A poignant farewell to a lifelong friend
Western People Sept 6, 2022
I was reading some time ago about a priest who was visiting a colleague in hospital who was dying. As they parted the last words of the dying man to his friend was: ‘We had great fun’. When I visited for the last time, my priest-colleague and lifelong friend, Fr Brian Conlon, I thought of those words. However, by this time Brian wasn’t conscious so I couldn’t use them but I probably wouldn’t have used them anyway because, while they were true, they were only a peripheral though important part of a greater, more compelling friendship that those few words would imply.
In saying goodbye to Brian there was a lot more I would have wanted to say. But yes, we had great fun in the company of Michael O’Horo, the third member of what Brian used to call ‘The Three Amigos’. We talked often, discussed everything, agreed on some things, disagreed on others, solved all the outstanding problems of the Church (often with consummate ease) and delighted in each other’s company. We enjoyed meals together, went on holidays at home and abroad, played (or attempted to play) golf on some of the great courses of the world including regularly on the local Enniscrone links and established a mutually-enriching and highly enjoyable friendship that spanned half-a-century for me and 60+ plus years for Brian and Michael.
But, of course, we never get said at a death-bed, what we really wanted to say because the circumstances never allow us to say them and, in any case, emotion and its close companions tend to disallow it. But I hope (and I think) he knew how life-enhancing his friendship had been, how sad the parting was and how indelibly imprinted is the memory-pack of precious times the three of us shared for so long.
Brian was a people’s person. He thrived on company. His winning smile – so often commented upon since his death – was for many the entry point that drew them into an enjoyable social space: gatherings that included weddings which he particularly enjoyed; homes visited in the parishes in which he worked, a duty which he always diligently discharged; chats in a pub with complete strangers who sometimes ended up as friends for life; hospitals visited the length and breadth of Ireland; and especially family gatherings with his extended family that were so much part of the weather of his life.
Brian is the nearest I have known personally to the kind of priest Pope Francis presents as the ideal: kind and friendly; close to the people; generous to a fault; dutiful; sociable; non-judgemental and, dare I say it, holy. For those who didn’t know Brian or who judged him on his characteristic easy-going, cheery, ever-smiling exterior, this may seem surprising. I’m not suggesting for a moment that he was a saint (far from it) or that he hadn’t, like the rest of us, the usual sweep of failings and idiosyncrasies, but he was (among those priests I have known) the most spiritual of men. Faith in Jesus Christ was a treasure in a field he tilled assiduously, not least through his often startling generosity to those in need.
After faith came family, a passion that may have originated in the great sorrows of his life: the death of his father in a farming accident when Brian was eleven and the youngest member of the family was seven; his direct experience of the cross his mother had to carry in rearing her six sons; and later the loss of his brothers, Seán and Paddy. And how proud he must have been at the serried ranks of his extended family who gathered in such numbers in Ballycastle church to pay him tribute.
Brian, died in the Sligo Hospice on August 16th after a difficult struggle with cancer for over nine months. Never in hospital before and rarely visited a doctor, Brian lived a healthy and active life for almost 78 years, dying on the cusp of his 79th birthday. He felt, he told me shortly before his death, he had done well in terms of life and health and, all things considered, he was grateful for the blessings he had received.
Not that crossing the last threshold was something he wanted or found easy. Far from it. His treatment followed the usual rough and tumble pattern of chemotherapy and radium and his final weeks were a difficult purgatory for him. But, after submitting his fragile body to the idiosyncrasies of routine cancer and having to endure – after a reasonably positive early prognosis – a later devastatingly negative result, he knew that the journey he was on (described earlier in his own words as one he had ‘never travelled before’) was running out of road.
After serving for 53 years in eight parishes of Killala diocese – Ballycroy, Kilcommon (Cornboy), Dromore West, Easkey (Rathlee), Kilglass (Enniscrone), Kiltane (Bangor), Lacken and Ballycastle – Brian retired in July of this year. Unsurprisingly, his nieces, Martina and Rosie, their mother, Bernie, Brian’s sister-in-law, and his great friend, Fr Michael O’Horo, were exceptionally devoted to his care in the last months of his life.
Brian, after a long and happy life and an extended and difficult illness, enjoy the calm and peace of God’s eternal home, the birth-right of the baptised and your eternal reward for a life lived well.
Faithful and loving servant, rest well after your labours in the vineyard of the Lord.