“Will you tell me one thing…where did your father get the name…Rutledge?”
His Christian name wasn’t the only thing that was unique about my father.
Looking back, it was fitting that he had a very distinctive, individualistic first name. It suited. Because he was an unconventional man in some ways…different, even a touch eccentric. Then again, everyone’s father is unique…to them.
In latter years, certainly the last two or three, he was one of the main reasons why I hardly ever missed a column deadline. Up to recently, I probably managed 99 columns in 100 weeks, that sort of consistency! Part of the reason for the new-found discipline was because my father always looked out for it. He loved his newspapers.
If I didn’t get around to writing a column, it was always noted.
“You had no page in the paper today” he’d say, triggering just enough guilt in me to ensure I tried harder the following week.
But there has been no column these past five, six, weeks. The man with the unusual name, Rutledge, would have been the first to miss it.
He – and his generation – loved newspapers. The regional papers were read every week, my father keeping an eye on events in Leitrim, Roscommon and Longford. Above all, he needed to see the Irish Independent. Every day. The death notices. The actual news, or what was deemed to be news. The commentary. The gossip. The photographs. The court reports. The quirky story tucked away in the corner of an otherwise ordinary page. The property pages.
“Do you know where that house that’s up for auction is?” “Those two politicians that are fighting, I suppose they’re as thick as thieves behind it all?” “There’s a man dead in Castlerea, would he be anything to…?”
The newspaper was a window on the world for him all his life, every morning…curiosity satisfied, imagination sparked.
Death comes. It came to our family a few weeks ago. My father had a great long life. I am in a privileged position, I guess, in that I write this newspaper column. It purports (often tongue in cheek) to be some sort of (usually light-hearted) chronicle of ‘my week’. It would be odd if I didn’t refer to our recent loss. It is also an opportunity for me to dedicate a column to him, to mark his passing, to give him a send-off in the pages he enjoyed browsing.
He was born in Knockvicar, Boyle, Co. Roscommon, in 1930. In our youth, he intrigued us with stories of his upbringing there. He was one of six children.
“We were very poor. We were so poor, when we were small kids, the six of us slept in the one bed. We were like spoons. In the middle of the night, when one turned, everyone had to turn”.
He walked to school in his bare feet, himself and his siblings bringing turf from home, in for the school fire. Later, as a teenager, he worked on the Rockingham Estate, with other local lads from the Boyle area. At Rockingham, they tended to the gentry on the pheasant shoot. Sir Cecil Stafford King Harman and guests went out hunting, Rutledge and his friends carried the cartridges. When “the gentry” dined in the ‘Big House’, the young lads were each given a bottle of stout and a beef sandwich. Which was fair enough. The day’s wages was four shillings. In later years, Rockingham House was destroyed by fire (in 1957). My father recalled that night: “Sir Cecil was away that night…the blaze broke out at night and the neighbours over a wide area could see the flames lighting up the sky”.
Like so many of his peers, he was distributing social history all his life, without really realising it. He had an endless supply of stories, yarns, jokes. Most of them were true, but not all. Maybe not even most of them. His stories of growing up in North Roscommon were rich with humour, featuring a marvellous array of characters and escapades, of old customs too. Social history.
After a few years in England (lots of different jobs and more escapades) he returned to Ireland. In Dublin, he met May Monahan from Cavan, the woman who would become his lifetime partner. Fifty-nine years of marriage would follow. They were always together and had great times together.
He was an entrepreneur, a self-made man with a gambler’s instinct. Our association with Rooskey began in 1969, when our parents brought their ‘Kon Tiki’ dream to life. Inspired by a themed bar they’d seen on holiday in America, they went looking for a suitable site ‘down the country’. A farmhouse a mile or two outside Rooskey was identified. On this site, my father built a unique ‘singing pub’, complete with a pool of water in the centre of it. The band (there was live music every night) played on a raft in the middle of the water. Later, live fish were added. Special effects created tropical storms. It was a tribute to Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who had crossed the shark-infested Pacific Ocean on a balsa raft (the ‘Kon Tiki’).
The Kon Tiki was a bit of a sensation, attracting the top performers of the day, and visitors from near and far. When the Kon Tiki first opened, three local characters took a break from saving the hay and called in for a look. They ordered three pints. My father closed the blinds and activated the ‘tropical storms’ with his gadgetry behind the counter. The three lads looked at one another. ‘Sure we might as well stay where we are, the weather is after taking a bad turn. Give us three more pints’.
Later, there were more business ventures – in Rooskey village, Strokestown, Dublin, Longford. A host of amusing stories, many of which have been retold in recent weeks. Some of these I have recounted in ‘God Save All Here’ and ‘Nothing About Sheep Stealing’. His business dealings had little to do with number-crunching and everything to do with instinct. He was fearless…buying and selling, wheeling and dealing, enjoying the thrill of it all even as he advanced into his mid-80s (and beyond). He never retired, never really acknowledged old age. While it took its toll on him, he remained positive and young at heart.
I am conscious, particularly now, of how democratic death is, of how democratic loss and grief are. For families who have experienced loss, there are tough moments all year, often to a greater degree at Christmas. The empty chair is more visible than ever this week…in thousands of homes across the country.
My father passed away last month. We were fortunate that he lived a long and fulfilled life, into his 89th year…alert, curious and quick-witted to the end, browsing the newspaper pages, chatting away, in the care of his family.
It’s timely also to think of all the families who will be thinking this Christmas of loved ones who went to their reward this year, or indeed in the past. Their memories will live on.
That name…‘Rutledge’? Long story, kind of. His grandmother’s surname was ‘Rutledge’, she passed it to her son as a (very rare) first name. Her son then dispensed with it when he became a Christian Brother, taking the name ‘Fintan’. With the name ‘Rutledge’ then at risk of ‘disappearing’, my father’s mother granted it as a first name to her son when he was born.
Hence, Rutledge Healy. Straightforward!
So…I suppose I’m back writing my column, and I’m proud to dedicate it to my Dad this week. He was a one-off. He will always be with us.