Our tower of strength could take no more

When news broke in September 2005 that Sean Boylan wouldn’t be seeking a 24th term as Meath senior football manager, the venerated local sports writer Noel Coogan, who’d covered the near quarter-century era and much more besides, wrote of “The cursor flashing blankly on the screen” as he struggled to know even where to begin recounting such an amazing, epic tale.

At the time, yours truly was of a very similar mindset. Though feelings back then wouldn’t get into the ha’penny place in comparison to the emotional turmoil currently engulfing the occupant of this seat… Our tower of strength could take no more. At 11:22am on Thursday, June 10th, my beloved father Sean drew his last breath. Six months into his 92nd year.

I cannot believe I’ve just typed the above words. But then, none of the last week feels real. Him being in hospital was nothing new, especially in the last decade or so. He’d taken on and beaten pneumonia, several times, undergone 14 months of Chemotherapy, had several other cancers removed, went through two bouts of Jaundice, underwent a hernia operation and even saw off Covid-19. There’s no repellant, though, strong enough to swat away Father Time.

He used to say himself “The creaking door lasts the longest”. And it did. By God it did. He outstayed all his family, and a lot of ma’s, by decades. Gut feeling, however, on the last evening Susie and I called the ambulance was that the door might finally be about to give way. None of us had ever seen him as ill. Quite simply because he never had been so ill. Yet early on, it appeared he was about to defy logic and convention once again. The staff in the Coronary Care Unit of Connolly Hospital never thought he would emerge therefrom – our Sean marched to the beat of his own drum, mind you. Soldiering on for another two weeks before the greatest heart Our Lord ever installed in anybody cried enough.

25/2/1930 – 10/6/2021

***

Sean Christopher Boylan was born in the family home on Rooske Road, Dunboyne – in what will forever to me be The Corner House – on February 25th, 1930. Delivered into the world by Nurse Hobbs. Both families have remained intrinsically interwoven into the history and culture of the locality ever since.

The Boylan family were once heavily involved in the local business community, most notably when a thriving sandpit operated from what was then only a part of our farm. From there gravel was drawn by horse and cart to what were major and modernising developments at both Woodpark Stud – which at the time was managed by John Oxx Snr – and Summerseat Stud in Clonee.

I’m not sure when the pit closed but presumably it was thereafter it was put into farming use. Growing oats and mangles and turnips and spuds. Before eventually going back into pasture.

My granny Boylan was by all accounts a dab hand at rearing calves, which thereafter were brought through to beef for finishing by da and/or his brother Billy – known to us all as ‘The Farmer’. Indeed, they supplied some of the first cattle sent into Kepak after the wonderful Noel Keating opened his ground-breaking business in Clonee in early 1980.

A bunch of black-whitehead Hereford bullocks bought by the late Johnny Caldwell from Tom Costello in Kilfenora Co Clare. Whose family is of course equally synonymous in the bloodstock industry. Cattle were always part of da’s life when we were growing up. Something which absolutely rubbed off on Paul and I.

It was a bit ironic, then, that when I arrived onto the scene on April 23rd, 1981 the cattle had to take a back seat. As did his job in the Navan Carpets plant in Celbridge. Mostly due to the volume of physio and other medical appointments yours truly had to be brought to. In ways, large parts of his life seamlessly connected to each other – after working in the family pit, he later drove a tipper lorry for Liffey Sand Pits and also drove a bread van for Kelly’s Bakery in Kilcock for quite a few years.

It was in the latter he worked with Meath All Ireland SFC winner and Dunboyne legend, the late Jim Reilly. How apt that would turn out to be given the central role GAA would lay in his life for its entirety – and ours by extension. Nobody more so than myself, for without him, there’s no way on God’s earth I would’ve been able to serve as P.R.O. of St Peter’s Dunboyne for 11 years. In some ways, the best decade and-a-bit of my life. Though we’ll get more into that type of thing as the story goes on.

