A eulogy to my father, Patrick O’Dwyer

Patrick and Riana O'Dwyer

My dear father, Patrick O’Dwyer died on Sunday, April 16th, after two years of illness that he endured with remarkable dignity and stoicism. He had a very peaceful passing at home, with his family by his side – it was just as he wanted.

Here he is on his 50th wedding anniversary with Mum – I don’t think I ever saw him happier than he was that day.
My mother, sister and I are so grateful for all the support and kind words we have received during Dad’s illness and since his death.
Here is the eulogy I wrote for Dad’s Funeral Mass, on Wednesday April 19th.

A eulogy for my father

First of all, I’d like to begin by offering some thanks.

Thanks to the medical staff who helped my father over the past two years of his illness – the entire haematology department in University Hospital Galway, the team in the phlebotomy unit, and the staff in Merlin Hospital who gave dad his blood transfusions over the years. Thanks to John, Declan and all the staff in Feely’s pharmacy. Thanks to the kind carers, who became valued friends with my father. Thanks to all our neighbors on Circular Road, and a special thanks to Deirdre McCoy who drove Dad to many hospital appointments. Thanks to Dad’s circle of loyal friends –  whose visits gave him such energy and joy. And thanks to our extended family for all their support, especially David Burke and Mary Ryan who offered such support to my parents.

I know Dad was so touched by all the kindness and dedicated care he received, and we will be eternally grateful. 

Today, we would like to celebrate Patrick’s life, swap stories and share memories, and remember him as he would love to be remembered.  

A lifetime’s achievements

So let’s do some remembering. How to do justice to someone as fascinating as my father? 

Well, I’d like to start with a simple scene – Mom and Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary, in July 2020, mid-pandemic. Honestly, it was about the happiest I’d ever seen my father. 

It was a glorious day and we walked down on to the lawn for photographs. Dad looked around at his beautiful garden and fine home, and he was honestly so humbled by how well his life had turned out. 

“This is what I’ve achieved,” he told me with a big smile, scarcely believing his good fortune. “This family, this home, this garden.” 

The love in his eyes when he hugged Mum was such a wonderful thing to behold. It was the look of a man who knew he had all the most important things in life – love, family, friendships – and knew how lucky he was to have them.

It was that sense of satisfaction and gratitude that helped him endure his illness with such dignity and stoicism – from the day he received his diagnosis of MDS, a type of blood cancer, in March 2021, he rarely complained, and never felt sorry for himself. He knew he had lived a good life.

Biographical details

It was a life that began in Ennistymon, Co Clare in 1944, the eldest child of pharmacist Willy and Annie O’Dwyer. He always told such great stories of his childhood in Ennistymon – he would regale us with his vivid memories of growing with his younger sister Mena (Philomena) and brother Tony. 

My favourite involved a very young Pat accidentally standing on a chick and bursting its side. Horrified at what he had done, he brought the miraculously still alive chick to his mother, who stitched that little chick back together to spare her son the horror. The chick grew into a lopsided chicken, an unusual symbol of his mother’s love.  

Patrick was very bright, and he earned a Clare county schol that enabled him to go to St Flannans in Ennis – indeed, some of his schoolmates from those years were at the removal yesterday and are here today.

After school, he planned to enter the priesthood, expecting he would become a seminarian in Maynooth. That was until he was offered the opportunity to study in the Irish College in Rome instead – a huge opportunity, but also a daunting one.


In the autumn of 1963, he travelled to Rome at the age of 18 and his life was transformed. This was the Rome of the Second Vatican Council, a vibrant world capital. He fell in love with the place, a love affair with the Eternal City that lasted his whole life.


He had broadened his horizons, but he realised that the life of the priesthood was not for him, and after two years, he returned to Ireland to study History and Sociology in University College Galway.

It was here he met Riana Byrne from Tuam, through their involvement in the university Pax Romana society. Their relationship was the foundation on which Dad’s adult life was built. 

They married in 1970, in this very Cathedral, and over the next few years, they studied and travelled widely. They embarked on postgraduate studies in Hamilton, Ontario, and after returning from Canada, Dad spent a year teaching in the regional tech in Sligo.

