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Final chapter in Jim’s Book of Life

by Jimmy Rhatigan

WE WERE little boys in short trousers. Together we were taking a giant step into the unknown.

The year was 1958 and we had just said goodbye to the baby steps of junior and senior infants at the Presentation Convent that was then in James’s Street.

We were marched two abreast up James’s Street, James’s Green, Kickham Street and into Kilkenny CBS Primary School in Stephen Street.

Colloquially, it was a bigger jump than progressing from junior to senior hurling.

We were small fry about to become big fish. Minnows maybe in the sea of life that hadn’t a notion what lay in store.

It was a changing of the guard.

We didn’t know it at the time but we would never again sit on the then wooden seats of education with Sisters Joseph and Alphonsus or the teacher I had fallen in love with, Kerry woman, Mrs Kit Ahearn who I remained friendly with until she passed away.

As rookies in education, innocence was our bliss. 

Into our lives would come teachers Michael Brennan, Seamus Cahill, Paddy McEvoy and Brother Grennan.

And there was the wonderful then Kennyswell Road resident Jim Maher who was for me the ideal replacement in the then boys’ school for the daughter of the Kingdom I had left behind.

Local support as Jim Maher unveils a memorial plaque. Pic by Donal Foley

As world class footballer, Harry Kane is to Tottenham Hotspur supporters what Mr Maher was to us; ‘one of our own’.

We were neighbours’ children from around the corner in Fatima Place, Emmett Street, St Teresa’s Terrace and Fr Murphy’s Square.

We had fallen on our collective feet; it was akin to having our very own Village Schoolmaster.

‘And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew how one small head could carry all he knew’.

It was as if poet, Oliver Goldsmith had wonderful young lads like Paddy Phelan, Gerry Moran, John Hennessy, Tommy McGrath, John Cleere, Brendan Fitzpatrick, John and Billy McGrath, Dick Lyons et alia in his mind’s eye as he quilled The Village Schoolmaster.

I had to be in awe when I first met Muinteoir Seamus Ó Meachair.

He was a young man who was as adept at Irish, a language he would have termed Our Vernacular, as he was with the English tongue.

He was happy when we spoke or wrote good English but he was twice as pleased when we uttered even a few words of Irish.

Little did I know at the time that I was to go on to be a lifelong friend of the teacher who taught me so much, not in the CBS only but throughout a life in which he squeezed in up to half a dozen lifetimes.

He was Superman without a cloak.

 I am privileged too to have the other half of the Maher family class act, Jim’s wife, the former Mary Merry, as a friend

It is 64 years since Mr Maher taught us. Turning back the clock is a privilege. We enjoyed our year in Rang a Trí.

A good friend of mine, Dave Kenneally of Smartscastle, Kilmacow started his school years with teacher Mary at St Patrick’s National School, Strangmills, Kilmacow.

He summed up a woman who stole his then five-year-old heart in his first year of education: ‘Mary was the very best.’

It is easy to deduce how kindred spirits Mary and Jim fell in love and went on to rear two talented sons of whom both parents have always been so proud but never overpowering in any conversation about kith or kin.

Since his young years living on the Kennyswell Road in Kilkenny City, Jim, accompanied by his wife, travelled a long and winding road.

The couple had so much in common, in their Circular Road, Kilkenny, home, in their respective classrooms, at games supporting their hurling sons, Michael and Tom, that life simply had to be a happy and unbelievably active project.

Jim, to me, was larger than life, fitting so much into his work schedule and writing hobby that he didn’t have time to worry about a stray sneeze.

Mary was a devoted wife, happy when Jim was content, delighted to support his many educational and sporting ambitions; his devotion to his scripturient soul, his love of Irish history and above all perhaps his earnest craving to afford respect to the men and women who had given their lives for Mother Ireland with whom he had a lifelong affair.

Jim’s historic contributions included the events of 1916 and the War of Independence in Kilkenny and Tipperary.

No surprises there as our author who penned his books with the precision and planning of a spider waiting to web-trap a fly for its supper, was a member of a Kilkenny family with a long Republican tradition.

His appetite to put on record the courage and commitment of men and women, some of whom had made the ultimate sacrifice, was truly whetted when he began teaching in Tullaroan where he met some of those who confronted British soldiers at nearby Knocknagress.

He travelled bockety roads and down pockmarked laneways, armed with a tape recorder to get the full story from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

His work would have been laborious, tiring and no doubt many tales would be laced with suffering and pain.

Mary Maher was forever by Jim’s side in his endeavors, a true ally in his battle to get recognition for people of courage who put their lives on the line.

I would suggest that at the end of the day, Mary was at the zenith of her happy life as she kept the kettle boiling and the biscuit tin open  as Jim enjoyed a chat with a friend at the family home.

I should know. 

I was that soldier, the friend who respected Jim’s company as conversation was never about him, his aims or views but was an open forum that would sometimes kick off at Kilkenny CBS fadó, fadó and end up with Jim asking Mary to boil the kettle again to ensure a little more chat even though it was well past all of our bedtimes. 

I will always respect Mr Maher as a loyal friend, a tremendous teacher.

He was the real deal.

No mission was impossible. That included what eventually became daily train trips to the library of Trinity College to get stuck into research for one if not all of the books he so magnificently penned.

He had a passion for athletics and was a respected coach. Hurling was also a vital cog in his sporting love machine and he took great pride in guiding Tullaroan to primary school championship success.

In our Tete-a-tetes at his home, Mr Maher never mentioned his contribution to sport, nor did he talk, unless I raised the topic, about his marathon trips to Trinity which I only knew about because I often met him on what I sometimes joked was his Orient Express.

To be a friend of a man who was so unselfish, giving generously of his time and talents in a Kilkenny community where he worked so tirelessly to help the efforts of local voluntary bodies truly was a privilege.

He took particular interest in those with Republican beliefs that ensured that those who flew the Tricolour in the past would be respected in the future.

He was a man of peace who believed that bravery should be recognized.

Jim hadn’t a bad bone in his body. He was intelligent, shrewd, a true pal.

As his health deteriorated in recent times I communicated with him by ‘phone at a Cork hospital in which he was a patient.

Unsurprisingly, his concern was not totally on the ills we hoped and prayed would be healed.

‘Are you all set for your book launch’, he would ask every time. My launch was in Paris Texas on March 21 and he was determined to be there, even if he had to get special dispensation to leave his sick bed for an evening.

It wasn’t to be.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Jim didn’t make the launch and it was at that stage that I feared the worst.

Even on his death bed, Jim was putting others first. His love and care for his fellow man and woman was astounding.

With the support of his extended family, his loving wife, his beloved sons; his sisters Mairead and Kathleen; daughters-in-law, Denise and Isabella; grandchildren, Mika, Denis, Sophie, James and Luc, Mr Maher, aged 90, battled for dear life.

Sadly, the man we began to believe was invincible had reached the final chapter in his book of life that will always be a compelling read from cover to cover.

The eulogy, read by son Michael Maher on behalf of himself and his brother, Tom was a superb piece from the hearts of two boys who had top class role models in their parents.

It was Jim Maher’s wishes to have a monument erected in Kilkenny City for those who fought and died in the War of Independence 1916-1921.

The Kilkenny Brigade Memorial Monument Committee, of which Mr Maher was a member, is working towards that aim.

It would be right and fitting to include a bust of Jim Maher as part of that tribute.

I believe that would receive great public support.

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