Brenda Power writes about the funeral of Tony Gregory in the Sunday Times. She shouldn’t have.

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Last weekend, the Sunday Times published an article by Brenda Power entitled: TD’s funeral shamed him about the recent funeral of Independent TD, Tony Gregory. The article has forced me to put together a few words in response, because it demonstrates that in fact her words shamed her.

She starts:

Does it bother you to think about who might turn up at your funeral? Do you care what they might say and where they’d sit in the church? Would you spin in your grave at the thought of fair-weather friends filling the front pews, wreathed in black and stricken with ostentatious grief?

Would it kill you (well, obviously not, but stay with me) to imagine sworn enemies gathering to network and gossip and make snide remarks about the modest turnout? Do you mind if people send flowers or would you prefer charity donations? Would you like mourners to call at your home, or have tea and sandwiches with your relatives in the pub after you’ve been buried?

Tony Gregory cared and, knowing he was about to die, the independent TD put quite a bit of thought into the matter of his funeral.

She continues…

A man who claimed to see no logic in the notion of an afterlife, he showed an uncommon desire to control proceedings after death. But then, as a politician himself, Gregory had been to enough send-offs to predict how things would go if he didn’t take charge: there’d be eulogies, orations, soliloquies and recitations; lone pipers and marching bands and wreaths in the shape of starry ploughs. There’d be a two-page VIP photo spread of celebrities comforting politicians. And they might even make him wear a tie.

There’s no real contradiction, if she but thought about it for a moment, between no serious belief in an afterlife (actually his views on this were a bit more ambiguous than she paints) and desiring to ‘control proceedings’ after his death.

Some thoughts… in her mock witty appraisal she knows that those elements she listed ‘eulogies, lone pipers’ and so on were precisely what was there at his request. The others…

There’d be a two-page VIP photo spread of celebrities comforting politicians. And they might even make him wear a tie.

…a gratuitous jibe about something that in the latter case I have no idea whether it happened or not, and frankly neither does she, and in the former was genuinely outside his control (although she doesn’t mind ascribing ‘blame’ to him for all that happened the other day). And anyone who read the fawning Evening Herald piece the day of his funeral could hardly but reflect on the irony given his relations with that paper during his illness.

He couldn’t know he was going to die in the very week that Beverley Flynn helped lower public respect for politicians a notch or two — though he’d have been hard-pressed to pick a time when Irish politics could not benefit from a light dusting of the inner-city grit of Gregory’s ornery integrity. Other TDs would have been out in droves to ally themselves to one of the few politicians to live out a lengthy career without a whiff of corruption or venality. That was a no-brainer, and Gregory was having none of it.

She’s right there. But she diverts onto a different route…

Yet there was an unseemly amount of bitterness evident in the tone of a funeral service that belittled and embarrassed former colleagues who came to pay their respects. You had to wonder if somebody could have done with clearing a little brush from around his heart before he died, because old slights and injustices still rankled to the end.

Let’s think this through. I wonder was Power at the funeral, or at the removal the previous night. Had she been so she would have seen a frankly disgraceful exhibition by politicians of various parties who took up position at the door of the church and glad-handed those coming out and down the steps. Perhaps she considers this appropriate behaviour… perhaps she believes that this is ‘paying their respects’ but for myself and others there it was indeed a gratuitious and offensive attempt to heavily ‘dust with inner-city grit of Gregory’s ornery [sic] integrity’. Perhaps that’s acceptable to her, but to me I think those around Tony had every right to suggest that his funeral was about him and his work, not a ‘photo-shoot’ for those who sought political advantage from aligning with him in death in a way that they never did when he was alive.

And what of the encomiums from diverse points? Bertie Ahern attesting to his ‘friend’ Tony. Well, the Hot Press interview put those who hadn’t heard it straight from the horses mouth straight. In a couple of paragraphs Tony referenced Ahern being ‘pissed off about me’. Friendship indeed. As was the instance he cited of a poster campaign across the constituency on voting day 1981 which said ‘Vote for the H Block’s Candidate. Vote Gregory Number One!’. Those who did this? He pointed the finger at Fianna Fáil.

Of course with reference to the funeral little of this can be ‘blamed’ on Tony. But that doesn’t stop her making snide references about his ‘heart’…

But Power is exercised not merely about bitterness but about the fact that…

At Gregory’s own instruction, for example, there was assigned seating for just three dignitaries: the president, the taoiseach, and the lord mayor of Dublin.

