By Martin Gleeson
Growing up in a small town in Co. Galway, our house was on a street between the church and the road to the cemetery. Thus, we were familiar with funerals passing our front door.
If my father and mother had been acquainted with the deceased person, they would stand at their front door and watch the funeral procession. As the hearse passed by, they would bow their heads and bless themselves.
However, on these occasions I noticed something strange which I did not understand.
As the last of the mourners passed by, my mother and father would face one another and smile furtively. I wanted to ask them why they smiled at such solemn and grave occasions, but I did not dare to ask.
Many years later my father, Tim, had passed away. My mother led an independent life for some time but eventually she needed the care of a nursing home.
I was lucky to be able to visit her very often.
I would normally arrive in the late morning and give her the local news in which she had an insatiable interest. When the conversation had slowed down, I would leave to have my lunch in the nearby restaurant.
I would then do the shopping required to get the little things my mother needed.
When I returned to the nursing home she wanted to know what I had for lunch, who else was there and who I had met in the shops.
Local deaths were of great interest to her.
One day while I sat in her tiny bedroom, I had just described a funeral I had attended earlier. My mother surprised me by asking about the coffin.
It was then that she said, “Were it not for coffins, your father and I would have never gotten together.”
This was news to me and I listened avidly while she told me about her meetings with my father during their courting days.
Back in the nineteen forties, my mother, Maggie, left secondary school and completed a short-hand and typing course.
She got a job as a secretary in a solicitor’s office in the quiet little town of Drumlee.
Drumlee did not have a cinema, a decent café or a ballroom.
However, Mum was able to get lifts from friends to dances in Ballinrobe.
That was how she socialised with men of her own age.
There she met a young teacher from the town and she was struck by his good humour, his quick wit and his generous nature. His name was Tim.
In those days, women were very reserved about arranging a date with a man.
Mum spoke to people in Drumlee who often travelled to Ballinrobe. They knew people who knew Tim, and eventually a meeting was arranged.
Tim said that he would meet Maggie outside the cinema in Ballinrobe, that they would go to the pictures and then he would bring her back to Drumlee on the carrier of his bicycle.
But Mum had a problem. She did not possess a bicycle. The bus service was poor and she had no way of getting to Ballinrobe.
It was common back then for people to seek lifts from commercial travellers or neighbours lucky enough to have a car.
Eventually Mum was told that an Undertaker from Ballinrobe was to collect an empty coffin from a cabinet-maker in Drumlee and he would give her a lift.
On the evening of her first date with Tim, Mum was picked up by the Undertaker outside her digs. To her horror he had a helper sitting in the passenger seat.
To avail of the lift, Mum had to lie down in the back of the hearse beside the coffin. Initially she balked, but then decided she could not leave Tim ‘stood up’ in Ballinrobe.
In her best frock Mum laid down beside the coffin and at times held on to it to prevent herself rolling around the back of the hearse.
When the hearse had arrived in Ballinrobe, the Undertaker shouted back to Mum, “Maggie, we’re outside the cinema now.”
After he had opened the back door for her, she stepped out onto the street.
She was mortified when she saw Tim staring at her.
‘Are you back from the dead, Maggie?’ was how he greeted her and then they both burst out laughing.
In spite of its grave beginning, Mum’s date with Tim was a great success.
More meetings were arranged and again Mum had to cadge lifts from the Undertaker.
But she ensured that she always exited the hearse at the outskirts of the town where no one could see her.
Tim quickly became the love of Mum’s life. Within a year they became engaged and they married young for those days.
I was the result of their love.
And it was not until Mum told me this story that I understood why a hearse and coffin had played such an important part in my parents’ courtship! n