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 founded a small committee that set out to erect a plaque in his memory. We planned to raise €2,000 but the fund reached €10,000 within a couple of months and we had to ask people to stop donating. We already had too much money. Instead of a plaque, we commissioned a two-metre tall sculpture in limestone and bronze and we donated the surplus 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 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. I often think of death as being a conversation that won't happen again and those conversations I miss so much when friends pass away.


Diarmaid O'Brien was charismatic. Rooms changed when he entered them. 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 lived 26 years of his life before the local monastery closed in 1998. He spent his last remaining years in a nursing home in Baldoyle, County Dublin. When he died, much to the disappointment of many in Mitchelstown, he was buried in a private cemetery beside the nursing home and this was why we wanted to have something locally so that he would be remembered in the place where he settled at the end of a long life. He once told me he never put down roots anywhere until he came to Mitchelstown. It became his home and the place he had expected to die and be buried. When it came to erecting his memorial, 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 200 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 teaching for seventy years. He started teaching at the age of sixteen and still taught a class a day until he was 92. I remember the feel of his arm firmly linked around mine to keep him steady, because at night-time he was virtually blind and once admitted to me that when walking back to the monastery at night, he sometimes walked into hedges because he couldn't see where he was going. I have often said that if I was asked to nominate someone for sainthood, then it would be him.


The front of the sculpture has a relief in bronze of Br O'Brien and begins with the ancient Irish inscription 'Ór do M. Diarmaid Ó Briain Brathair Chríostaoí 1904-2001' ('ór' do means 'a prayer for'). On the back is a Celtic Cross, which is based on a cross motif from from an early Christian grave marker at Clonmacnoise in his native county of Offaly. 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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