Shocking, isn’t it? That Tony would seek to limit the hypocrisy fest that is these events. That an Independent socialist might feel happier restricting the number of ‘dignitaries’ attending to the President, the Taoiseach and the Lord Mayor. That they should occupy space at the front of the church along with his immediate family.

For Power this is hellish, for…

If the taoiseach chose to send his aide-de-camp then, Gregory had decreed, protocol was to be breached and the representative seated in the body of the church. He was overruled on that one, and the aide-de-camp was seated in the front row for the removal, while Brian Cowen himself turned up for the funeral, so further awkwardness was avoided in that regard at least.

Terrible… terrible. But neither eventuality occurred, those invited arrived. Space was made for the aide-de-camp. No problem.

But there was still plenty of awkwardness to go round. Bertie Ahern, whom Gregory accused in his final Hot Press interview of seriously dirty tricks back in 1981, hobbled into the church on his crutches to find himself a seat in the throng.

How awful. That his close ‘friend’ [copyright B. Ahern] should be forced to ’sit in the throng’. Except of course Ahern wasn’t a close friend. But the sympathetic discomfiture of Power at the evident discomfiture of our political class knows no bounds…

For those politicians lucky enough to find a seat to squirm in, there was further discomfort in store. When Fr Peter McVerry remarked that, unlike Gregory, politicians come and go and get forgotten, his homily was interrupted by sustained and pointed applause. The first six rows of seats were firmly marked “canvassers only”, and so-called friends who had never “so much as put a leaflet in a letter box” during his lifetime were left in no doubt what he thought of them, during a very barbed address by Gregory’s long-time friend Cllr Maureen O’Sullivan. She told the congregation that most of them would not be welcome at the graveside as the burial, and presumably any refreshments afterwards, were for his closest friends, relatives and most stalwart supporters.

That’s simply wrong, and again indicates that she more than likely wasn’t there. Maureen O’Sullivan said nothing about not welcome, but emphasised that it was for the above groups – but I’ll return to that in a moment. Fr. McVerry’s point was well made, it entirely suited the occasion, the sustained and pointed applause came from all quarters within the church. Her gripe?

And here’s a thought. Many hundreds turned up. This may have escaped Power, but the Gregory organisation was not the most well funded on the face of this earth and therefore obvious limits would come into play as to how many could be fed and watered. And in precisely the same way as Tony sought to respect those who had worked for him, as they respected him in turn, by ensuring that they were seated (incidentally I didn’t get in myself to the church for the removal being pushed back by the crowd).

Tony was a socialist. Tony didn’t hold with the nonsense that there was a distinction between dignitaries and the ‘throng’. That he accommodated those who worked most closely with him and allowed only the barest nod to ceremonial tradition in allowing the presence of the three previously mentioned individuals at the top of the church wasn’t some glib thumbing of the nose but an integral aspect of an attitude of his (and I’ll bet most of us here) to power relationships.

But Breda Power isn’t a socialist, and is clearly at sea with these events.

Maureen O’Sullivan quite rightly indicated that the afters was an essentially ‘private’ event. There is nothing particularly unusual about this, often in instances where a public figure, or even a non public figure, is buried the immediate family will restrict access to the graveside or any subsequent event. It’s not an insult, merely an opportunity for those closest to a person to take final stock. And as it happens the crowd at the graveside was large. Which makes her next paragraph inexplicable unless she merely seeks to take offense for the sake of it.

This was all in keeping with Gregory’s wishes, which were characteristically unorthodox to the last. It is rare to see the wishes, enmities and grudges of the deceased shape a funeral service to such a palpable degree.

But perhaps it is explicable because she either missed or ignored the sense of unhappiness felt by Tony’s supporters after the previous evening. Because she continues…

Maybe existing funerary custom and practice, where the most hypocritical displays of grief and the most unwelcome of mourners go unchallenged, is disingenuous. Perhaps your final send-off is the best possible place to settle old scores. It is firmly verboten for the living to speak ill of the dead, but there’s nothing at all to stop the dead pouring great scorn on the living, and Tony Gregory made gleeful use of that loophole.

This too is nonsense. Only the most biased reading could see the events of his funeral as his making ‘gleeful use… of pouring great scorn on the living’.

