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When I was in primary school I was in the Ballinrobe school marching band. And I was good.
My glockenspiel and I were as one, and only the coldest of hearts could remain unmoved by my lyrical flourishes and precision marching on A Nation Once Again.
Sister Frances wasn’t supposed to have favourites in her band, but everyone knew i was her favourite.
Our nemesis was the Claremorris marching band. Fifteen miles and light years away across the bog, their band was older and bigger than ours, and although we would never admit it, their uniforms were nicer and fancier than ours too. (They also had a train station and a swimming pool and thought they were better than us, but everyone knew you could never get parking in Claremorris so they could feck off with their ideas above their train station)
Claremorris was the bog standard by which Ballinrobe judged itself, so in a spirit of competition that would have touched the cold heart of the brand new British Prime Minister Thatcher, beating the fancy-costumed Claremorris band was our carrot, while Sr Frances’ stern displeasure was our stick. (Not mine of course. I was her favourite)
So when we qualified for the All Ireland School’s Marching Band Finals in Killarney, it wasn’t the thought of lifting the trophy after a spectacular performance of Amhrain na bhFiann that spurred us on through hours of practice, but rather the thought of the Claremorris band’s crumpled faces as they stood (hopefully in the rain) and watched us lift it. Before they got the train home.
I don’t remember now which saint Sr Frances had decided was concerned with the outcome of school marching band competitions rather than the sick and destitute, but whoever it was, we obviously prayed hard enough and often enough, because when we were clambering back onto our coach to return home from Killarney, Sister Frances proudly clutching the All Ireland School’s Marching Band Winner’s Trophy, everything was perfect with the world, and train stations and swimming pools and fancy uniforms seemed but trivial things.
When the coach stopped on the side of the road for a pee break not long into the long journey, everything was still perfect with the world. And when Sr Frances took me and my two sisters aside and walked us a little away from the rest of the victorious peeing band, everything was still perfect with the world.
And then she told us that Granny had died.
Granny Hoban was a formidable woman who’d raised five kids on her own on a Guinness’s secretary’s wage. She used to just come and visit us on the train or we’d go to Dublin to visit her, but for the last while she’d been living in our back bedroom which hummed constantly with the sound of her ventilator.
Sister Frances said she was up in heaven now, and I’d say God was already regretting letting cancer get her because she could be quite stern when she wasn’t pleased with you and I’d say she was giving him a proper bollocking.
I knew what death was - after all we’d buried a whole cemetery worth of various pets in the garden - dogs, cats, budgies, hedgehogs, rabbits, sheep - but I never knew a person who died before. and I knew this was going to be a much bigger deal. We wouldn’t be burying Granny Hoban at the bottom of the garden. And while the bus bumped its way back to Ballinrobe and my sisters cried I cried too.
I cried because I wouldn’t see Granny Hoban again, but I cried too because I wasn’t sure what not seeing Granny Hoban again would actually be like. But mostly I cried because I was sure Mammy would be crying and Mammy crying was a rare and awful thing. I dreaded arriving home. Sr Frances said there’d be a lot of people in the house when we got there and I imagined my Mammy coming to the door to meet us, crying and sobbing terrifying grown-up tears, and inside in the sitting room there’d be lots of grown-ups, some of whom I’d know and some I wouldn’t, all sitting around crying quietly and looking sad and looking at me with big significant grown-up looks because I was a Granny orphan now. I didn’t want to go home.
And Mammy did come to the door to meet us. And we were still crying. But Mammy wasn’t crying. She was smiling and hugging us and telling us that Granny Hoban would be very proud about the trophy and inside in the sitting room there were lots of grown-ups like Sr Frances had said, but they weren’t crying either. They were drinking and chatting and laughing and eating sandwiches and biscuits and telling jokes and remembering that time Granny Hoban gave some fella a proper bollocking. It turned out it’s great craic when someone dies. There were no biscuits and sherry when Sunny the budgie died, and I hoped someone else would die soon because the biscuits were fancy.
Like everyone, as I got older, I became more familiar with death. There was Granny O’Neill, whose hand I touched as she lay in the coffin on her bed and immediately felt better because that cool, plastic feeling hand was definitely not Granny O’Neill’s hand anymore. She was somewhere else, presumably better. Then there were neighbours and friend's parents, and eventually friends.
A lot of friends when AIDS was decimating my community.
And I became familiar with death in other countries, other cultures, and I learned that we do death well in Ireland. Much better than in other places. My English friends worry they will be intruding at the funerals of acquaintances whose families they didn't know. And they go back to work the day after their father passes and work for sometimes two weeks before the funeral happens. They worry about what to do and what to say.
We don’t. Everyone knows the rituals. We know what to do, and we know what to say. Neighbours gather, meals are made and delivered, drinks are raised, stories remembered, a life anecdoted. Lifts are organised, cars shared, removals to St Mary’s, hands shaken and we are sorry for your troubles.
The rituals are familiar and comforting. Everyone knows their role. They are easy and we are eased through loss.
And losing things is the human condition. As we grow older we lose our hair, our eyesight, our strength, our memory, our youth, our friends, our loved ones.
And if growing older is a process of losing things, growing wiser is perhaps learning how to cope with that loss.
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