Then my parents moved to Belfast in October 1972, to take up a lectureship in Queens University Belfast. It was a fascinating time to live in Northern Ireland, as the Troubles flickered into terrible life. But despite the turmoil, they bought their first home, and in 1975 my sister Dervilla was born.

Return to Tuam and Byrnes

Eventually, they took the opportunity to return to the somewhat less tumultuous environment of Tuam in the late 1970s.

I arrived in 1979, born on a cold January night in the Grove Hospital – Dad never tired of telling the story of just how cold that night was!

During this time, Pat took over the running of Byrne’s newsagent, stationers and bookshop after the death of Riana’s father, Brod Byrne. Perhaps it was the knack for retail he’d learned from his parents pharmacy, but under his stewardship, P Byrne and Sons thrived. 

P Byrne of course was Riana’s grandfather, who founded the shop in the 19th century, but it led many people in town to not unreasonably assume Dad’s name was, well, Pat Byrne. 

It was an alternative name he seemed happy enough to be known by, and indeed, Dad became deeply enmeshed in the Byrne family. He planted trees in the garden of St John’s with Fionnuala (and some other plants too!) Speaking of trees, he knew the Byrne and McCann family trees just as well as the O’Dwyers and McNamaras. Mum’s beloved Auntie C, Cis Byrne, was like an aunt to him. And he loved all the Byrne nieces and nephews, many of whom are here with us today.

Over the years, Dad became involved in various aspects of Tuam life – he chaired the Tuam Chamber of Commerce for a spell in the 80s, was a keen participant in the Old Tuam Society, and above all, he relished his long-term role on the Tuam-Straubing Twinning Committee. He made many friends in Bavaria, and really loved his many visits there over the years.

Ennistymon family

However, for all that he became immersed in Tuam life, I don’t think Dad would ever describe himself as a Galwayman – he was always from Clare. 

Dad would drive us down to visit Nana and Grandad in Ennistymon every few weeks, and Dervilla and I really loved our trips to Lahinch, and the Cliffs of Moher, and sometimes down to Ennis to visit Mena, her husband Sean and our cousins Tricia and Shane – (rest in peace, Shane, we miss you). 

The saddest Dad has ever been was undoubtedly when his beloved sister Mena died at the tragically young age of 39 – he was devastated. Recently, Tricia shared letters he wrote to Mena from Rome back in the 1960s – it was clear they shared a touching bond.  

Father and grandfather

In terms of family, Pat really loved being a grandfather – to be quite honest, I suspect he preferred it to being a father, most of the time!

He told his brother Tony that after his first grandchild, Etain, was born in 2013, he felt he was moving lighter through the streets, he was so happy.


There was always such delight in his voice every time he spoke about Etain, so much pride in describing the beautiful, talented, intelligent person she is. 

And I will remember for the rest of my days the look of joy on his face when he met my son Sebastian for the first time. 

This was just weeks after getting the diagnosis of his illness in early 2021, and he held Sebastian with such tenderness that day, taking great comfort in seeing the next generation of O’Dwyer, even while knowing he would not get to see Sebastian grow up. But I’ll always be so grateful that Seb and Dad had two years together. 


Garden theme

Pat always had newspaper ink on his fingers – from reading them as well as selling them – but I think he was happiest getting soil under his nails in the garden. 

During the Covid lockdown, he spent many long hours in his own garden, tending to the flower beds and pruning the bushes. 

He planted many of his favourite flowers, and the garden has never looked better than in the past few years, with colourful bursts of Tulips, Lupins, Foxgloves, Roses, Dahlias, Lillies, and so many plants I’ll never remember the names of. He could name hundreds if not thousands of flowers on sight.

Actually, I like to think that his life was a bit like a great big garden that he gradually worked on, planting and replanting as the seasons and years wore on. 

Like a lovingly maintained garden, he kept blossoming and maturing in all sorts of ways, becoming wiser, more self-possessed, as he grew older.

