My granny, Maggie Mongan, the matriarch of the family, passed away after a battle with double pneumonia on 23 February 2020. She was 89 years old. It was the day before I turned 35.
Days before, we visited Granny, knowing it was more of a goodbye than a “how are ya?” My brother drove myself, my other brother and my father up to University Hospital Galway, and as usual, the journey consisted of us all slagging each other and ripping into my father’s weird jacket – the good jacket, the one that he rarely wore but for an odd occasion that took him away from the grease and oil of an engine or car he was fixing.
The craic was punctuated by the occasional roar from my father when my brother overtook a car or my father thought he was speeding. My father is not a great passenger and still treats us like we need to cycle bikes with stabilisers.
Once at the hospital, I stayed outside a few minutes to have a cigarette. Well, more to compose myself really. Inside the ward, I washed my hands in the alcoholic gel, again and again, 10 times maybe, a subconscious attempt to linger rather than face what lay before me.
My granny’s name was on the door of her room, written in a whiteboard marker, I suppose to make it easier to wipe away and to make room for the next poor soul charged with saying goodbye to their family.
I walked into the room and the machine was pumping, there were pipes everywhere, and Granny looked older than I had ever seen her. My cousins were crying. My mother marched around like a robot, void of emotions, not through being cold-hearted, but more from a sense that my granny’s kids now had to hold the brave chins of the matriarchs.
Life is like that. The elders start off holding their babes, feeding them and nurturing them, but in the end, life will flip and reverse the roles. To save us grandchildren from the harsh reality of emotional goodbyes, our parents hold back their tears. So dignified and yet callous, again, such is the way of life and the ending of one. My mother wouldn’t leave the bed for a full week after my granny was laid in the shared plot next to my grandfather.
I wish I could say that in my granny’s final hours, she left us with the warm and kind words of wisdom and love that she would have given us when she was healthy, but, ya know, life. It was not a movie scene and the reality of our elders passing usually means their mind slips long before their heart gives.
When it was my turn to approach, I put my hand on her foot at the end of the bed and asked her how she was. A typical stupid Irish question. She looked me deadpan in the eyes and asked who I was. My mother reminded her and to my relief, she said my name and didn’t tell me off for not visiting more.
I said I would come to visit her when she was better, but the lump in my throat was telling me it was time to leave and find somewhere quiet where I could be alone. My granny slipped away a little later.
The following week, we started to hear snippets of news about Covid-19, and how it had begun to ravage communities abroad. Few people knew then how this new virus would take numerous grandparents away from unfortunate families across the world.
Very few knew then that they should start planning to make new memories with the time they still had with their elders. Few knew then, and in many ways, we still do not know.
We never truly show gratitude for what is beside us. In this modern world, we are programmed to reach for the things that lie before us, at a cost for the people we neglect behind us.
My grandmother was loving, caring and empathetic. She grew up in a time where Travellers lived in cold make-shift tents and babies died before they could say their names. Granny lived through the years of pitching up on the sides of roads, the years of sleeping on beds made of hay and the smell of campfire sticking to their hair.
My grandfather, Edward, died when I was 9-months-old, still too young to remember him holding me. My grandmother was the thread that kept her 13 kids and more than 60 grandchildren together, like a well-needled blanket, keeping us all warm and covered in her wonder.
She would be at every baptism, wedding, funeral and holiday gathering. Her favourite thing to do was to say a prayer to Our Lady, give out holy medals and sing “Lady of Knock, our Queen of Peace”. She sang as they would have around a campfire, with no music and silent faces encouraging her onwards. Granny always dressed well, always in lovely hats.
She lived through the death of her son at age 38 to liver failure and her daughter at age 40 to cancer. She lived through a time when one of her grandchildren in their early 30s took their own life. Yet, through all the hardships and personal tragedies, my granny prayed and hoped for a better life for all of us.
She would love to fly to Medjugorje and Lourdes, to pray for the whole family and friends, saving up all year to buy us holy medals, holy water and bracelets. She went on pilgrimages and walking tours right up to her 70s until her health and hips no longer allowed it. At Knock, at the shrine of Our Lady, she would pray the sins away for her family.
She would spend the year knitting blankets to send to Chernobyl to help orphans —or to wherever parish leaders said help was needed — or would raffle the blankets off to friends and family and send the money raised instead.
She would sit for hours in her chair by the window, next to the TV and her range fire, with spools of wool covering the floor. In her later years, she would use tongs to pick up any fallen yarn.
