FROM BLOOMSDAY TO . . .
By Mattie Lennon.
Unlike Oliver in Oliver Twist I happen to believe that there is humour even in funeral parlours. So I decided to interview a few Funeral Directors and ask them for anecdotes.
I started with an Undertaker in west Wicklow who would prefer to remain anonymous. I think he was taking mental measurements of me as we talked and I can’t verify the veracity of his contribution but here it is, “ He had died at 93. He was lying on the slab ready for embalming. Suddenly he bolted upright and without opening his eyes he began to utter this story ‘ I was in the GPO with Pearse in 1916. I fought with the Anti-Treaty side in twenty two. I told them in thirty seven if they voted for the Constitution they’d be voting for their own downfall.’ He lay back down on the slab. And they say dead men tell no tales.”
Mary Elizabeth Dillon of Civil Funerals Ireland told me, “ I organised a civil funeral for a family in North Dublin, an elderly woman had died and her husband was organising the funeral. On the day of the service all went well and afterwards the man asked me if I would like to come along to the refreshments. I say no, unfortunately I had to attend at another funeral later in the day. ‘Oh, he said, that’s a shame, you’ll miss the fight!’ “ So that wasn’t a very “civil” funeral!
A Mortician in Pecaya, Venezuela has a story which indicates that nothing should be wasted, even a grave. According to his story, “ In 1971, this man had been pronounced dead by a doctor. But as the first shovelfuls of earth were being flung on the coffin, the unconscious victim, who had suffered a non-fatal heart attack, came to, pushed open the liod of his coffin and scrambled out of the hole screaming and cursing. Sadly, his mother-in-law who was standing by the side of the grave, promptly dropped dead of shock. She was later buried in the brave intended for her son-in-law after other doctors made sure she was really, really dead.”
My pen was faltering at this point when I learned that Gus Nichols, Managing Director of Nichols Undertakers , Dublin, and his cousin Paula Howard have written Past Nichols, The Undertakers.
This book is a family history of the six generations of Nichols who have been in the Undertaking business since 1814 and much more besides. The 1798 rebellion, 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War are all covered. When you see chapter headings like, The Old Order Changeth, and Local to Global you know that this is not just a local history.
There is plenty of humour also. David Norris says in the Foreword, “Despite the nature of the business there is nothing morbid about this book . . .” He then goes on to set the tone with a story from his own family about one of his ancestors who had a nagging wife, “ . . . eventually, to the husbands relief, she died. The undertakers had difficulty getting the coffin down a winding staircase . . . . and when they banged it against the wall on their descent, knocking was heard. The coffin lid opened and the cantankerous lived for another 10 years, to the great inconvenience of her spouse. At last she died once more. He was re-coffined and as they came down the staircase her husband was heard to mutter ‘Mind the corner, boys’ “.
Later in the book Gus Nichols tells a somewhat similar story from Saint Catherine’s Parish in 1740 but I won’t spoil it for you.
The formidable Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid had a very distinctive black saloon with blacked-in-windows. As it passed through the streets of Dublin people would stop and genuflect. When the time came to sell the car it was bought by Edward Nichols as it was a suitable car for funerals.
Edward had married one Sarah Gilbertson from Hertfordshire. When Sarah’s parents, Dr. Michael and Jean Gilberston , were paying their first ever visit to Ireland Edward ( who was famous for his sense of humour and a creator of everlasting nicknames) dispatched the Archbishop’s car with liveried driver to Dublin airport to collect them. They were impressed. As they travelled through Whitehall and Drumcondra they noticed people making the sign of the Cross as they passed. Every time they stopped people would genuflect. When the car pulled up outside J & C Nichols in Lombard street, Doctor Michael Gilbertson was heard to say, Jeanie darling, where on earth are we? Driver, take us back to the airport man . . .” Edward Nichols came out and listened to their comments about eccentricies of the natives but he wasn’t the type of man to fill them in on the details.
Ninety years after the foundation of the business it was immortalised when the fictional Leopold Bloom, . . .”walked soberly, past Windmill Lane . . .crossed Townsend Street . . .past Nochols’ the undertaker’s.”
This book is not just a definitive history of a family of undertakers; it is an entertaining and informative account of life (and death) in Dublin in the rare oul times. Buy it.
Mattie Lennon firstname.lastname@example.org