to me, to be brought up north to the border town arriving at 3.00 o’clock in the morning. They stayed with us for about six weeks or so until everything and everyone was sorted out and then returned to Athy. It was a most extraordinary generous act on my parents part as they were never known to go anywhere or do anything on the spur of the moment. Indeed the only trips they had ever made outside of Athy up to then were well planned and well prepared occasional annual summer holidays.
I was reminded of those days of 34 years ago when I saw the sleeping Rachel for the first time. The young parents were inexhaustible in their excitement and rightly proud of the event which ranks above anything else encountered throughout a long lifetime. The birth of a baby is a wondrous miracle, no matter how frequently it occurs. A birth touches everyone in some form or other. We are either fathers or mothers, aunts or uncles, grandfathers or grandmothers, the last category tending to have an exalted position in the hierarchy of affection for young children.
I can vaguely recall through the thickening mists of several decades my own maternal grandfather, a Mayo farmer, long retired, who welcomed back to the old family home his only daughter and her children for the annual two weeks summer holidays. My memories of those times have indeed faded but the impermanence of memory is however helped by photographs of the time. The small black and white images bridge the years, re-focusing in the minds eye the faces and the people who could not be otherwise recalled with any great accuracy. He was the only grandfather I knew as my father’s father had passed away long before my arrival.
The 7th of August is a day which like every other day in the calendar recalls an event in history which changed the society in which we live. It was 7th August 1914 when Kitchener made his famous call for a volunteer army of 100,000 men to help the beleaguered Belgians whose country had been invaded by the Germans. That same date, a little further back in history, 7th August 1840 to be precise, saw the passing of the act which prohibited the employment of young children as climbing boys to sweep chimneys.
A significant day in history has been made all the more special for me as I enjoy the treasured status of being a grandfather for the first time.