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Sunday 8 July 2007

Seán Mac Réamoinn

I DIDN'T share Irish, or God, or politics with Seán Mac Réamoinn: I just adored the fun, the wonderful talk, the breadth of his interests and his joie de vivre - not to speak of his cuddliness.

He insisted on buying me champagne for breakfast the day I was to receive my D Litt, told me a priceless story about an embarrassing youthful experience of the president of UCD and tried to persuade me to whisper the punchline to the pres as he gave me the parchment (I wimped out).

Seán's use of language was a joy. He was the true begetter of the response to "How are you" that has been claimed by others: "I'm like the census: broken down by age, sex and religion."

Listening with distress to a cross friend railing against a difficult colleague, he responded with his customary compassion: "She may be a cow, Aideen, but she's not all cow."

I treasure the memory of an episode with a mutual gay friend, whom I will call Louis. When Louis saw a message in Irish in a library toilet, he rang Seán for a translation, and so began Louis's wall-correspondence with a Finnish Irish-speaking gay, which involved daily calls to Seán for translations back and forth.

Despite his rising embarrassment at the increasingly intimate nature of the messages, and his own bewilderment that any man could sexually prefer men to women, it was not in Seán's nature to disoblige a friend, so with much grumbling and laughter, he meticulously transformed the aspirant lover Louis's prose into mellifluous Irish poetry.

It was in the same spirit that this devout but relaxed Catholic ("His Holiness's loyal opposition") fought for ecumenism. "You lily-livered Protestants," he once bellowed during a meeting, "will you never stand up for your rights?"

Seán knew hundreds of often filthy but always hilarious limericks, many of which contained his mix of earthiness and lightly-worn erudition. The limerick he concocted with a group of Irish theologians about Jayne Mansfield's attempt to smuggle her chihuahuas in her bra was a classic testament to Seán's ability to subvert any gathering.

He also enjoyed challenging people to finish 'listowels' (the first two lines of a limerick - Listowel being smaller than Limerick): "I once knew a bastard like you/ He was caused by a hold-up at Crewe," was a favourite.

The last time he stayed with me in London, when he went to the bank he knocked his leg and, because of a side-effect of his steroids, he bled copiously. When he finally hobbled back to my house, he immediately composed a (clean) thank-you limerick for the young cashier who had mopped him up and generally mothered him.

Today, though, I especially remember him sitting with a group of my dazzled English friends when someone asked if he were afraid of death.

"Why should I be?" asked Seán simply. "Won't I be with my beloved Jesus?" And his tone was so simple and sincere that even the atheists were moved.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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