Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Walking away from family: A disappeared brother, Declan Geraghty

Children begin by loving their parents.
After a time they judge them.
Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.
                                         —Oscar Wilde

Declan Joseph Geraghty, 1955.
Oscar Wilde understood so well the complexities of the human spirit, and the limitations of it. So too he understood the feelings of contempt that might come over a child when too soon he realizes his parents are only flawed human beings after all.

Perhaps due to his own tragic family history, Oscar Wilde understood estrangement and the mad misunderstandings which might take place within a family, the lies told, the secrets held, and the stories created to cover up those lies, and to bury those secrets.

Declan Geraghty was raised in one such family, with parents who tried their best, but simply could not succeed in the role. The fact that there was never to be any forgiveness of his parents by Declan can be of no doubt.

Sometime after the death of his mother, and the emigration of his two eldest brothers, Patrick and Michael, Declan walked away from his family, seemingly never to be heard from again.

Born 29 February 1940, Declan Joseph was the sixth child of seven born to my paternal grandparents Anne Magee and John Geraghty. Declan was born into a household of strife and violence. Their father was an alcoholic who beat his sons when they transgressed the rules, and who by all accounts was a deeply troubled soul, possibly suffering from mental illness. Their mother had been losing her eyesight since her early twenties and was almost completely blind, but still tried her very best to make a life for her family. Declan's eldest brother Patrick was twelve years his senior when baby Declan came along, over a full decade away from him with respect to time and common interests. There were three other brothers in between them, Michael, Enda and John, and one sister, Mary. Declan's sister Kathleen was a year younger than him, born in 1941, and so for a time they would be close.

Declan's grandmother Mary Dunne Magee, who would have doted on him, died ten months before he was born. Her husband Patrick Magee had already been dead for almost five years, so he would never know his little grandson. The Magees had been a good support system for their daughter and her family, and without their aid matters deteriorated. Declan's paternal grandparents, Margaret Toole and Patrick Geraghty were rarely in the picture, having all but shunned his father John for his perceived weakness and dissolute ways.

Occasionally, Margaret and Patrick Geraghty would venture out from their opulent home in the wealthy Dublin suburb of Mount Merrion to visit the household of their second born son in Crumlin. Although my father simply would not speak of it, Declan's sister, my aunt Kathleen, once described to me the terms of such a visit. Mr. and Mrs. Geraghty, as my aunt called them, would always bring a tin of biscuits, and never stayed for more than a few minutes. She seemed deeply hurt by the fact that her paternal grandparents seemed wholly indifferent to the poverty in which their grandchildren were living.

Michael, Kathleen, & Declan.
My father kept some of the very last photographs in which his brother Declan appears. They were taken in 1955, sometime in the months just after their mother's death, and less than a year before my father, mother, and brother emigrated from Ireland. In the pictures Declan is small in stature and slight of form, and at the age of fifteen years, already bears the rounded shoulders of a disappointed man. There is a glimmer of lightness in one very small photograph, inserted here on the left, in which Declan is pictured with his sister Kathleen, holding my elder brother Michael. They seem to be beaming over their little nephew. Although they were close, Kathleen said she did not know then that her smiling brother would leave her behind, and walk away from the life they both knew so very well.


Beginning sometime around 1975, Kathleen began to search for Declan. On a visit to Canada, she consulted with my father over what they might do to find Declan. For some inexplicable reason they both believed he was still alive, but there was never any explanation of this offered to me. Declan was spoken of in whispers, and the stories which grew up around his disappearance vacillated from the bizarre to the ridiculous. I found myself to be a child who suspected that the boy who had walked away from the flawed family was possibly flawed himself.

One relative claimed that in 1956 Declan had a religious calling, and had journeyed to Africa as a Christian missionary, bent on converting the native population. Another believed he had gone to Liverpool, or immigrated to America, to make his fortune in business. There was even the possibility that he had joined a band of itinerants, and was living a gypsy life. I wondered how a sixteen year old Irish Catholic boy from Dublin could follow any of these paths, but I said nothing about it. When I would ask my father what happened to Declan, he would say he honestly did not know.

For years Kathleen searched for Declan, placing advertisements in newspapers in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, asking him or anyone knowing him to contact her. Somehow Kathleen knew Declan had not emigrated away from the British Isles, knew that he would neither venture into mainland Europe, nor journey down into Africa. Somehow she knew he had not crossed the sea to Canada or the United States. Sometime late in 1978, or early in 1979, Kathleen's search was ended when one of those ads was answered.

