My father's last trip to Ireland
“I’m afraid this is expired.” This was July 2007 and the Aer Lingus agent was holding my father’s American passport.
The old man was not in the greatest of shape for this trip. He’d mistakenly grabbed the wrong passport. My father, Tommy Makem, had been battling lung cancer all year and we were heading over so he could be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster. I started to panic.
This was weeks before he passed away and I think he knew it would be his last time in the country of his birth. The thought was certainly front and center in my mind. I don’t recall too many times when he sounded as disheartened. “I guess I’m not going to Ireland,” he said.
“What about your Irish passport, do you have that?” I asked. He handed it to me and I gave it to the agent. “Will this do?”
“That will get him into the country, but I don’t know how he’s getting back here,” the man in the snazzy green vest retorted.
“We’ll worry about that later,” I replied. I called my older brother, Shane, and told him to look for the most recent passport.
Anyway, the pair of us found seats beyond security and I envisioned a week at the American Embassy in Dublin trying to work out a fix instead of being with the paterfamilias. It was hardly the way I had hoped to spend the week. The crisis was averted when Shane returned my call saying he had located the passport and that he would overnight it to our hotel.
We stayed at our go-to digs in the north, the Armagh City Hotel. He had a steady stream of well-wishers and though he was tired, he jumped at every chance to head out for a visit with cousins or friends.
I recall one dinner we had at the hotel, where I had schemed myself a way to pay. My father, you see, was one of those people who always grabbed the bill before anyone else could, and I wanted to treat him for a change. I excused myself for a bathroom break and slipped the waiter a few pound notes on the way. When I arrived back at the table, the man was returning the money saying he couldn’t accept it. In a hurry to beat my father to his wallet, I threw more money at the waiter. He regarded it and said he couldn’t take that either and my father handed him a credit card.
It turns out, Northern Bank had been robbed of £26.5 million in December of 2004 and in a blow to the robbers, all of the ten, twenty, fifty and one-hundred-pound notes were updated and reprinted. The old notes were unusable. Since I hadn’t been up north in a couple years, the cash I had left over from my last trip had to be converted at the bank. My father’s stint of footing the bill remained unbroken.
We traveled to the University of Ulster for the big day so the old man could accept his Doctorate of Letters. I should mention that he only attended school until eighth grade and that he had received doctorates from both the University of New Hampshire and the University of Limerick prior to this. To say I have pride for my father’s accomplishments is quite the understatement.
I was informed that I would be taking part in the ceremony when we arrived and I immediately demurred. But they told me it was in the program, and that I had no choice. Hours before the graduation ceremony, a man brought me out from the backstage area onto the stage to show me where I’d be sitting, the chair up front on the far left. A sheet of paper with my name was taped to it and I told the man I understood. Then he spent a good five minutes reiterating that that was my chair and it was where I’d be sitting. I restated that I truly did understand.
As the witching hour approached, I was given a cap and gown, which I reluctantly accepted. Then they lined us up and told me I was leading the procession into the auditorium. “The what now? I’m not leading this thing in.”
“You are,” I was told. “It’s in the booklet.”
The horns started blaring in the big room and the doors whooshed open and there I was leading a line of professors and dignitaries into a hall filled with thousands of spectators. After a few feet, the professor behind me whispered, “Walk slower.” She was very kind and I obeyed. Then she said, “Slower.” And I once again paid heed.
Then it hit me. I glanced at the stage at the bottom of the gangway, straight ahead. I had no idea where the stairs were to climb onto it. They had only shown me my spot from an onstage access. What was I supposed to do, turn around and ask directions while the music is playing and everyone is standing up and watching the first man in line?
I inched forward, the sweat beading up on my brow. This line was going to come to a stop when I reached the bottom of the auditorium.
Then the professor behind me saved the day. “Turn right at the man with the scepter.” It’s a quote that sticks in my head to this day, one that I never could have predicted I would hear in my lifetime.
When I reached the man, I indeed turned right and there were the stairs, at the end of the stage. Thank the stars. I led the group onstage and there was my seat, just as it had been left. It never dawned on them to run me through my duties at least once.
My father received a standing ovation when they awarded him his degree. I didn’t think most of the students would have been old enough to appreciate what he had contributed to Irish music. But I’ve become an old curmudgeon myself and I sometimes love it when I’m wrong.
Tommy Makem passed away fourteen years ago, on Aug. 1, 2007.
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