Even a few weeks before he died he was denied time to address the Dail on education cuts, so he must have relished the chance of a clear run to express himself, at last, without the ceann comhairle’s interruption, and we can hardly fault him for taking it.

But once you’re dead, you have no active say in how you are remembered — that is up to your friends and family. And it is not customary to dwell on grievances and cranky quirks because that, usually, is not how the bereaved wish to recall their deceased relative.

At Gregory’s funeral Cllr O’Sullivan took care to distinguish between the politician’s unsmiling public face and the humorous, gregarious, vivacious storyteller known only to his friends. What a shame the funeral did nothing to reconcile the two for the thousands who liked and admired Gregory, without ever having the chance to meet him.

Once more, this is nonsense, anyone there (and somehow I doubt Power was) will attest that the Tony most of us knew was well represented in dispatches. Sometimes funny, occasionally hilarious, often difficult, almost always serious. Tony was a man of serious purpose. Still consider the following:

Tony Gregory never wore a tie to the Dail because, he said, few in his constituency wore a tie to work. I always felt this stance undermined the honour his constituents had bestowed upon him.

They might not have had white-collar jobs, but that didn’t mean those fiercely proud inner-city Dubs wouldn’t have scrubbed up in their absolute Sunday best, out of respect for their state’s hard-won sovereignty, if they had the chance to walk through the doors of Dail Eireann. And a true, working-class Dub would be horrified at the thought that a mourner who attended his funeral was sent home with his belly stuck to his back for want of a cup of tea and a ham sandwich. Ironically, in doing precise service to his wishes, Gregory’s friends did a disservice to the man himself.

As Wednesday noted to me, the implication is that Tony Gregory was not a ‘a true, working-class Dub’. It also generates a travesty of the ‘working class’, or rather Power’s expectations of same. The cosy sense she uses the term ‘fiercely proud’ ‘absolute Sunday best’ ‘horrified at the thought’…would be exploded by a bit of canvassing across the constituency, or indeed any working class constituency, would be made understandable by considering the point in time at which Tony arrived in the Dáil, being – as he hoped – the start of a phalanx of activist community politicians working with and in the working class. I didn’t canvass for Tony in 1981 but I was canvassing a couple of years later in Doghnamede and Darndale and other estates across the Northside and the sort of problems faced by him and us at that time and later didn’t lend themselves to cosiness and resting on sentimental illusions about the working class.

And again, the idea that a mourner would be sent home resenting the fact … and note the faux populism of her lapse into ‘rare auld times’ rhetoric… ‘…his [sic] belly [was] stuck to his back for want of a cup of tea and a ham sandwich’ is laughable.

In that final interview Gregory spoke movingly of how, despite his doubts, he felt his mother’s spirit to be watching over him, and of his belief that intense love, such as that of a parent for a child, can live on after death.

It is for such hopeful, reflective, unruly humanity that Gregory deserves to be remembered. It’s a pity those who organised his funeral took the view that less edifying emotions, such as spite and rancour, should survive him too.

Spite and rancour express in many ways. In this instance it is the spite and rancour of the powerful against the less powerful when the latter dare to express their own views, of those who ‘expect’ status to be lauded even when to do so is utterly hypocritical, who demand differentiation rather than equality, of those who grow misty eyed at the idea of pliant working people rather than the reality.

But let’s put those issues aside and just consider the most obvious problem with her words. Tony Gregory was 61 years of age when he died. Under any other circumstances he could have expected at the least another decade in front line politics and a full and healthy life during that period and after. He mentioned some regrets in the Hot Press piece at things he had never done, but until recently had not thought beyond the bounds of possibility. That she cannot see how bitter and anger inducing this might be for all of us there in the church and beyond who supported him or even just thought well of him – and how that informed by the events of the previous evening led to much of the emotion there – and can only write a few hundred words on some slight which in all honesty I doubt she felt whatsoever on the day or subsequently, says it all. This wasn’t a play or a restaurant to be critiqued by her, and dismissed because it didn’t meet her expectations… it was the death of a man who meant something to many many people. And still does.

Spite and rancour.

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One Response

  1. Stephen

    July 7, 2009 12:47 pm

    Brenda Power and the Publication should be ashamed.
    This woman is almost ignorant in her (what I would call arrogant rants) “articles”.

    Stephen,
    Tallaght,
    Dublin