Building a future on the kindness of strangers


Compassion as well as professionalism

My mum died last week. On the same day another friend lost her mother-in-law. Two weeks previously the father of another close friend died. And it’s a fair bet that many of you will have lost a loved one recently.

Globally, it is estimated that some 153,000 people die every day. Death is a workaholic; always busy harvesting souls.

I was once told: “You know you’re getting old when you get closer to the front of the church at funerals”. At the Mass for my mum, my brother, sister and I were in the first pew. It’s a lonely place to be.

Her death is too recent for me to be able to comprehend fully the enormity of it. I just know I miss her lots. A meditation on existentialism will have to wait for another day.

Human beings have been trying to grapple with the mystery of death and its consequences since the beginning of time. Philosophers and theologians have had a go. Poets and musicians too have explored the interface between life and death. But until we make the journey ourselves, we will never really know.

As a child I was always embarrassed when the story of doubting Thomas was read at Mass. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

The older I get, the more I recognise that his refusal to believe was a natural human response. We like our knowledge to be evidence based, and there are just not enough hard facts about the hereafter to say with certainty what lies beyond.

Faith, for those who have it, fills the gap. My late father had it, and my mother too. He talked with pride of the confraternities in his native Limerick, and regretted their passing. My mum wanted to be buried wearing a blue ribbon that marked her out as one of the Children of Mary. The cheap tin medal was so precious to her that we found it in her jewellery box.

Before she died she received the last rites (a much more satisfying term than its post Vatican II alternative). By then she had lost her capacity to speak, and I don’t know how much she was able to comprehend. But I hope it brought her comfort.

I am more certain about the impact of others who ministered to her. She was first taken ill in June, and treated at home and in Lurgan’s day hospital.

A ‘re-ablement’ team visited her four times a day to help get her back on her feet. Her GPs checked on her progress. Physiotherapists patiently worked to improve her stability. Ambulance men came twice, once after a fall at home, and once to bring her to hospital. They were amazing. Nurses took blood, sampled urine, checked and re-checked blood pressure. Support staff kept her clean and made her comfortable; young doctors tried to find out what was going wrong and how to treat it. She was X-rayed, scanned, and examined by people trained in the mysteries of modern medicine.

Many of you will have seen similar levels of support for relatives and friends – perhaps you will have experienced it yourself. Today we expect the health and social care service will have systems, processes and treatments in place to deal with our needs.

What I was unprepared for was the depth of compassion shown to her by people doing a tough job in an area where the demand on their services outstrips the resources available. You expect family to step up to the plate, and they did. But strangers?

I witnessed countless acts of love from those who cared for her – women and men who had no blood ties to motivate them, and who could have done their job effectively but clinically and dispassionately.

Like doubting Thomas, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes. I should have known better of course. My mother lived her life by countless kindnesses – a fact brought home to me by the words of many at her wake. But there are none so blind as those who will not see.

In a real sense that is a metaphor too for our society. If collectively we were more aware of the kindness of strangers, we might find it easier to create the type of society we want for ourselves and our children.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on August 28 2015.


In mourning after the death of a much-loved mother


Ethna Collins: rest in peace

Ethna Collins, who died on August 18 aged 79, lived an uneventful life but not an unremarkable one. Born in Wellington Street, Lurgan, her father Felix Breen was a joiner. Her mother, Rose Ann – Cissie – stitched handkerchiefs produced in the town’s renowned linen mills.

Ethna was a bright and intelligent girl, the second of four children, but she left school early, like many of that era. Nonetheless, she prized education, making significant sacrifices later to ensure her own children benefited from it.

As a teenager she loved cycling. The Mournes were a favourite destination for trips with her friends, and she never lost her love of the place – revisiting old cycling haunts on a nostalgic trip a few months before her death.

Like many of her generation, she went to England for work, settling in Birmingham with a close-knit set of friends who remained friends for life. There she met Limerick man Stephen Collins. They married in 1958, and had three children: Tom, Stephen and Annette.

Ethna stopped work to bring up her family, taking pride in making meagre resources go a long way– though she was generous with others. She loved the small terraced house she and Steve bought in Membury Road, Birmingham. It was home at one time or another to her father, brother, cousins and friends all earning a living in the Midlands.

In 1968 she brought her family back to Lurgan. Goodyear had opened in Craigavon and there was the prospect of a high quality of life surrounded by the family she loved. Little did she realise what was to befall Northern Ireland. Like most, she got on with life in spite of the Troubles.

For a year the family lived with her parents in the two-up, two-down house where she was born, sharing it with her brother Larry and his new wife Anne. The toilet was in the yard, the bath was a tub in front of the fire, and the fridge was a metal box nailed to a shaded wall out the back. The bath and cool box had been fashioned by her uncle Hughie, the last tinsmith in Lurgan.

In 1969 the family moved to the North Circular Road area of Lurgan. Such was her dislike of debt that things were bought only when she had raised the money for them. The mortgage was paid in double-quick time, and she used her self-taught dress-making skills to help clothe her family.

