COFFEE AT ELEVEN

April 24, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

A very dear friend of mine died on this day 17 years ago. He was 96, a great age as they say, but I still miss our chats and the times we spent together. When he died, I formed a tiny committee that set out to erect a plaque in his memory. We aimed to raise €2,000 but reached €10,000 within a couple of months and had to ask people to stop making donations. We already had too much money. Instead of a plaque, we commissioned a two-metre tall sculpture in limestone and bronze and made a donation to his favourite charity in Africa.


One of the things I remember about my friend is dropping in to see him around 11 o'clock in the morning. This almost always guaranteed that he'd invite me to have a coffee. He made it his way - Maxwell House mild blend in heated milk (never boiled because that spoiled the flavour) in an old saucepan on an ancient big Aga cooker. I used to call it 'Br O'Brien Coffee' (I didn't know what a cappuccino was back then and anyway, there was no chocolate and he wasn't a Capuchin).

I sometimes think that his coffee was exceptional not because of the milk, or the brand of coffee, or how it was heated, but because it had a special ingredient of conversation with an old friend who, like too many of my friends, I knew more about after he died than when he was alive. People pass on without us learning more about them because we don't know the right questions to ask, or because we keep meaning to but don't. Life is just like that.


Diarmaid O'Brien was charismatic. Rooms changed when he entered. He was a Gaelic scholar, historian, proud Irishman, a font of immense knowledge, a decent human being and above all a good Christian Brother. He was one of the most loved men in my home town, where he spent 26 years of his life before the local monastery closed in 1998. When he died, he was buried in Dublin and this was why we wanted to have something locally so that he would be remembered. We chose a green patch in Brigown because it has a monastic ruin that dates to the 7th century. As it happens, it's only 250 metres from my front door and I pass that way most days.

The kitchen that we chatted in so often is no more, vandals made sure of that when they wrecked the inside of the monastery after the last brother left. But I can still hear his voice, reduced to a whisper from working for seventy years as a teacher. He started teaching at the age of sixteen and still taught a class a day until the age of 92. I remember the feel of his arm firmly linked around mine to keep him steady, because at night-time he was virtually blind. If I was asked to nominate someone that I've known in my life for sainthood, then it would be him.


The sculpture, on front, has a relief in bronze of Br O'Brien and begins with the ancient Irish inscription 'Ór do M. Diarmaid Briain Brathair Chríostaoí 1904-2001' (ór do means 'a prayer for'). On the back is a Celtic Cross, based on a cross from Clonmacnoise, and it has an inscription from the Gospel of St. John, which I chose because it said much about the man. “He who speaks in truth comes into the Light because his Deeds are done in God”.

So, on his anniversary I always try to treat myself to a Br O'Brien Coffee and remember, if only for a few moments, a very special friend. There are worse ways to be remembered.


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