I still have the blanket my granny knitted and gifted my mother the day I was born and I use it in the winter when it is cold, or on a night when there’s a different type of warmth and embrace required. You will never feel lonely or cold under a blanket made from a granny’s love.
My granny was a superhero. But it was only in the past five years that I visited her regularly. Life has a way of forcing priorities on us. It smothers us with bills, work, education, stress, or anxiety. Looking back now, I would gladly change my priorities, but hindsight is the temptation we can never truly indulge, apart from memories.
It’s cliché, I know, but memories are all we really have in the end and if we are honest with ourselves, we never make enough of them. I see it myself with my own parents. I visit them once a week, at most, and far less now with the pandemic.
I’m not writing this piece with the perspective drawn solely from my ethnic background. Losing elders is not unique to anyone. This sense of loss is one that we all share. No one gets to live life without feeling the pangs of bereavement. No one gets out alive.
But while we are all connected and equal in bereavement, some groups face it much sooner, and more often. The Irish Traveller community has lower life expectancies than our non-Traveller neighbours. Just 3 percent of Travellers were older than 65, at the time of the 2016 Census.
That cannot be true, can it? If so, at 35 years, I am now a middle-aged man. If I wanted to get a mortgage, I would most likely be either dead by the time it is paid off or, at the most, own my own home for about five years. A Traveller who is more than 40 would be labelled, correctly, as old.
My parents are now in their mid-to-late 50s. I know I need to cherish and hold on to the years that lie ahead. They are considered old age now, yet too young for a pension. Most Travellers are dead before they reach pension age.
It is not just our elders either who die much sooner than our non-Traveller friends and neighbours. Irish Travellers are six times more likely to take their own lives than the rest of society, according to the All Ireland Traveller Mental Health Study in 2010.
Mental health issues do not know the difference between who is a Traveller and who is not. They do not discriminate. Only, they do. Ooh, did I just low-key drop in the discrimination card? Because yes, bring up racism or discrimination, and we are told we are drawing a card.
We marginalised groups meet up once a month to play the racism card game, where we swap cards with other players for more powerful ones. The Traveller card can often be found at the bottom of the pile because no one really cares about that one, not really.
The stronger cards are usually whatever is popular on social media right now. So spare a thought for Travellers when you judge us for the actions of a few morons on YouTube causing trouble. Don’t give us a hard time, and if you really just can’t bring yourself to be nice to us, don’t worry, the ones you don’t like right now will be dead soon enough. The statistics promise it.
Where does this discrimination come from anyway? It is there in the 80 percent unemployment rate that Travellers face, shown in 2016 Census figures. And in the findings of a 2017 Behaviour and Attitudes survey, that 83 percent of people wouldn’t hire a Traveller, regardless of education or experience.
Or in the fact that, in recent years, we have seen how babies less than 1 year old have had their information logged on to the PULSE system, a criminal database used by An Garda Síochána. The optics of this is, of course, that from birth, Travellers are seen and treated as criminals.
Kept out of jobs, marked from birth by Gardaí – that and more, of course, chips away at our mental health, and shortens the years that we have to live.
Yet some, somehow, make it to an older age. My granny was the kindest person I have ever known. A few years ago, I spoke to her about my sexuality. It was just after Christmas 2018, and we were having the craic and she sang a song. She was sat in her big chair, knitting. I made us cups of tea and we got chatting.
She was curious about my private life because a few months earlier I had been on RTÉ’s The Cutting Edge series, where I spoke about being gay. She would never be so rude as to ask straight out, so had come at the topic in a roundabout way, asking if there was someone in my life. I told her that I like men and that I was gay.
I had hoped to document a conversation with her on a good camera, because the message she spread as a devout Catholic and religious-minded elder, would have been beneficial for younger generations holding homophobic opinions based on their idea of religious responsibility.
“As long as you love yourself as much as you love the other,” she told me.
My granny didn’t care who I loved, as long as I could love myself equally. She was always spreading that message. Be it religious or simply kind, it hit home the same.
I will never have the opportunity to ask my granny more about her life growing up. I would have loved to hear more about her as a kid, what her dreams for the future were and what fears she had. I would have loved to hear more about her parents and her grandparents and what their lives were like.
We all should take note of our elders. They have lived through it all before us, even when we think they are so outdated. We rarely show the respect our elders deserve until they are once again at one with the earth. When we lose our elders, we lose a living piece of our history, our connection to our roots. We lose the threads to our blankets.
Recently, in honour of my granny, I bought a 4k Panasonic GH5 camera, in the hope that I could document some of the elders that remain, to save their messages on screen, to share them with the world. Because there is no use in crying for the past, when we neglect them in the present.