I wrote this on a flight back from Waterford Airport a few days ago.
Today I flew to a small town on the southeast coast of Ireland for six hours to attend a family funeral. I never met Great Aunt Nancy, my only memory of her being a cheery voice through the phone one Christmas. In fact, I’d never met any of my Irish great aunts or uncles or first cousins once removed. Or indeed anyone else who would be in attendance. Nonetheless, representation is important in Catholicism, and my mum was anxious that someone fly my grandfather’s flag at his youngest sister’s funeral. So it was purely in my capacity as the only member of The English Relatives who could take a weekday off at 24 hours notice that I found myself in a small church in County Waterford at noon on a Wednesday, with a pocket full of old photographs and a head full of vague descriptions that might help me recognise someone who shared my bloodline. I’m not entirely sure what my expectations were.Was I expecting some kind of provincial religious set up from a Ken Loach film, with lilting accents and eleven aunts called Deirdre? Did I think I’d look into the eyes of a fellow mourner and see something of myself or my mother or my cousins in there?
In defence of my embarrassing cultural stereotyping, my first taste of Tramore would not have been out of place in the opening of an Anne Enright novel. I was picked up from the airport by an ancient man armed with a sign reading “Alex Krooke”, as well as a flat cap and an indecipherable accent. On hearing that I was headed to a funeral in Tramore he exclaimed “ah – Mrs Twomey’s funeral? That’s not till noon, perhaps I should take you to her house?”, proceeding to reel off her home address. I declined in my English awkwardness, envisioning masses of weeping relatives around a dark and quiet bedroom, and elected instead to wander through the churchyard. Its hilltop perch is visible from the airport, with a persistent steeple that punctured the roofline throughout the winding coastal drive towards town, and I’m a girl who was raised on church exploration. Over half of all the gravestones there commemorated various members of the Power Family, from the early 19th century to the present day, and I squinted at inscriptions under the weak March sun as mourners began to arrive in their trickles and their droves. By the time I entered the church it was already over half full.
The funeral procession was vast – I would later learn that Great Auntie Nancy had 52 great grandchildren between the ages of 2 weeks to 17 – and the church rammed with more 60 to 70-something women than I’ve seen in one room since going to see Dirty Dancing The Musical. There was no order of service, and I didn’t know any of the prayers or the responses, but no one seemed to judge me for it; I sat back and enjoyed the smells and bells and singing both beautiful and not-so-beautiful. The crying was minimal and short-lived, limited to after Cousin Brendan’s moving opening speech – because what is to cry about for a woman who touched enough lives to pack the largest church in town. Who lived to 97 and died surrounded by enough children and grandchildren to fill out a football match and populate half the stands? We processed out into the sunshine and round the corner to pack the cemetery and do it all again.
I had been worried about hanging around the fringes, feeling so awkward that I would make excuses straight after the ceremony and scuttle back to the airport having ticked my familial duty box in all but the most perfunctory sense. Not so in this family; Nancy’s children and grandchildren welcomed me with open arms. I was treated to a walk through the town and along the beach by a second cousin who lives in Bristol. At the (alcohol-less) wake I was passed around he room to meet cousins scattered from Paris to Maastricht, and a smiley Finnish-Irish great grandbaby. I was invited to view and laugh as the first cousins all lined up for a full family photo. I have five first cousins, but Nancy’s grandchildren have 24 apiece. Someone I don’t think was related me drove me back down winding lanes to the two room airport where the terrifyingly small plane I flew in on waited untouched.
I write this on my phone hurtling into a Luton sunset, and Tramore and the Twomeys and the Emerald Isle already feel like a universe away. I am very different from Nancy and my relatives living in Tramore, in everything from nationality to education, but events like that do make you reconsider just what is important in a life and in your aspirations. Great Auntie Nancy may have married at 16 and settled in a tiny town in western Ireland and never left, but her roots stretch across Europe to Australia and beyond and she was able to die in her home of 70 years cared for by an army of people who loved her both filially and amicably. She lives on in almost 100 direct descendants. My taxi driver knew who she was. I’m glad I got to carry the banner for Grandpa Maher today, because there amongst that family of myriad brothers and sisters and cousins and clans, it really did feel like blood may be thicker than water.