And, like many gardens, he had some thorny, brambly corners that were hard to tame, as he’d occasionally acknowledge himself – but with time, tame them he did. 

He had a gardener’s view of the world, seeing the long-term value in doing things, of having the patience to plant things today in order to see them blossom months and years from now.  

Final illness

That faith in the long-term was nowhere more in evidence than in his love for my mother.

That day in July 2020, their 50th wedding anniversary, was the perfect testament to their enduring relationship. 

He told me how incredibly fortunate he felt to have spent his life with her. He admired her intellect, her rationality, her pragmatism, her ability to put up with him at his most challenging and difficult, her ability to help him grow into the person he became. 

Little did he know that day that the greatest act of their love was yet to come. Six months later he began to feel unwell, and he entered the final chapter of his life.

Watching Riana care for Pat during his illness over the past few years was one of the most astonishingly beautiful expressions of pure love imaginable – it was an epic display of prolonged devotion, a testament to the lengths people will go to for the ones they love.

Dad was so, so grateful – his love for her grew and grew, even as his opportunity to express that love dwindled due to his illness.

Right at the very end, in the early hours of last Sunday morning, my mother was minding Dad, ensuring he was comfortable, and secure, and safe, and loved, as he passed from this world. It was the ending he truly wanted. 

I love you Dad. I feel so lucky to be your son.

The long shadow of Trumpism

Trump 2016

On the eve of the 2020 US presidential election, the most significant in my lifetime, there seems to be a glaring absence in the narrative.

This is, we’re constantly told, a pivotal battle for the soul of America – a fork in the road with two possible paths, one towards continued democracy, the other towards accelerating authoritarianism.

The characters in this morality play are clearly drawn. Joe Biden gives a consistently solid if unspectacular performance as the personification of decency – a man whose own personal losses have burnished his empathy and concern for others.

On the other side is Donald Trump, a man whose narcissism is so absurd, his misogyny so vile, his racism so sickening, his utter absence of empathy so monstrous, that he appears from most angles to have more in common with cartoon villains than with real, living and breathing humans.

History books will tell extraordinary stories about the Mad President for centuries to come, and future Americans will struggle to believe that the country succumbed to Trump’s tawdry demagoguery, his vulgar autocratic outbursts.

The personality of a Trumpist

But for all the stories we are being told, I find it curious that we don’t really get a picture of what that succumbing actually looks like. Who, really, has fallen for Trump?

What the story of this election seems to elide is the personality of the people who are drawn to him – the Trump supporters of every stripe, from the devoted Trump cultist to the more casual Trump voter. The narrative seems to be shirking this important aspect of the story.

Of course, we’ve had years of vaguely condescending journalistic expeditions into Trump’s supposed heartland, interviewing those mythologised white working class voters, unpacking their “economic anxiety” and growing disillusionment with the elusive American Dream. The entire genre basically serves to justify their grievance as a reaction to their withering economic prospects in a globalised economy.

But very few of these portraits acknowledge the GOP-like elephant in the room – Trump followers are to be found across every socio-economic group in every county, town and city across the country.

A toxic combination

No, what defines Trump supporters is not their “economic anxiety”, but something altogether baser, more crude and more universal – Trump supporters, let’s be blunt, overwhelmingly possess some combination of ignorance, bigotry or cruelty.

It’s understandable that the US media isn’t in a hurry to describe millions of Trump supporters in such uncompromising terms, and it’s pretty uncomfortable for me to write those words. But at this point, this far into the Trump era, it’s important to face the full reality of America’s predicament.

Of course, Trump himself exudes all those qualities – he is a bilious, raging mix of ignorance, bigotry and cruelty, and he’s not remotely ashamed by any of it.

The ignorance is evident in the easy dismissal of facts and science. The bigotry is evident in the systematic mistreatment of minorities and immigrants. The cruelty is evident in the vitriolic, often violent discourse and intentionally callous policies.

Endorsing ignorance

To vote for Donald Trump, then, to support Trump against the avuncular Biden, is to endorse these toxic characteristics.

