Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mick Fennan – A Legend of Life

“Why can’t a fellow hear the fair things said
About a fellow, when a fellow’s dead.” O.W. Holmes.

News of the passing of Michael (Mick) Fennan from this life, caused a pall of great sadness to descend over his multitude of friends. Through his inventiveness, his brilliance, his impishness, his sheer hard work and persistence, his continuous good humour, he became a hugely popular person, and as time went on he inevitably became a figure of legend. And the word echoed from place to place from time past into time present and on to the future…. “He’s a legend”.
His funeral in Blessington, the greatest gathering of people the town has ever known, bore testimony to the respect in which he was held. People from every walk of life were there to say their goodbyes to this very warm-hearted and generous man who exuded so much, the joys of life. He was the epitome of ‘Being’, of living every moment, capturing and utilising each one of those seconds that constitute a minute for sixty one years; and even as the last minutes approached, when time itself was fast waning, those precious moments were not allowed to slip by unattended. His was a life lived and filled to capacity.
He was above all else, a paragon of Hope. He had a dogged persistence, initially battling against what seemed were the unreasonable vicissitudes of commercial life rising against him in his early business years, thrown up to forestall progress. When, as anyone who lived through the economic terror of the mid 1970’s and again mid 1980’s will testify, that in acute circumstances as dark economic cycles push people through seemingly un-endurable stress, in desperate solitude – an indescribable loneliness where failure looms and not even the comforts of deep and caring love are sufficient consolation. To persist through such times and succeed is a sure sign of greatness. But he was made of stern stuff and in his perennial optimism he stood four-square against the tides of un-charted circumstance. Indeed, during those times he showed what he was made of by inventing new and alternative ways to survive!

Mick, born at Broadleas, Ballymore Eustace on the 5th of June 1945, came from a family steeped in country life, imbued in the lore of the land; and of breeding, he inherited the good humour and polite, refined mannerisms of his parents, Barney, a great naturalist, and his wife Nell.
Reared with his brothers, Tom and Brian and his sister Mary in the then wide open countryside around Ballymore when hunting and fishing were more a source of food than a sport. It was an idyllic life, but he was never idle. Mrs. Barbara O’Neill recalled fondly of how as a youth this budding entrepreneur built a four-wheeled wooden cart from which he sold vegetables around the Commons. He had a delightful impishness which was to be a hallmark of his character throughout his life.
Clay Pigeon shooting was a favourite sport for him, and partnered with his good friend Arthur McMahon, he never returned from any competition without a trophy. Despite many requests, he declined to compete for Ireland at international level.
Although not trained as an architect, Mick’s ability to observe and absorb detail was remarkable. He demonstrated a complete understanding of the techniques of both architect and artisan in the rigorous detail of design, construction and refurbishment of 18th and 19th country houses, by which attributes he became consultant to prominent architects, and because this specialist knowledge which he had acquired over many years, would not have been included in the normal third level curriculum.
Like all great innovators, Mick Fennan was imaginative, artistic and inventive to the extent that notwithstanding the particular strictures and perfections of the older order, when imperfections were discovered, his enlightened application towards rectification and improvement enhanced his reputation. That he was a perfectionist is evidenced in his work as a private builder.

Testimony of his art is to be seen at Seán & Bernardine Mulryan’s, Ardenode House, where the front façade was reformed, and along with the granite portico, it took on a Majesterial status.
Similarly, though of different design, the refurbishment of Mullaboden Lodge for Kevin and June Keenan was another example of Mick Fennan’s brilliant workmanship and knowledge, as was the work carried out on Jim Mansfield’s, Saggart House.
During the mid to late 1970’s, Mick was commissioned by Bill Meeks to refurbish his house at Red Lane, Blessington, which was a major undertaking, and was the first real opportunity to show his skills to their best advantage. It was to be a reputation builder, for not long after, he was engaged by Dr. Karl Mullen to re-instate Tulfarris House, a tremendous undertaking which was both demanding and exacting. It was at that period when the owner was establishing open-air Sculpture exhibitions on the front lawns, and incorporating a select country-house restaurant. Most of the exterior stone used in these constructions was granite, a material he loved to work with, and even though it was of coarse material, properly chosen and well fashioned, it added grace, state and style to a building.
One of Mick’s earliest constructions were the two semi-detached houses in Chapel St. in Ballymore, built 1973-74 where this writer lives, and when Kildare County engineer, Barry Coffey came to inspect the buildings he remarked to me that ‘it was the best block-work he had ever seen.’
He was an ambitious fellow, though not in a self-serving way, rather that he could provide well for his family, and taking such pride in perfecting his work that it reflected his own personality. These achievements were hard won during difficult times, and as the economic tide rose, so too rose his fortunes, and in the end, he had gained the success he had fought so hard to attain.
His purchase of some sixteen acres at Newcastle, Co. Wicklow, for which he designed to his own specification and built to his own exacting standards, twelve detached luxury houses, gave him immense satisfaction, allowing for a relatively more relaxing future than could have been expected in earlier years.