Though too modest to ever admit it, he was a fine sportsman in his own right, competing successfully in cross-country events with an old St Andrew’s Athletic Club which I think was based in Ratoath but GAA, and hurling in particular – was undoubtedly his first love as regards taking part. Which was scarcely surprising given that his brother Jimmy was so intrinsically involved with the club – serving as Treasurer for a record 33 years. I know he played on a Minor hurling team with his brother Tom in 1944 – even though da was only 14.

Without question, mind you, his proudest achievement as a player was the capture of the 1956 Meath JHC. Not only that, but the fact that the last line of defence – comprising Jim, himself, Paddy McIntyre and Aidan Curley – Lord rest them all now – never conceded a goal throughout that entire championship. Incidentally, in the final of said competition, Dunboyne defeated a Wilkinstown side that were basically a forerunner to what is now Wolfe Tones in Kilberry. A founder member and lining out at centre back on the defeated team was Sean McManus. Who would go on to be Chairman of St Peter’s Dunboyne on two separate occasions. And, of course, his son Enda is arguably the most decorated Meath GAA star of all time.

If it was possible to honour GAA followers in a way similar to the All Stars da would’ve been an absolute shoo-in. Having travelled to Croke Park for the first timr in 1941 on the crossbar of a bike belonging to a man called Packie Devlin from Knockbridge in Co Louth – who was working in our far field at the construction of the local sewage treatment plant – he would go on to make the trip down Jones’s Road at least once for 75 consecutive seasons.

In that time, he not only saw Meath winning seven All Ireland SFC titles, witnessed some of the most celebrated stars our games have been graced by and seen both the old stadium and the games played thereln have changed beyond recohnition several times over.

The list of greats of the games he saw in action was infinite, Eddie Keher unquestionably being his favorite hurler but among those also held in highest esteem were Christy Ring, the Rackard brothers, Tommy Murphy of Laois, Dublin’s Kevin Moran, camogie legend Kathleen Mills and homegrown heroes like Paddy O’Brien, Brian Smyth, Mattie Kerrigan, John McDermott, Gerry McEntee Colm O’Rourke and Graham Geraghty.

Time has proven there may be credence in the following,but the power of recall within that particular generation is quite astounding given the perfunctory nature – if any – of the education many of them would’ve received. At that, much of it self imparted too.

Jimmy Magee was, rightly, lauded as ‘The Memory Man’, well our Sean could give him a right run for his money. Consider that he was only 13 when seeing Jimmy Murray lift the Sam Maguire for Roscommon in 1943. Yet literally days before his death he was still able to reel off the entire starting 15 and subs. No need to ask where I got the good memory from!

My Two Greatest Loves

Over the course of my lifetime, aside from a photographic memory in terms of retaining information, the biggest thing I’ve inherited from him were undoubtedly passionate interests in the two greatest loves in my life – horse racing and farming. Indeed, it was only through him that I was able to even partially live out my dreams – being in and around horse racing from an ownership perspective and also being able to be as actively involved in farming as was humanely possible given my personal circumstances. More than that though taking out a Herd Number again and reviving the family tradition in beef finishing in 2013. Thus giving me undoubtedly the happiest seven years of my life.

The ‘In’ to horse racing coming about owing to a friendship that developed between himself and retired local undertaker Ollie Cunningham. To say that the latter was passionate about horses – both the breeding and racing thereof – would be akin to opining that the Green Party are anti-farmer. Thus, da would make regular trips with his pal to the likes of Tom Taaffe’s yard in Straffan or down to Jerry and Charlie Keegan in Tipperary to get the lowdown on what was a not insignificant horsey horde. My main interest though was primarily in the horses which were in training – Eurobuster, Spruce Cottage and Brendan’s Spruce. No guessing who the latter was called after!

Ollie’s hearing wasn’t the best, so any day we were actually at the races, yours truly would actually act as translator. Now, himself always denied it, but I’d say a bookie would offer short odds on whether he owned a few hairs in the backside of at least one of the steeds.

One of my days ‘On Duty’ at the races in Fairyhouse

There’s no doubt in my mind that the fact there were no cattle on the horizon close to home was as little help to him as it has been to me to have been out of the farming loop. It could hardly be coincidence that his health visibly and irreversibly declined once my last two heifers left the farm in March of 2020.