But I believe it goes further than mere endorsement – the evident pride Trump takes in his ignorance, bigotry and cruelty at some level gives his devoted followers a permission structure in which they can revel in their own ignorance, bigotry and cruelty.

Impulses that Trump supporters have long been made to feel guilty for are suddenly something to be celebrated – “owning the libs” is a way of punching back against those cultural and societal forces that have made them feel shame. Trump’s shamelessness feels contagious, and empowering.

Grievance and ressentiment

The psychological concept of “ressentiment”, popularised by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, is an important one to understand in this context – as Wikipedia summarises it, “ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed toward an object that one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration”. Sounds familiar.

There’s been a lot of fascinating work done on the rise of polarisation in the US, and it’s undoubtedly a complex political reality with many overlapping causes, but it does seem that half the US electorate is animated by ressentiment directed at the other half. My sense is that a large number of them have spent decades feeling subconsciously inferior to the liberals and progressives — perfect conditions for Trump to ignite a raging inferno of ressentiment.

Thus we witness a widespread disdain towards expertise and education (a challenge to ignorance), a reflexive opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement (a challenge to bigotry), an irate fixation on “political correctness” (a mode of discourse that challenges casual cruelty), and so on.

The “coastal elites”, in particular in the form of the Democrats, represent the source of their shame, and Trump represents their liberation from it. No wonder they love him so much.

Universal qualities

This combination of toxic characteristics cuts across his range of supporters. They are not all ignorant, one could argue, but they don’t see ignorance as disqualifying. They are not all bigoted, perhaps, but they evidently don’t feel bigotry is unacceptable in their leaders. They are not all cruel in their own behaviour, necessarily, but they all accept cruelty as a political tool.

Ultimately, these personality traits are of a type with the authoritarian mindset – the tendency to be submissive to in-group authority figures and hostile to out-group non-adherents. Broadly, civilisation and democracy work to dampen the influence of ignorance, bigotry and cruelty, whereas authoritarianism springs from those qualities, and depends on them to spread.

It hardly needs saying that ignorant, bigoted and cruel people are not unique to Trump supporters in the USA – such people exist in great numbers everywhere, unfortunately.

Ignorance, bigotry and cruelty are not intrinsic to conservatism – but the global drift of the right in that direction, from Bolsonaro to Johnson, from Erdogan to Orban, is too consistent to be dismissed as an unfortunate coincidence. They are also evident in elements on the left, of course, but they are certainly not defining traits of the mainstream political or cultural left.

The ignorance within

Indeed, we must acknowledge that these traits exist in all of us, to some extent. Hopefully, for most of us, most of the time, the angels of our better nature suppress those instincts.

But large numbers of people either can’t or don’t want to make that effort – they want to revel in their ignorance, bigotry and cruelty, and they resent social pressure to do otherwise.

How many such people can a healthy society accommodate? What toxic concentration in a population is too toxic for that society to endure? What happens when knowledge, tolerance and kindness is overwhelmed?

I’m afraid we’re about to find out – maybe not on election day, but over the coming months and years, I fear we will discover what percentage of ignorance, bigotry and cruelty in a country is too high a concentration for the centre to hold.

A tale of three referendums

20190630Pride2019WideTo what degree can referendums not just measure the national character, but shape it?

That was the question I was asking myself as I attended Dublin’s Pride Parade yesterday, because one thing was wonderfully obvious – Ireland is a very changed country from the one I grew up in. The streets of the capital were emblazoned with rainbows, and people everywhere were revelling in the sheer joy that Pride represents.

It was a display of collective exuberance that is profoundly moving once you stop to think about it all for a moment. In terms of the scale and reach across the city, it felt second only to St Patrick’s Day, which is quite remarkable. One is a national holiday ostensibly marking the man who brought Christianity to the island, while the other has become a jubilant celebration of who we actually are now we have chosen to define ourselves outside that religiosity – above all, a resounding expression of how open-minded and inclusive and multicultural we have become.

How we went from the Ireland of just a few decades ago – institutionally and culturally homophobic, basically – to the Pride-embracing Ireland of today is obviously bound up with a whole host of social and economic changes we have undergone.

