She was only a week home from a trip to Lourdes, a place she loved, and though she’d been feeling very tired her death came as an awful shock.
I found her dead in her bed. It’s a moment I’ll never, ever forget.
Everyone gathered around us —family, friends and neighbours — as we tried to come to terms with the numbing reality of a sudden death. The question ‘Why, oh why, did she have to die?’ kept ringing in all our heads during those dark days.
Of course, in reality there is no answer to that plaintive ‘Why?’ In times of tragedy there’s little consolation to be found.
This week I’ve lost another ‘family’ member — not from my biological family but from a very special group of people we call ‘our Lourdes family’.
I was sitting typing on Tuesday morning when a telephone call came to tell me that Aine Byrne had died in Cobh. I cried, I roared and wailed in disbelief. I spent the day just talking to people who knew Aine.
Many of the calls were fairly silent muffled sobs and a few words trying to comfort each other when such comfort was impossible.
Isn’t it strange how life throws up mysteries and links beautiful memories and then terrible blows? My father died in 1961 and himself and Mam had bee planning a trip to Lourdes the following year. Death decreed that he never got there. Instead, Mam took each of her five children to Lourdes in the 1960s. We went one at a time with her when we were about nine or ten.
She returned so many times to Lourdes and in September, 1996, made her last trip.
She often spoke of Lourdes and around the house were plenty of the little blue and white paper surrounds that are carried nightly around the candles in the Torchlight Procession.
In my twenties, thirties and forties, I often thought of making a second trip to Lourdes but such was life that I never got around to it. Then, in 2007, when I reached 50 I decided to go.
I think I only booked for the June Cloyne Diocesan Pilgrimage in the month of April. Off I went and I’ve never looked back. I’ve been enchanted and enraptured by Lourdes. It’s a place of joy and happiness and pain and suffering too — all emotions wrapped up in a bundle of such mystery.
That question about death ‘Why, oh why?’ applies to Lourdes too. And so the Lourdes family, not just of Cloyne Diocesan people but of persons from all over the world, has grown and become important to me.
I can’t be sure when I met Aine Byrne for the first time but whenever ’twas I knew she was special. A young, vivacious girl with a personality that knew no bounds, she was just one of the loveliest, nicest people one could meet. Her family have been part and parcel of Lourdes for so many years with Aine’s Mam, Mary, like a mother to us all.
I’ve never read the book written by Dr Colin Parkes in 2009 about bereavement, but one paragraph that’s oft quoted is as follows;
“The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love: it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend that it is not so, is to put on emotional blinkers which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our own lives and unprepared to help others cope with losses in theirs.”
How painfully true that is.
Aine was loved by us all, every man, woman and child that ever met her. Oh lads, if you met Aine anywhere, in Cobh, at a meeting in Dublin or in her beloved Lourdes, you’d be energised by that encounter. She was just a gorgeous person to be with and you’d feel on top of the world after talking to her.
Why did so many love her? Because Aine just exuded joy and happiness and above all because her capacity to assist people was endless.
I can picture her in Lourdes in a quiet corner, giving a drink to a child with some illness, or again just sitting chatting with an old person. She worked tirelessly each year on the Cloyne Pilgrimage and also went annually to work there as a Stagě or Official Shrine Helper.
We are all given tasks to do when helping on Pilgrimage, but Aine’s ability to be here, there and everywhere and get so much done was stunning. She was never flustered and above all else her genuine friendship was, in my opinion, a gift bestowed on her.
I think those of us that knew Aine over the years were aware of just how special a person she was.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and coming from a household of love and kindness with Danny and Mary and her sisters, ’twas no wonder Aine Byrne brought such great gifts to her life, her work and her time as a volunteer.
I am reminded of the words of Laurence Binyon’s poem in relation to Aine:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.”
In these dark days, those lines bring us scant consolation, nor does the Greek phrase ‘Whom the gods love dies young; Best go first’.
People often ask me about the Pilgrimage to Lourdes and is it hard work, I always say life is what you make it. It was that way with Aine. She loved the company of people who had common goals with herself. No task was too big or too small.
I’d say she was reared without ever learning to say the word ‘No’. She had a lovely wink and often maybe down at the Grotto or by the Baths she’d be pushing a wheelchair and you’d get that wink — as much as to say ‘Isn’t it great to be doing what we’re at today’!
As an organiser, Aine was a can-do person, pressure was for tyres and not for Lourdes helpers. Over the last dozen years in Lourdes I marvelled that every year when the new fresh-faced Youth helpers came, Aine would make a point of talking to them and making them feel a part of the Lourdes family. She was so outgoing and full of life yet shy in a way too.
Aine never sought to lead or give orders, no, she was happiest going about her work with friends and family, ‘Service to others cheerfully giving’ was her motto first and last.
We speak of the potential of people in different walks of life and can only imagine what lay in store for our friend Aine. Yet we must marvel also that one so young had given so very much in her short life.
I always found her a brilliant person to go to with a problem or a query. She was a great listener and a true friend when needed. Over the years I often felt the Swarbriggs hit song should have been ‘dedicated’ to Aine as it summed her up perfectly
‘When you’re lonely, when you’re blue When you need someone to talk to, when you need a talkin’ to And when trouble’s full and plenty come pilin’ at your door That’s what friends are for’.
I’ve only read briefly about women like Florence Nightingale, Catherine McAuley and Nano Nagle. They were driven by a singular ambition, to help others less fortunate than themselves. I don’t know if Aine Byrne ever set out to emulate any of these, but she certainly followed their selfless example.
Her devotion and dedication to Lourdes, Our Lady and St Bernadette was and will be a shining example of how an outstanding 21st century Irish woman can show us all that even in this busy secular world there are still people willing to embrace the true meaning of Christianity.
Aine, we are weeping bitter tears this week as we mourn your passing. So many of us are and always will be, proud to say ‘Aine Byrne, you were truly a great friend to me’. God bless you and keep you.
Before us great Death stands
Our fate held close within his quiet hands.
When with proud joy we lift Life’s red wine
To drink deep of the mystic shining cup
And ecstasy through all our being leaps —
Death bows his head and weeps.
Rainer Maria Rilke