He always had a penchant for luxury cars – E Type Jaguars, Mercedes, - more recently a Ferrari and lately had ordered a luxurious new six litre Bentley Continental GTS, a twin-turbo drop-head coupé which he cancelled when his illness had been first diagnosed. As mentioned previously, Mick was an eternal optimist, and in the forty years I had known him he never lacked courage, even against the most formidable odds. Then, shortly before he went into hospital he re-ordered the Bentley, and still with confidence of the future drove it home, continuing to attend to business matters, quelling any possible fears of time constraints. It was an act of supreme positiveness, and typical of his nature. His car, the Bentley, would require a separate article to understand its characteristics and its meaning to the owner, for like him, it is unique.
Mick did not suffer from any serious illness during life and it came as a deep shock to his family when he was medically diagnosed with advanced cancer, and had only a short time left to share with them, as his condition quickly deteriorated.
Forewarned that God might call soon, Mick, like Pope John XX111, was ready, waiting, with his (bags packed in the boot) Bentley – for that was ever his style – “if ever you are to attend an important meeting, always, always be well presented” – and given his own inimitable humour, was perhaps imaginatively daring enough to offer God a ‘lift back to His place’ in the luxury of the Bentley!

In her very moving eulogy at the funeral Mass on Monday 19th February, his daughter Jenny spoke lovingly of him as she bade farewell from the family with words so touching that they are given here verbatim: “On behalf of our family I would like to say a sincere thank you to everyone for all the love, support and kindness you have shown us during these past difficult weeks. A special thanks to Fr. Tim for all his prayers and support. Also the staff of Tallaght Hospital, especially the ICU staff who took care of both daddy and us this past week. To the Eustace family and John and Bernie Nolan and all our friends, too many to mention, thank you,
“It would be very difficult to find any one story that would describe my Dad. He’s probably looking down from Heaven and shaking right now wondering what stories I am going to tell. Over these past few days I have heard so many stories from everyone who knew and loved him. We know you will always remember him in your own special way with those memories.
“It was not surprising but still overwhelming to see the range of people who knew him and cared about him. From people who knew him as a child to the children of his friends. He had some very close friends whom he loved and respected greatly and you know you are.
“As difficult and sad as it is to lose Dad we have consolation in knowing he lived his life to the full. In his sixty one years he truly lived the life of ten men. He was the life and soul of every party and was rarely seen without a smile on his face.
“When he was diagnosed with cancer back in January 5th and we were all devastated, he told me that he knew he had made some mistakes along the way for which he was sorry, but overall he had a great life and few regrets. He still wanted to fight his illness and he did until the very end, but sadly this was a fight he couldn’t win.
“If Roddy Doyle was to write the story of my father’s life I have no doubt it would be a best-seller, and I could imagine people saying ‘Roddy, you really let your imagination run away with you this time!’ when they would read the stories. If they made his story into a movie the casting director would have a hard job finding someone to play the part of Mick Fennan.
“Last night Fr. Tim said he could imagine Dad arriving through the gates of Heaven, and that on seeing a line of the most fantastic, shiny latest model cars parked over to the left, started to immediately walk in that direction. But then St. Peter called him back and told him he needed to go to the right where the lovable rogues belonged. Well, I have no doubt that Dad has sweet-talked St. Peter into letting him back over to those fancy cars. So every time you see a sky full of stars remember the twinkle in his eyes, and when you see a shooting star you’ll know that’s our Dad, your friend Mick, speeding through Heaven in his Bentley.”

At the graveside, Billy movingly intoned the soft lyrical verse of Go Lassie, Go “…When Summer times are coming/And the leaves are sweetly blooming/ And the wild mountain times/’Rose around the blooming heather….” They were both fitting tributes to one who loved nature and lived life so much and so well.
To his wife Colette, his daughter Jenny, his sons, Billy, Michael, and Paul, his sister Mary (Gill), and to his brothers Tom and Brian, we all offer our deepest sympathy. Michael Ward.

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