But the central importance of the 2015 marriage equality referendum in that progress cannot be underestimated. It’s not as if Ireland was some LGBT+ Eden before that referendum changed the course of modern Irish society. We were becoming rapidly more tolerant, for sure, but even a few years ago, seeing two men hold hands on the street was still relatively rare. How did the change happen so fast?

Referendums in action

Both the 2015 marriage referendum and the 2018 referendum on reproductive rights put hugely important questions to the Irish people to vote on.

But referendums like that also ask larger questions about who we are as people, and the results go beyond determining whether people can marry who they want or whether women have autonomy over their reproductive rights. (Putting the rights of a minority to a public vote is probably not the wisest course of action, in the ideal course of things, but that’s another matter.)

The results of those two referendums gave us a clear and incontrovertible picture of our national character, and the clarity of that portrait was so resounding that it has dramatically altered our sense of self. We know beyond doubt that for all our myriad imperfections, ultimately we are open-minded, empathetic, inclusive and tolerant. Dublin Pride 2019 was a beautiful manifestation of that.

More importantly, those referendums also served to catalyse change and reshape our sense of self. A referendum and the discourse it requires is an opportunity for national self-examination, sure, but in the process it becomes an opportunity for national change.

Brexit reflections

Of course, it’s impossible to wonder about how a referendum could inspire such change without thinking of our poor neighbours and the Brexit calamity. After all, the UK’s experiment with direct democracy via a referendum on membership of the EU also served not just to measure public opinion, but to reshape the entire polity.

Unfortunately, rather than acting as a catalyst for open-mindedness and inclusivity, Brexit has delivered the exact opposite, fomenting a very ugly post-referendum discourse that is marked by close-mindedness, intolerance, bigotry and exclusion. For all the UK’s myriad imperfections, those were not remotely the qualities that used to define British public life before 2016.

It’s always important to remember that the UK’s position in the EU was not actually that central a question in the British national discourse before David Cameron made his ill-fated decision to put it to the people. It was a central part of the Conservative party’s internal discourse, of course, but not really a live topic for most of the rest of the country.

Now, however, the country has been riven by Brexit, with EU membership elevated to become the nation’s dividing issue, a matter of fierce tribal identity, with two polarised camps moving further and further away from each other.

Perhaps another question on a different topic altogether would have had a positive catalysing effect on British society, though I suspect what we are currently witnessing is the result of a fundamental inability of British society to conduct an honest and critical self-examination, which is a crucial part of the referendum process.

Brexit has revealed a rather astonishing level of mass national irresponsibility. Cake-ism, as it has become known, has become the British national disease – wanting all the benefits with none of the responsibility. The benefits of EU membership come with responsibilities; the benefits of holding a referendum on issues of national importance also come with responsiblities. The UK’s institutions seemingly decided it didn’t like the look of any of those responsibilities – the news media shirked its responsibility to conduct a rigorous, informative national debate, while both sides of the political class shirked their responsibility to deal honestly with the issue, preferring to indulge in dangerous scaremongering in order to win. The grave responsibilities relating to peace in Northern Ireland were so marginalised as to be practically invisible.

Moments of realignment

Our recent referendums forced us to reckon with who we really are and who we wanted to be – and in the process, we seized the opportunity to become a dramatically better version of ourselves.

Brexit, unfortunately, has had quite the opposite effect – British society proved incapable of such a reckoning, and in the process risks becoming a dramatically diminished version of itself.

Societal change does not happen at an even, predictable pace, but instead accelerates at those moments when events conspire to cause a realignment.

It is sobering to compare how these referendums led to two starkly different realignments. In the UK’s case, it has led to a fissure, and I worry how deep and damaging that fissure will prove to be.

Here in Ireland, the realignment was palpable on the streets yesterday. Dublin’s Pride Parade began as a vital protest for LGBT+ rights, and evolved into a celebration of those rights gradually being realised. Rather beautifully, Dublin Pride now also functions in some small way as a celebration of our own national moment of self-reflection and self-renewal.


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