A few words in tribute to my brother in law, Steve, who died earlier this week.
It was lying on Inch Strand, at the high water mark, in turn covered and revealed by an ebbing tide. Its tape was peeling, its wood battered with the marks of a hundred contests down the field. Fallen off a boat, flung away in disgust after too many wides? Who could tell?
“What’s this?” asked Steve – always of an inquring mind – as he picked it up.
“It’s a hurley,” I said – they hit the sliotar with it in hurling.
Three years ago, for their Golden Wedding, we had treated Steve and Marie to a short break on the Dingle Penninsula– one of our favourite places to relax, and they had already sampled the comfort, the food, and the welcome at the Skellig Hotel, enjoyed a visit to the Dingle Distillery, a pint in Dick Mack’s, and that remarkable tour out through Corca Dhuibhne to Ceann Trá, Coumeenoule, Cé Dún Chaoin, Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhór – with its tales of the islanders (and lovely soup), the Mulcahy Pottery Centre, (and its cakes), Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, and Gallarus Oratory.
I’ve been going to this area since 1970 and loved it at first sight, so Steve and Marie got the whole touristic commentary – about Ryan’s Daughter, Charlie Haughey and Inishvickalane , Funghi the Dolphin, the fishing industry, Páidi Ó Sé, David Lean’s corner table in the Skellig dining room, Bob Mitchum’s carrying on at Millbank House, education in the Gaeltacht – they all were faithfully reported. Even I was aware that my passion for the place might be slightly over the top, but Steve was clearly fascinated – to the extent of asking about various words in Irish, the geology, and cultural history of the area, the language, and so on.
This was not entirely unexpected – Steve, amongst many other things, was an electrical engineer – he always sought to find out how things worked, how they could be fixed, how they could help people – an early cot baby monitor was typically one of his major projects. He had a great and abiding curiosity.
However, he was a long way from home in Dingle.
In one of my last conversations with him, he pointed out that, despite his family’s associations with Wales, he was 100% English.
And he was – in the best of all possible ways.
Inch Strand is a vast expanse of beach in Co Kerry, stretching for miles by the Atlantic, as westerly as you can get in Europe. It is majestic in every kind of weather, but on the day of our visit there was what might be euphemistically termed ‘a stiff breeze’, which was whipping up a mini sandstorm around our ankles.
The walk was bracing and, of course, we had found the hurley. Steve took it and chased Marie with it for a while. He was no DJ Carey, but accurate enough to make Marie shriek. It was a lovely shared moment with favourite people in a favourite place.
We eventually got back to the car and I looked for the hurley. I’d formed a daft plan to try and take it home as a memory of a happy time.
We didn’t have it.
“Oh,” said Steve, “I didn’t know you wanted it.”
This was fair enough – a daft idea like mine would never have occurrred to a practical and sensible man like Steve.
“No bother, “ I said. “I would never have got it through airport security anyway.”
We stood there for a time, shaking sand out of our hair and clothes, getting ready to leave.
When I turned round, there was Steve, trudging up from the windswept beach, the breeze whipping around his jacket. In his hand he carried the hurley.
He had doubled back around 200 yards simply to find the hurley and bring it back for me.
He knew it wasn’t that important to me, he knew it would likely fail to get through security, he wasn’t a hurling fan. But he had stilll gone back through the sandstorm, dark clouds scudding, the temperature dropping, cold as he was, so I could pursue my daft idea of taking the hurley home.
“You never know,” he said.
He was right too. Strapped to my case, it somehow got through the airport and arrived home with me – a beautiful souvenir.
It was the kindness of Steve personified.
It was what he did.
I never knew anyone who helped people as constantly as Steve – family, neighbours, friends, workmates, those he mentored – even strangers whom he recognised could do with a helping hand. And he had so many skills allied to this kindness that he invariably performed a task for you at the highest level possible – fitting bathrooms, kitchens, rewiring, decorating, car mechanics, house repairs, toy making, gardening, cookery – all of these things he would do for you out of the goodness of his heart, and always more effectively than the ‘experts’. He offered help because he was kind by instinct, but he also ensured that the help he gave would be what you needed – if he was unsure how to do something, he would research it to make sure that he helped you perfectly.
As someone who is, by nature, ‘handless’, I was in awe of his wide ranging craft and skills, but it was his natural instinct to help others which really touched my soul.
The measure of the man was how he was regarded by young children – they had an instinct for his goodness, they trusted him, and they were never disappointed. He never patronised them, but he gave them a perfect example, and he challenged them to be the best they could be, to treat others with respect and understanding, as he treated them, and they inevitably responded by loving him.
So he was, in truth, 100% the best of English – kind, helpful, enquiring and inspiring; a friend to all who needed him, a support for all who needed his skills.
Not long ago he completed a piece of trading on E-Bay, or some such online facility. On these sites, there is always a request for feedback. Having completed the business with Steve, the buyer wrote simply:
“He was the nicest man I’ve ever met.”
And he was.