Doing what he loved most

Whether others want to accept this or not is up to themselves, but I will forever believe there was an air of poignant destiny to my becoming properly involved in farming. It had always been part of my life, between da and Billy finishing cattle themselves and Paul working for Pat Clarke for many years. During that time, whether it was the hay being made at the back of our place or the harvest up Barry’s Lane – or anywhere else within a short enough distance – if he wasn’t pushing me to see the machinery at work in the wheelchair, it was driving round local roads to see where Paul might be at it on a given day. Perhaps there was something fitting, then, that we passed through Ongar -where once stood barley and straw – on the way to Cunningham’s of Clonsilla to make arrangements for his final journey – that all those emotional memories came flooding back.

Starting as you mean to go on: Da bringing me over to ‘Red’ for a yap. ‘Red’ and I were besties many moons ago.

With most of my younger years consumed by hospital stays and appointments of all other sorts, there were no Boylan cattle for a period of 26 years until another moving case of everything happening for a reason cropped up. There are certain words nobody wants to hear in life – especially in connection to themselves or a loved one. Cancer being most of them. Unfortunately ma’s side of the family has been rife with the vile thing for as long as can be recalled, but, our iron man being diagnosed with the vile thing in October of 2012 was a complete bombshell.

Initially, there was no real change but then one day in May 2013 he took to the bed in the middle of the day which wouldn’t be his style at all. About 8.30 that night, Paul was up shooting rabbits off a wheat crop for Pat when da said to mother “Ring Paul, I think I’m dying”. Thankfully he didn’t of course but at that stage it was as ill as any of us had seen him. So much so that Paul ended up staying with him until after 3am. At some point during the night, he came down to me and suggested that we take out a Herd Number again and get back into the cattle. His reasoning being that it would either give the boss the necessary lift or be of some comfort to me if things went the other way.

Thankfully, the reality ended up being a mix of the two. It did indeed give da an enormous lift but it was also of immense comfort and joy to me to finally be able to live out my dream of being a farmer insofar as one could give my position. Whatever happens now, I know what he would want and I know what I intend to at least try to do.

One of the most beautiful songs these ears have ever heard but which very little of can be taken in before the tear ducts erupt is The Old Man by the Furey Brothers – “We thought he’d live forever, he looked so big and strong” Everybody probably thinks the same about their dad but fanciful as it of course is Sean definitely had something of the boomerang about him as he had bounced back more times than a ball in a handball alley.

Yet there were the signs that 91+ years of mileage were gradually starting to take their toll. The naps in the middle of the day weren’t even that big of an alarm bell because, well, he was 91. The hospital stays became more frequent and elongated and, slowly but surely, he began to eat less with each day that passed. But for me it was what turned out to be his last Christmas Day that triggered something in my brain that his race might be nearing its finish line.

He fell ill shortly after finishing his dinner and though toughing it out for a couple of days thereafter – methinks out of sheer will to see the racing in Leopardstown – he was admitted to Connolly Hospital on December 29th, where he remained for 17 days. And though that episode did to an extent floor him to an extent, he did building himself up again, get back to walking at least a kilometre a day at least and – his favourite pass time in later years – watching the cattle marts online. Mind you, it was obvious not having any of our own wasn’t sitting well.

For as long as he was well enough to, every so often he’d tell me he’d love me to buy a few calves, as he had himself convinced he’d be able to look after them. As much as I wanted to believe he could, he had as much chance of doing it as this corner had.

However, even after the 17-day stint, he still got his strength back enough to go for his walk, spray around the whole place for weeds and even mowed the strip of grass in front of the house. And then, in what felt like an instant, everything changed. The afternoon nap didn’t stir any worries.

Even when afternoon graduated to evening and he didn’t stir for dinner there was still no panic given his sporadic eating habits over the previous months. At approximately 6.30pm though, everything changed. Forever. Just after Susie and I finished dinner, she popped into his room and, at that stage, though it was obvious he was in a bad way, I will never as long as I live forget the foreboding feeling as he was put in the ambulance that he might never return.

Very shortly after he was admitted, it became obvious just he gravely ill he actually was. Doctors told us that people 30 years younger wouldn’t have survived what he was after going through. Still he battled on. Emerging from Coronary Care when they didn’t think he stood a chance. Demanding a full debrief on Meath’s victory over Down in the National Football League.

