Michael McDonnell: my Grandad, my Friend
by Corinne McPartland
We are here to celebrate the life of Michael McDonnell, a man that I have been blessed to call my granddad but also my best friend.
According to his official birth certificate, he lived for 79 years. But according to records we found in England – he is down as being 82. He was obviously up to no good when he put down the "less official" date, but whatever age he is down as being, one thing is for certain and that is he lived every one of those years exactly how he wanted. In my eyes, he was the "ultimate original".
The saying goes that "everybody dies but not everybody truly lives" and Granddad's journey has been a full and rich one. The proof of that incredible journey is the strong legacy he leaves behind – his wife Maureen, eight children: Mary, Katherine, Patricia, Annette, Michael, Claire, Fiona and James, 19 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. As well as his sister Kathleen and his many nieces and nephews. This was his family and I know he was so incredibly proud and protective of each one of us.
He taught us all the importance of family, the importance of sticking together and enjoying each other's company. He really nurtured his children, who now in turn nurture their own children embedded in the same core values– and so his legacy lives on. Strong, solid and unbreakable. I think if there's one way you can ever really live forever, then it's through those you leave behind.
Recently I asked him what he would've been in life, if he hadn't have been a mechanic. He told me that he would have been an artist, a writer, a dancer or a poet. It amused me that these were the things he said he would have been – because to me, he had always been all of these things.
There's nobody else I have ever known who could recite a piece of poetry at the drop of a hat to compliment, teach a lesson or raise a smile. I remember recently crying over a man and, in a bid to dry my tears he recited a poem about "corns growing" on his feet and "crabs as big as lobsters" chewing the poor guy's nether regions for meat. Needless to say, I was in stitches by the end.
He always maintained that age isn't an illness - it’s a fact of life. But I guess some people are better at it than others. Granddad’s secret was to think himself younger than he really was and he kept a constant hunger for learning and challenging himself, right up until the very end. He actually spent the last few months trying to get to grips with the internet and was determined to get onto Skype – which he did. And eBay – which he never really did. But I can assure you - if the "Beginners Guide to the Internet" he had beside him most days on the sofa was anything to go by – he would have been internationally trading in everything from tea towels to car parts before the year was out.
Anyone who is here today will know how much he loved to dance. It's a passion he carried with him throughout his life, ever since he realised as a teenager that being good at dancing would almost certainly guarantee you the choice of every beautiful woman in the room. But watching him dance was a great pleasure - you could tell he was completely lost in the music and contently happy.
I've never danced with anyone like I have danced with him. From dancing as a baby with him in the kitchen to dancing our way across Ireland – including the Lisdoonvarna Festival, the land of what he called the "recycled teenager", where he tried his very best to marry me off to an elderly worm farmer as there was, according to him, "great money in worms".
When we were dancing together, he used say to me, "listen to the music and don't think about the steps". I suppose, that was his way of reaffirming the life lesson he was always trying to impart to me and many others in the family; and that is to do exactly what you want to do in life and make sure you follow your arrow wherever it points. Don't be a victim of regret.
Humour was always a huge part of Granddad's character and what a way to be remembered - through laughter. He had the ability to spin a crazy yarn or tell a story, like no other. He was always able to make light of a bad situation - always turning the bright side out. This is a trait of his I see running through so many of us in the family – and thank God for it. We enjoy life because of him. People he has never even met know his stories, phrases and classic insights because we readily recount all of them. I know for a fact that many of those people have then recounted them to their friends and families – and so his legendary wit lives on. I for one, will never be able to say "hospice" without thinking of "horse piss", will never be able to look at a copy of "50 Shades of Grey" without thinking of Tony and Granddad having the craic about it in the kitchen and I know many of my single friends will be eternally grateful for his "It's better to be left on the shelf than looked in a cupboard," analogy.
Granddad taught us all lessons in grace. Even when faced with the toughest of situations, when most people would hold a grudge or seek revenge – he always advised to have good manners, be graceful to all those we met and always take the higher ground.
I don't think of these past years, which saw him go in and out of hospital, as being wasted for him. He actually used them to pave those last few bricks in his long and winding road. He used his last few years to impart infinite words of wisdom to each of us, teach life-lessons and set example after example about how we should: be brave; that love liberates; that we should take a positive attitude towards everything we are faced with in life; that we should live our lives fully – and always find time to laugh.
Nature is where I will always think of him, out on the lake, on his boat – moored up to our "Secret Island" – eating the tastiest of sandwiches and drinking a good mug of tea. As free as a bird. Living in what he called his "paradise".
And Castleblaney was, indeed, his paradise. Ever since he left his hometown as a teenager to find work in England – first in Birmingham, then in London and finally in Croydon where he raised his family - he said he felt a constant pull back to his true home - to this town he loved so, so much. Many people travel the world twice over searching for the natural affinity he had for this place. He didn't need the stamps in his passport to gain a sense of enlightenment, or feel a sense of belonging - because he had it all right here. And part of that sense of belonging, was the many people he called life-long friends including Les Christie and Tony, who I'm sure shared many memorable moments with him throughout his life.
After his many adventures in England - and there were many - he finally settled back here in Castleblaney - nearly 30 years ago now. During this time he turned his hand to everything from buying and selling bikes to painting to running a successful transport café - where he affectionately gained the nickname "Greasy Mick". Out of all the names he's been dubbed over the years – from "Mick the Fitter" when he was a mechanic in London, to "O'Donnell Abu" – after the legendary war chief - a nickname his friends here in Castleblaney used to call him when he was a small boy up to mischief in the town, "Greasy Mick" was probably the one that I didn't like quite as much - probably because I became known as"Greasy Mick's Granddaughter".
During the years he had the cafe, he employed lots of young people - many of whom are here today. He had an natural affinity to strike up friendships with any age group, take an interest in what they were doing, the problems they might have been facing and try to help where he could. Many of you will know that on Christmas Day he used to invite all those in the town, who were alone or had fallen on tough times, to his cafe to enjoy Christmas Dinner and a good drink. I'm glad to say that I got to experience a Christmas Day in his cafe and got to see why he did it - creating a little refuge for those who might otherwise have been desolate, hungry or in need of some company.
I used to come to visit him in Ireland quite a bit for the holidays, and we would sit for hours at his kitchen table exchanging stories, drinking tea and grazing on the delicious food he was always able to whip up. One thing he told me was that when he dreamed he used to feel like he was watching a blockbuster movie, complete with soundtrack and special effects.
Well, Granddad, I hope when you closed your eyes for the last time, you started watching the most glorious movie you've ever watched.
Seeing as you loved a poem to fit an occasion, I will now leave you with few lines of one I found, which I hope describes how you may have transgressed from death to eternal life, "On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined; No sleep til morn, when youth and pleasure meet, to chase the glowing hours with flying feet."
I love you granddad and am glad we have shared a friendship that has overlooked age, created so many wonderful memories and one that will last a lifetime - until we meet again.