Ethna found work in the kitchens at St Michael’s senior high school in Lurgan, rising to the position of head cook, as much for her organisational skills and ability to keep the books as her culinary skills.

She sent her sons to board at St Colman’s College in Newry, hoping total immersion would give them the best start in life. Paying the fees was not easy. Indeed, so hard-pressed was she that when Tom’s blazer needed to be replaced, she made it herself. With its home-embroidered badge and chintz lining from a Glendinnings off-cut, it was rarely worn and never fully appreciated. She expected good results, and if she felt the school was not delivering, she did not pull her punches in letting it know.

Her children did all right. Her son Tom became a journalist and was editor of The Irish News from 1993-1999. Her son Stephen, a talented artist, is now a publican in New Orleans, and her daughter Annette is a musician and Sean Nós step dancer and teacher.

In her fifties, she was hit by bi-polar disorder, a condition never satisfactorily managed, but which she dealt with heroically. It dogged the last 30 years of her life, as did her worsening eyesight. In spite of ill health she led a full life, caring for her family, working for the Church, and travelling whenever she could.

She had a deep religious faith, and worked tirelessly for the missions, turning her dressmaking skills to good use making vestments and altar pieces, first for Apostolic Work, Lurgan, and later with the St Peter and Paul’s Altar and Missionary Society which she helped found. She was also involved in a number of cross-community activities in Lurgan.

Ethna also revealed herself to be a talented amateur artist, and she loved crafting, knitting and crocheting. She missed them when arthritis and poor eyesight made them impossible.

In spite of her chronic illness, she was her mother’s primary carer and in later years a pivotal figure in the lives of her grandchildren Joshua and Ella. She died in Craigavon Hospital after a short illness, and was laid to rest with her husband and mother in St Colman’s Cemetery Lurgan.

She is survived by her daughter Annette, sons Stephen and Tom, and grandchildren Joshua and Ella.


A sting in the tail from the Waspinator



“No chemicals, no maintenance, no mess, no dead wasps” … and no use

There are traces still of the bees’ nest above the door of my study. Bees are a protected species, and mine were moved by the local council to a place of safety – there is probably a processing centre for refugee bees somewhere in Stirlingshire.

This year wasps have taken up residence in a gap in the wall of my stone-built study at the bottom of the garden.

I’ve never met anyone who liked wasps. I have a friend who insists I am a contrarian, but I am with the mass of humanity as far as wasps are concerned.

Perhaps it goes back to when I was a teenager. In the grounds of our Catholic school there was a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. It came complete with a statue of the Virgin Mother of God, and a supplicant Saint Bernadette.

We used to hang out there, not for our religious fervour but because it provided some shelter from the inclement Irish weather, and a degree of privacy from prying eyes. Teenagers like their privacy.

One autumn I had the misfortune to be stung by a wasp that had flown up my bell-bottomed trousers (that dates me). Finding its progress impeded further up my leg, it stung me on the inner thigh. Ouch, I can still feel the pain.

Without any deference to the Blessed Virgin, or little Miss Soubirous, and caring not about any embarrassment, I had to pull down my trousers to get rid of the little blighter in case he did any further damage. Too much information, I know.

A dying bumble bee did something similar last year, but it decided to teach me a lesson just a couple of inches north of my ankle – much to the amusement of my children who delight in seeing their dad discomforted. Sympathy is not something that seems to run in the family DNA.

Anyway, back to my wasps. Before heading off on holiday, I noticed a procession of wasps heading in and out of the spot vacated by my bees, and I headed to B&Q for something to destroy the nest.

From what I understand wasps do make some sort of positive contribution to the world we share. I also accept that during my lifetime I have probably done more harm to the natural environment than any vespula vulgaris (to give the common wasp its fancy Latin name). But…

Unprotected by the law, unlike the bees, it’s always open season on wasps. There must have been a run on the nest destoyer, for B&Q was out of it. Homebase too was bereft of the stuff.

I had read that wasps avoid nesting where there is already a colony, and one way of deterring them is to stick up a fake one. Apparently a brown paper bag can do the trick.

As you know too well, in today’s consumer-orientated world, there’s always someone on hand to meet a need. Beside the space where the wasp nest foam should have been was a little green box.

“No More Wasps” it proclaimed in bold sans serif type above a cartoon of a worried looking vespula vulgaris. “The original waspinator” is designed to look like the hive of a deadly gang of killer wasps, and the blurb promises that within 15 minutes the area will be clear of their common cousins.

I meant business so I bought two, and hung them on either side of my shed expecting the wasps to move on while I was away.

One would think I’m old enough not to be suckered. I also teach students about advertising, marketing and branding so I should know better. But I always believe a promise delivered with conviction.

When I got back home the wasps had moved all right… about three foot, and to within six inches of one of the fake killer wasp nests.

I can only assume they think my £4.99 Homebase hanging penthouse for a killer swarm affords them some degree of protection – a bit like the Mafia providing ‘security’ for your pad in Sicily.

So it’s back to the drawing board, and the wasp nest destroyer spray is back in stock. But can you believe what it says on the tin? Or is it just another sting?