Fight though he did, sadly, this time the mechanical failure wouldn’t let go of him. You know, I can’t help feeling he knew he was in injury time himself too. It was a running joke at home that he’d been saying he was dying from the time he was 50. No matter what impending family occasion he was informed of, Standard Operational Procedure was for him to declare he hoped he’d be around to see it.

He did see so much. Both his daughters getting engaged and married, his four grandchildren being born, wedding anniversaries, yours truly graduating college, milestone birthdays and, in more recent times, Susie entering my life and our engagement last summer. There’s some comfort in knowing he knew I had somebody very special to look after me once he had been called ashore.

My conviction that he knew the referee was looking at his watch is only emboldened by the fact that for the four weeks he was in hospital he never mentioned dying once. Reverse psychology was a Sean speciality. What turned out to be the last conversation I ever had with him was the most typical Brendan/Sean back-and-forth there could be – the forthcoming Kildare/Meath match and the actual last words he ever said to me were “Make sure you set the meadow to Pat Clarke”. It couldn’t have been more normal.

Being honest, damn all is remembered of the days which followed. On the Sunday evening we were all sent for – that dreaded call means only one outcome. Very deliberately, these wheels stayed away, simply because if they appeared at his door he know well the game was up. That is if he didn’t know so already. For the rest of the family, not being able to get into him for four weeks made the excruciating inevitability of what was to come all the more unbearable.

However, even then, he didn’t stick to script. We were told he had rallied sufficiently to indicate there was nothing major going to happen so visits were again off the table. We knew even he couldn’t continue to triumph against all odds indefinitely. Thus, from 6:30am on the Wednesday morning it was only a matter of time. How long? The doctor said it could be one hour or it could be 24. That was at about 3:15pm on the Wednesday.

Sean being Sean, temptation to wager on the longer trip. He damn near made it too. Lasting until 22 minutes past 11 on Thursday, June 6th. The Cheltenham hill on fast summer ground proving just too much. Yes, we knew it was coming, and you might kid yourself into thinking you’re ready. You never are. Then again, as an uncle of mine said in the days which followed, how can you know how to deal with something you’ve never encountered before?

In my case, dealing with it meant getting stuck into making the funeral arrangements. This might sound morbid or even weird, but I’d been readying myself for that task for years. Most likely as a mechanism to cope with the enormity of what was actually about to transpire. Beyond doubt, da’s friendship with Ollie and the close connection to the rest of the Cunningham family which accrued from same played a considerable role in it too.

That is not to say that making the phonecall to Eadaoin in the funeral home wasn’t one of the strangest and most difficult tasks ever undertaken, of course it was. But if that job wasn’t taken aboard here, there is not the slightest notion in this seat as to how one would have coped with what were a truly chaotic few days between he passed and the funeral. To that end, it was a Godsend that there was unanimous agreement regarding bringing da home to repose before the funeral. It will be openly admitted that the thought of having a coffin in the house was something which always terrified me. Why I’ve really no idea but by the time we had laid him to rest, the value of having done so was imprinted on me forever.

Simply because the throngs of people through the house – and it truly was that voluminous – were an amazing comfort to me in dealing with all that was going on. As for the day of the funeral itself, anyone that has been around this space will know how I tend to deal with these things. The one man escort in front of the hearse, with the only difference on this occasion being that the wheelchair actually made it inside the church. No, it didn’t burn down!

Then, as only Tom Yourell and Sean Nealon were afforded before him, I led him all the way to his final restlng place. Though absolutely no part of doing so is recalled, I hope I did him proud.

Rest easy up there da, the meadow will be cut, I’ll keep on writing and I’ll get those Angus heifer calves you wanted, somehow, someday. All the best.

Checking to see is the meadow fit for cutting – no doubt he’s doing the same above now.

One comment

  1. Beautiful words from a son to his wonderful Da. May Sean Rest in Peace knowing he completed his life’s journey with every bone in his body for the family he adored. Hugs and love going to your family and Mam June. Joan xx

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