It’s funny the way one death can eclipse another. On 22 November 1963, Aldous Huxley and C S Lewis both died. That same day John F Kennedy was assassinated. Most people remember not just the day of Kennedy’s death but what they were doing at the time. Few could tell you when Huxley or Lewis died, let alone what they were doing.
I experienced this overshadowing more closely than I would have wished at the weekend. Along with the rest of the world I was assimilating the death of Seamus Heaney on Friday. On Saturday morning I was in the BBC in Belfast at 7.15, about to go on air with a newspaper review. My mobile rang and the screen showed it was my wife. I knew at once it was something serious – normally on a Saturday she wouldn’t be awake at that time, let alone calling me. Her voice was clotted with unhappiness: her sister’s husband, John Delahunty, had died suddenly.
They’d been on a holiday in Spain. They’d stayed near the place where they’d spent their honeymoon some forty years earlier. It had been a happy return – swimming, sunbathing, remembering. Their flight brought them back to Dublin airport at midnight on Friday. Trolleys loaded, they’d headed through the crowd for the exit; and as is the way of Gavin women, his wife was ahead of him by several yards. Then she heard frightened cries and someone calling “Help that man!” When she finally pushed through her husband was lying on the ground. There was blood coming from his nose and mouth. When she took his pulse he was dead.
It’s easy to let the passing of the famous overshadow the loss of what some foolishly called ‘ordinary people’. John Delahunty lived a quiet life. He provided for his wife and children, he liked a drink (we once famously polished off a full bottle of brandy between us), he had a fine singing voice which he rarely used, he disliked ostentation and hated being the centre of attention. As his wife said, he would have detested having a rubber-necking crowd around him in his final moments.
“Just another death” you say. True. But for him and those who loved him it was the most significant, the most calamitous of deaths. I knew him for nearly fifty years and I never heard him speak ill of anyone. A quiet life ending in a sudden death, surrounded by strangers who, having seen what there was to see, moved on. John Donne had John Delahunty as much as Seamus Heaney in mind when he wrote: “Each man’s death diminishes me/For I am involved in mankind/Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee.”
Slán abhaile, John, agus ar dheis Dé go raibh d’anam.