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It was New Year’s Eve, 2006.  After lunch I had gone to visit my father in the nursing home. Until recently he had lived alone, coping well despite having lost his partner of 59 years, 2 years earlier. He could still drive and do the necessary – go to Mass, do the shopping and have his lunch in a café up town. But then his legs began to fail him and he asked me to find him a nursing home – an unusual request from a man who had always been very independent.


On the last day of the year we talked and he drifted in and out of sleep during the afternoon like he did at other times when I came to see him. We were two relatively silent men who sporadically spoke about family, home or current events but never about our emotions. Then at 8.30 that evening he quietly slipped away. He just stopped breathing. My brother who had arrived an hour earlier and had spoken to Dad said: “What do you mean? He’s just sleeping.” “No.”, I said, “he’s gone. I’ve been listening to his breathing for hours and it has stopped.”


As in life, Dad made no fuss, displayed no unexpected emotion or complaint. He was 92, had lived a long and healthy life and decided it was time to go. I like to think that he is finally reunited with my mother and with all of his family who had predeceased him over the years.


A day seldom passes that I don’t think about him. In some ways we are very alike and as I age, I see more and more parallels – a liking for solitude, a stoical attitude, a lover of recycling, an interest in buildings and places and a dislike of flamboyance. When I see documentaries on TV I’m sorry he never saw them because he would have been fascinated by abandoned engineering or how factories work. When I come back from holidays I long to tell him of my experiences, the places I’d seen and the people I’d met.


Many poets have written about their fathers though their approach to the topic varies.


FR Higgins, in his poem Father and Son, recalls a day he walked “the hushed fields of our most lovely Meath, now thinned by November” with his father who was  “happy though captive in years”.


Yes, happy in Meath with me for a day

He walked, taking stock of herds hid in their own breathing:

And naming colts, gusty as wind, once steered by his hand,

Lightings winked in the eyes that were half shy in greeting

Old friends – the wild blades, when he gallivanted the land.


For that proud, wayward man now my heart breaks –

Breaks for that man whose mind was a secret eyrie,

Whose kind hand was sole signet of his race,

Who curbed me, scorned my green ways, yet increasingly loved me

Till Death drew its grey blind down his face.”


Seamus Heaney, in his poem Follower, describes hid father’s skill as a ploughman and how he longed to follow him:



An expert. He could set the wing

And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.

The sod rolled over without breaking,

At the headrig, with a single pluck

of reins, the sweating team turned round

and back into the land, His eye

Narrowed and angled at the ground

Mapping the furrow exactly…


I wanted to grow up and plough

To close one eye, stiffen my arm

All I ever did was follow

In his broad shadow around the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping falling,

Yapping always. But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.



In another of his poems, A Call, he relates a phone call he made to his homeplace. While waiting for his father to come to the phone he visualises him “down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig, touching, inspecting, separating one stalk from the other”. As time passes, he overhears the hall clock ticking “and found myself thinking: if it were nowadays, this is how Death would summon Everyman”. He then ends the poem with a memorable line:


“Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him”.


Paul Durcan’s father, though a Mayo man, was a busy Judge in Dublin. In his poem Going Home to Mayo, Winter 1949, Durcan describes a return journey from “the alien, foreign city of Dublin” to his grandmother’s home in Tulough and the excitement and freedom of life there. He was 5 at the time:


I walked with my father in the high grass down by the river

Talking with him – an unheard of thing in the city.

But home was not home and the moon could no more be outflanked

Than the daylight nightmare of Dublin city …

And blocks after blocks of so called new tenements

Thousands of crosses of loneliness planted

In the narrowing grave of the life of the father

In the wide, wide cemetery of the boy’s childhood.”



The English poet, Tony Harrison, in his poem Long Distance II, describes how his father found it hard to cope with the death of his wife and, later, his own reaction when his father passed away:


Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.

You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.


On a lighter note, the American poet, Theodore Roethke, recalled a lovely scene from his childhood in My Papa’s Waltz


The whiskey on your breath 
Could make a small boy dizzy; 
But I hung on like death: 
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans 
Slid from the kitchen shelf; 
My mother’s countenance 
Could not unfrown itself. 

The hand that held my wrist 
Was battered on one knuckle; 
At every step you missed 
My right ear scraped a buckle. 

You beat time on my head 
With a palm caked hard by dirt, 
Then waltzed me off to bed 
Still clinging to your shirt.


Robert Hayden describes a very different experience in his poem Those Winter Sundays, a setting and situation that many Irish people might understand. The last 2 lines are so powerful.


Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blue black cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labour in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.


I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,


Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?



The Belfast poet, Michael Longley, uses a story from Greek mythology to describe another father-son relationship. Odysseus has returned home from the Trojan wars after a gap of 20 years. He goes to the garden to find his father, Laertes, and is shocked to see how old he has become. He remembers scenes from his childhood as he watches his father till the garden. Eventually his father recognises Odysseus and roles are reversed in those memorable last lines.



When he found Laertes alone on the tidy terrace, hoeing
Around a vine, disreputable in his gardening duds,
Patched and grubby, leather gaiters protecting his shins
Against brambles, gloves as well, and, to cap it all,
Sure sign of his deep depression, a goatskin duncher,
Odysseus sobbed in the shade of a pear-tree for his father
So old and pathetic that all he wanted then and there
Was to kiss him and hug him and blurt out the whole story,
But the whole story is one catalogue and then another,
So he waited for images from that formal garden,

Evidence of a childhood spent traipsing after his father
And asking for everything he saw, the thirteen pear-trees,
The apple-trees, forty fig-trees, the fifty rows of vines
Ripening at different times for a continuous supply,
Until Laertes recognised his son and, weak at the knees,
Dizzy, flung his arms around the neck of great Odysseus
Who drew the old man fainting to his breast and held him there
And cradled like driftwood the bones of his dwindling father.



Patrick Kavanagh, in Memory of My Father, wrote:


Every old man I see

Reminds me of my father

When he had fallen in love with death

One time when sheaves were gathered.



The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, on the other hand, had a very different message in his poem whose title comes from the first line:


Do not go gentle into that good night

Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Sadly, no matter how much we rage against the dying of the light the inevitable happens. In the words of the reclusive American poet, Emily Dickinson:


Because I could not stop for death

He kindly stopped for me.

The carriage held but ourselves

And immortality.






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