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A tribute to Noel Reilly

Second Reading

Fr Kevin Hegarty

Noel Reilly, a man with a deep affinity for his people and native place

Fr Kevin Hegarty

Last week a great Mayo man died. I was proud to be among his friends. On Monday, June 8, we gathered in Belmullet Church on a sunlit afternoon for the liturgical farewell to a man who had brought much light into our lives. Noel Reilly was a native of Belmullet, he spent all his 67 years there. He loved his native place. Patrick Kavanagh often wrote about the importance of the local. Noel could have made his own, some words of Kavanagh.
“They laughed at one I loved
The triangular hill that hung under the big forth.
They said that I was bounded by the white-thorn hedges of the little farm and did not know the world.
But I knew that love’s doorway to life is the same doorway everywhere.”
He was proud of his town. He wanted passionately to contribute to its development. He knew its wonders and its blind-spots, its success and its pain. He had a way of revealing its history in stories more compelling than a dry catalogue of economic statistics. He grew up in the 1950’s when the most persistent drumbeat of Irish life was of footsteps towards Holyhead. The drumbeat was at its loudest along the Western seaboard.
Towns like Belmullet were haunted by poverty. He told me once that one of his childhood memories was of women on a Saturday afternoon in the town awaiting telegrams from their husbands abroad, sending money home for their families. Until they arrived they could not go shopping. He recalled the crestfallen faces of women if telegrams did not come. Noel noticed things like that. They fuelled his commitment to social justice and positive change. He knew well the barony of Erris, there was a sat nav of its people and places imprinted on his mind, delivering bread for the family bakery, for several years he travelled daily from the ferry at Rossport to Blacksod. He had a fund of anecdotes that revealed the social history of an era that has passed. It was a world of small shopkeepers, colourful customers and ancient sages who were never in a hurry home. On a shop counter you might see wellingtons, beef nuts, bacon and bread displayed together. Sell by dates were unknown. Now we have pristine supermarkets, long aisles of well arranged goods and health and safety ideologies with their stern faces and complicated questionnaires. We might be safer now but we have lost colour and fun on the journey.
Like so many of his generation, Noel left school at 14. Before Donagh O’Malley changed Ireland with a stroke of his mastermind pen, further education was a luxury reserved for the minority. He joined his brother, AJ, in the university of life as a meticulous painter and decorator. Later he worked with his wife Eva in building O’Donoghue’s Bakery.
He toiled for well over 20 years to stem the tide of decline. He was so happy to see Belmullet zoom up the tidy town charts in recent years. Noel Reilly was a practical patriot. In Ireland, we are sometimes inclined to equate patriotism with blood sacrifice. Noel lived for his community. To Eva, his wife, his children, Neil, Serena, Paul and Elaine, his grandchildren and extended family, my deepest sympathy. All of us who knew him will miss him but you will miss him most.
Sometimes Noel and I, on the great August fair-day, strolled through Belmullet and looked at the stalls. One year a shifty eyed vendor was praising a dodgy looking torch.
“Next thing,”whispered Noel to me, “he will tell us they are not making them anymore.” It was only a slight exaggeration to say that they are not making people like Noel anymore. people of his quality are a rarity. You rest eternally now amongst us, in Emlybeg Graveyard, looking out on Blacksod Bay, and the town you loved so well.