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Dublin: 22 °C Tuesday 4 August, 2020
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I wonder how often the horse must stumble before you realise the race is over

Tribune columnist David Kenny faces up to the prospect of being unemployed again in his 40s – and wonders what his Dad, who warned him not to follow him into journalism, would have made of it all.

David Kenny

I THREW MY father in a skip last week. Bit by bit we dismembered him, stuffed him into bin bags and hauled him outside.

The amount of times I wanted to do that to him when he was alive …

The old man died 12 years ago. It’s taken that long to mentally prepare for the task of going through his belongings. That may seem odd, but throwing your parent’s life into a skip is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.

Ted was a journalist for 50 years and the day my mother and I sifted through his past was the same day the paper I write for, the Sunday Tribune, went into receivership. The timing seemed strangely appropriate.

Everything I touched had a memory attached to it

His scent still clung to his room: the musty odour of old age and illness. We picked our way through the debris of his wrecked health: tubes, medicines, his nebuliser. Mundane items, like a box of unused lancets, pricked my memory. I recalled the night, when I was 10, that we discovered Ted had diabetes. He went hypoglycaemic after dinner and began to hallucinate.

He excused himself from the table, where he was entertaining an RTE colleague, and went upstairs. Half an hour later, he returned to inform us that he had had a vision of Our Lady. He announced this with all the gravitas of an Archbishop saying High Mass at Knock. He was quite convincing. His encounter with Mary might even have seemed plausible had it not been for one thing: he was wearing nothing but his underpants. Before anyone could stop him, Ted raced out of the house in his jocks to spread the good news.

Our neighbour, Mr Butler, was a deeply religious man. He was holding a set of beads when he answered the door.

“What in the name of…”

“Halleluiah!!!” Ted pushed past him and plonked himself down between Mrs Butler and her brother.

If there was one thing dad was good at, it was timing. (He edited the TV news with a stopwatch.) On this occasion, he surpassed himself. Mrs Butler’s brother was home from the States for his very first visit in 20 years. That coincidence, in itself, was noteworthy. What was more noteworthy, however, was the fact that he happened to be a priest. He was on his second decade of the rosary when the Underpants Messiah came calling.

“Halleluiah,” dad said, beatifically.

The doctor arrived just as Ted was about to embark on a naked Marion mission around the neighbourhood. He always claimed not to remember the incident. I frequently – and enthusiastically – reminded him.

“Hey dad, remember the night you went to Mass in your Y-fronts?”

“Eff off.”

“How’s that hymn go again? Oh… ‘The BALLS of the An-ge-lus, are chiming fo-or thee…’”

“EFF OFF.”

Everything I touched, from Clinistix to a prehistoric Tayto packet, had a memory attached to it. There were his precious golf clubs. I remembered that I used to hide fried eggs in his golf bag (it’s a long story).

There were odd socks, but no jocks. I recalled how my mum used to (pointlessly) iron his underpants.

“Are you ironing his jocks again?” I would shout through the kitchen door.

“Yes.”

“Well, at least let him take them off this time, will you?”

I found part of our ancient, temperamental Qualcast motor-mower behind his desk. Whenever it broke down, he would accuse me of “sabotaging” it to get out of mowing the lawn. My paltry pocket money would be withheld and a public screaming match would ensue.

“I’ll never end up like you,” I vowed.

When you sift through a parent’s past, with the power to discard evidence of their existence, you realise how much time you’ve wasted. My father and I wasted most of our time together fighting. We couldn’t help it.

I uncovered a pile of Irish Presses he had kept. They contained articles I had written. My mother found a school portrait of me, aged 12. I always wondered where it had disappeared to.

There were letters and clothes to be sorted: a sheepskin coat that once carried me on its shoulders and a saggy cardigan. There were shoes, widened by fallen arches, and sober neck ties jumbled up with old cheque books and mementos of his parents. I found his father’s tortoise-shell hairbrushes behind a trunk. Despite being balder than a cue ball with alopecia, he always refused to give them to me. Now he’s gone, I understand why he wouldn’t part with them.

There were two old Amstrad PCs we both used – me to write my column for the Evening Press, him to write ‘special reports’ for the Irish Times. It must have tortured him to have to write ad features to supplement his pension. As a young reporter, he had interviewed Laurel and Hardy and had breakfast with Hemingway in Gibraltar. He wrote his first book when he was 19.

Don’t go into journalism, he warned me

He was head-hunted into RTE in 1962 and left 30 years later with broken health and a bitterness that ate away at him. Somewhere along the line he had had a row with an unforgiving personnel manager. He was passed over for promotion for 15 years.

“Don’t go into journalism,” he warned me. His vocation had betrayed him.

Twenty five years on, I wonder if he was right. The Tribune is in receivership. It’s a newspaper that’s widely respected, but has always struggled to survive. In journalism,  high standards are no guarantee of success. My old man was a great journalist, but didn’t get the success he deserved.

I’m in my 40s. That’s relatively young and yet, like thousands of other unemployed middle-agers, I’m looking back on a career that may be finished for me. I’ve been made redundant three times. I’m wondering how often the horse must stumble beneath you before you finally realise your race is over.

Everyone hopes the Trib will find a buyer, but the odds aren’t great. The sad reality is that its ‘death’ will quickly become old news. That’s the newspaper business.

That’s life, I thought as I walked home from my mother’s last week, with Ted still writing copy in my head. I called around to finish helping her clear his room the next day. There was no sign of dad when I got there.

The skip was gone.

Email dave@davekenny.com or follow him on twitter.com/davekenny

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About the author:

David Kenny

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