Declan was living in Leeds, England, some 200 miles north of Hillingdon, Middlesex, the London suburb in which his younger sister was living with her husband and children. Life had been quite difficult for him, and it appears at times he had been 'living rough', as they say in Ireland, 'homeless', as they say in North America. The story was that Declan had lived in many different places, all over Ireland and the UK, and was then working in Leeds as a social worker at a soup kitchen, but I do not know if that story is true. Declan would survive only a few months after his sister found him. He died 2 June 1979, at the age of only 39 years.

After Declan died, there was a flurry of telephone calls between my father and his youngest sister. Arrangements had to be made, a funeral and a burial had to be paid for. Of this time I recall only two things. The first is a conversation my mother had on the telephone with the proprietor of a flower shop in Leeds; my mother was demanding the finest St. Joseph's lilies for Declan's funeral. 'St. Joseph's lilies, not Calla lilies! St. Joseph's lilies, not Calla lilies!', my mother kept emphatically repeating to the florist.

When she hung up the phone I asked my mother about the difference between the two flowers. Mom described St. Joseph's lilies as very desirable because of their simplicity and their beauty, and explained that Declan should have only the very best. In my mind I wondered what possible difference it would make to him now that he was dead, but I kept that sentiment to myself. Eventually I came to know that the St. Joseph lily is a signifier of Joseph, the spouse of the Virgin Mary, and he who is associated with the saying, 'the just man shall bloom like the lily'. Perhaps it was not only the beauty of the flower which made it fitting for Declan.

The other recollection I have of the time after Declan's death is the receipt of a small black and white photograph. It was sent to my father by his sister Kathleen, a couple of months after Declan's death. In it was pictured a beautifully simple white marble gravestone his siblings had bought to erect over Declan's grave. The words 'tabula rasa' passed through my mind when I saw the image of the stone, 'tabula rasa', a clean slate.

A couple of months ago I applied to the English government to receive a certified copy of the registration of Declan's death. Recently it arrived in the mail. On the certificate the date of death is confirmed as the second of June 1979, and the city of Leeds is stated as Declan's last home. Three conditions are noted for the cause of death: "cardio respiratory failure, Bilateral spontaneous pneumothorax, and emphysema". The cause was certified after a postmortem, which means that Declan probably died alone. Also, on the form, Declan's occupation is recorded as 'Night Watchman'. Night watchman? Yet another incarnation. When I read those words, another pair of words came back to me, 'Tabula Rasa'.

Whatever path he may have followed, whatever Declan's life had actually been, the slate was long ago wiped clean with the setting of the simple white gravestone. After all was said and done, I dearly hope my uncle Declan found peace, and was somehow able at last to understand, and perhaps even forgive his flawed family.

Copyright©irisheyesjg2013.

9 comments:

  1. What a moving story, Jennifer. Declan's pain must have been overwhelming for him to leave his family His brothers and sister's aching for him must have been equally wrenching, no matter where they thought he went. My heart goes out to your family. Kathleen was a persistent lady, and your parents showed great tenderness towards him. I hope Declan knew he was loved; perhaps it offered him some sense of redemption in his final days.

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    1. Hi Linda,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. They are always much appreciated. The whole situation in which Declan and his siblings was such a sad and desperate one. It is heartbreaking to think of it. Kathleen was indeed a persistent and very strong woman and I deeply admire her for persevering to ultimately find their brother. I do hope Declan knew they loved him.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  2. Jenn, I know it must have been difficult to post the story of Declan but want to say thank you for doing it. We don't often hear about people like him. I hope Declan knew he was loved by his brothers and sisters and I hope he found peace in the end.

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    1. Hi Charlotte,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. They are always much appreciated. It was difficult to post the story because it is tough to have to recognize the roles that violence and alcoholism played in my father's life and those of his siblings. I really do think it is important to acknowledge it and to recognize the impact it had on all of the members of our family.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  3. That's a very sad story. There must people whose lives touched Declan's at some point between the departure from his family and his lonely death. I hope that one day, one of them might read this and fill in some details for you.

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    1. Hi Brett,

      Thanks very much for your comments. You have read my thoughts exactly. I do hope someday someone who knew Declan along the way will contact me.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  4. Fascinating story but I think it was repeated in many families in those times.
    My parents grew up near Crumlin, in Drimnagh and married in 1951 and bought a house in Walkinstown.

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    1. Hi Jackie/Jake,

      I do think it is a fascinating story and it worries me to think it was repeated many times, as you've said. Hopefully those with missing family members were able to reconnect with them at some point in time.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  5. In all my to-ings and fro-ings I've dropped out of blog reading. This is such an interesting story Jennifer, told with both empathy and, in a way, bewilderment. Poor Declan, to have lost all his family and been on his own for so long despite Kathleen's best efforts. Thanks for sharing a genuine story of loss _Wilde's quote is perfect.

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Cheers, Jennifer

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