Goodbye for now
‘Slán go fóill’ said the priest at my Uncle Paddy's funeral, which means 'goodbye for now' in Irish. The service was in English, Latin and Irish, reflecting the Catholic community that packed out St Peter’s church, the church I travelled to on the bus nearly every Sunday of my childhood, breathing in the incense, taking the Eucharist, and listening to the sleepy murmur of ‘in spiritu sancto.’
It’s the same church where my dad was an alter boy, sometimes serving two or three masses before school, which was in the shed next door. The next generation of siblings, cousins and second cousins also went to St Peter’s school, but by then it was a bigger more solid building. The headmaster knew us all by name, who our parents were and often what was going on in our households.
Many of us kids remembered Uncle Paddy as the conductor on our school bus every morning, smiling and patting our heads as he gave out our tickets. When the bus conductors were all made redundant in Gloucester, he didn’t do paid work again. Some people would say he was unemployed, but that’s because they don’t understand the role that people like my Uncle Paddy played in working-class communities like ours. Particularly the diaspora communities bonded by shared culture and heritage.
Paddy, or ‘Patsy’ as the priest called him, was described as a father figure to many of his nieces and nephews. A man who wrote poetry, played the harmonica and ‘was completely at ease with who he was and where he was.’ Who always smiled kindly and was always ‘around’ supporting, listening, joking, in his council flat, in the church and the social club.
Like many working-class people, especially those from migrant communities, he played music and wrote beautiful words for the love of it, rather than any prestige. Working-class education is deep and knowledgeable and creative. I grew up playing in Irish pipe bands and Irish dancing clubs. When my Nana on the Welsh side of my family died, the men, many of who belonged to choirs, sang to the roof of that tiny parish church for the sheer joy of song. These songs and music and poetry contain histories and landscapes and ancestry.
The priest read out a poem of Paddy’s. One that he wrote as his life was drawing to a close. It talked of the pavements feeling more uphill, his legs heavier. A poem about the passing of time, through a body. I wish had all the words to share. My memory can’t do it justice.
At the after-service buffet, families from Gloucester and Ireland caught up with each other over Guinness and sandwiches, as we pieced together family trees and who was related to who now. Oral history experts know that working-class communities are more likely to practice oral traditions, the passing down of stories from generation to generation, and it’s often the funerals, weddings and christenings when these stories are updated, corrected, and perfected.
My dad ran away to Ireland at fifteen, attempting to reach America to join the navy. He arrived in Dublin with a bit of change in his pocket, then ended up hitching to County Offaly, where Uncle Paddy - seventeen years old - got him a job on a farm. A year later having changed his mind about the Navy they came back to England, to the part of the family now settled in the Gloucester Irish community. These are the stories. There were a million more, spreading out across the families.
Image description: A small statue of Jesus on the cross, surrounded by tea light candles.
I have some beefs with the catholic church. The anti abortionists, the abuses of power, the sexism, but also, as for so many second and third generation migrants, religion represents more than a doctrine. It’s a weekly ritual, performed in the same place, where people come together to remind themselves of their shared connections and histories. Many of us had good and sad reasons for leaving this community. A gay friend who couldn’t feel at ease, for instance. Me, for complex reasons, needed to get away in my late teens. But whether we stay or go, we often feel the the pull of our communities, of our place. Katie Beswisk writes of the powerful feeling of working class-ness for those of us raised in working-class communities and families, with their own distinct codes and memories. As the old Dropkick Murphy’s song says ‘You’ll always be here with me, even when you’re gone.’
I struggle to believe in the Catholic god, but when the priest said: this is a celebration of Paddy until we all meet back in the afterlife where we came from, I felt it deep in my chest for everyone I grew up with. ‘Slán go fóill: goodbye for now.’