In the mid to late eighties, it seemed like Ireland was turning into a country something akin to Logan's Run. Except instead of all the over 30s being exterminated, it was the 20 to 30 age group that were fast disappearing. You would never know it if you walked into our local pub on Christmas Eve in Kiltimagh, County Mayo. The place would be buzzing with all the young ones home, mostly from London, skulling the pints and telling us tales of plentiful work and good pay. Walk into the same pub three weeks later, and you might find one or two punters having a Saturday night pint. Every town in the West of Ireland was like this. Last one out of the country, turn off the lights.
It was against this backdrop that my youngest brother Gerry left Ireland in 1985, at the age of 19. My sister Marianne followed him a year later, aged 21. She had completed a diploma course in Catering Management and having worked in a hotel in Roscommon for a few months in a low paid trainee management job, she went to London to seek a better employment and a better life for herself. She remained in contact with a girl she befriended when working in the hotel named Berni. The following year when she came home, she convinced Berni to go back to London with her.
I remember Berni well. She was a year older than Marianne, and in the time they worked together she was a frequent visitor to our house. She was a petite girl with a great sense of fun. I remember her sneaking me cigarettes which we smoked hanging halfway out my bedroom window. If my memory serves me correctly, I'm pretty sure she loaned me a copy of Shirley Conran's 'Lace' with the warning "whatever you do, don't let your mother catch you reading that". It was quite the journey of discovery for a 16 year old virgin from Knock, let me tell you.
I was there the last night out that Marianne, Berni and her boyfriend had in the local nightclub before they all headed back for London. Tragically, she had lost her younger brother, 19 years old, some months before to a motorbike accident. She spoke very fondly of him, it was obvious that they were very close and she was shaken by his death. She had been out of work for a few months, and a new start in London seemed like the way forward. Marianne went with her to a meeting with her bank manager, managed to swing her a bank loan with the promise of work in the restaurant she was managing at the time. As was often the custom in those days, one person would go over to England, get a job, then scope out job possibilities for friends and family. I remember one girl from Knock joking to me that she was a WIMPEY agent in London. "A what?" I asked. "We Import More Paddies Every Year" was her wry reply.
I went on to start my science degree in Galway the following Autumn. One Friday night in November, I arrived home off the bus from Galway into Knock to find my mother waiting for me at the bus stop, ashen faced. She ushered me into the back seat of the car and told me there was bad news from London. Straight away I knew what she was talking about. There had been a fire in Kings Cross tube station two nights before, the death toll was over forty people. All I could think was Oh Jesus....no..... No, not my sister or brother, but their housemate Berni. She was aged just 23 when she died and had been working as a nurses aid. I think she may have been thinking of going into nursing training. Hopefully she would have made a better job of it than Catherine Tate's 'Bernie the Irish nurse' character.
Her housemates raised the alarm when she didn't come home from work the night of the fire, and didn't show up for work the following day either. It wouldn't have been unusual for her to go off on the razz with her mates from work, but not normally midweek. After two days they managed to establish that she had perished in the Kings Cross fire. They were the people who went to the morgue to identify her, which was provisionally done from her jewellery; a group of young Irish and Australian immigrants, all in their twenties, the youngest being my brother aged 21. They brought her coffin home to Knock Airport on a Ryanair flight. We waited there to meet them with her family. Her parents were just numb, having lost their two youngest children in the space of a year. Unspeakably tragic.
My sister went on to marry a buddy of Berni's boyfriend from Roscommon. They moved to Birmingham in 1990, and then back to Dublin in 1993. Their first baby was on the way in 1994, due around the last week in November. Marianne told me that she had been having very vivid dreams about Berni, one in which she told her the baby was a girl and to put Berni in the name. That was it, she said, if it's a girl she'll be Sinead Bernadette, Sinead being the Irish for Jane, after me, and Bernadette after Berni. She had a feeling in her gut that the baby was going to arrive on the 18th of November, on the seventh anniversary of Berni's death, even though it was a week before her due date. I called up to her flat in Rathgar a night or two before the date, to find her in a cleaning frenzy. The last thing we said to each other as I left that night was "Friday is baby day".
And Friday it was. In the late morning, labour pains started and off they went to Holles Street. At around 7 or 8pm I got the phone call in my flat in Ranelagh to say that my first niece and godchild Sinead Bernadette had arrived. She arrived into this world seven years almost to the hour after her namesake had left. I raced into Holles St to meet her, with what was to be her first teddy bear in my handbag. I was her very first visitor, a delighted auntie. I already had four nephews but this was my first niece. Today that teeny tiny little bundle turned eighteen. She and her mum are in London this weekend for a girly celebration. I was supposed to go with them, but unfortunately couldn't. They attended a mass in Kings Cross this morning to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Kings Cross fire.
I'm not always the biggest believer in fate and things being "meant to be", but the odd time I do believe in serendipity. For the first six years after Berni's passing, November 18th had been a tough date for Marianne to get through. I think Sinead arrived on that very significant date for a reason, to turn a sad date back into a happy one. It was as if Berni was saying "mourn no more, be happy".
So happy birthday to my beautiful grown up niece, having her first legal beer with her mum tonight in London. And if there's a bar up there in heaven, no doubt Berni and her brother are raising a glass too.
The Snakebite of Death
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