John Arnold: Farewell to a special person who faced adversity with faith and hope

This week saw the passing of Denis Barry, who was involved in an accident 13 years ago, which left him paralysed. John Arnold pays tribute to his friend
John Arnold: Farewell to a special person who faced adversity with faith and hope

Denis Barry, who died on Tuesday. “We will all shed tears this week, we will all miss him terribly,” said John Arnold

DENIS Barry was nearly seven years old in January, 1956, when John F. Kennedy published his famous book, Profiles In Courage.

He was born in March, 1949, just weeks after his own father, also Denis, died as a result of injuries he received in a hunting accident.

So, Denis Barry never saw his father as a result of a cruel twist of fate. That ‘hand of cards’ he was dealt never upset him, never made him bitter, never turned him against horses or equestrian sports of any kind. To the contrary, young Denis embraced life and lived it the full.

He died this week 13 years after he himself was involved in an accident whilst taking part in a charity ride.

Kennedy penned the book about eight Senators who he showed had displayed unbelievable “acts of humanity an integrity”. These men had “defied the opinions of their party and constituents”.

In truth, Denis Barry never ‘fell out’ with the political party he supported, but truly and amazingly he ‘defied the opinions’ of the most learned medical experts in this country for well over a decade.

The injuries he received in that fall were horrific and really life-altering and it was expected his life expectancy would be short. 

The last 13 years, however, have demonstrated an absolutely amazing ‘profile in courage’ that has stunned and yet inspired so many of us.

Growing up in the 1960s, Mrs Dooleys public house - later handed on to her son Denis - was an integral part of our little rural village. A few locals ‘in the know’ always had a drink or two of a Sunday morning -before or after Mass - and there was never a problem.

Paddy Geary, who worked for us, would go up to the Cross most Sunday nights for a pint or two. As a youngster, I can recall Tom Brien, John and Dave Ryan, Matt Walsh Dinsie O Connor, ‘Big’ Jim Geary, Jer Connors, Jack Murphy and Pad Connors and others in the pub.

Alice Dooley was a great host - always smiling with a welcome for all. She belied the story of tragedy in her own life - having buried two husbands and rearing four children on her own. She was so positive and I suppose that’s where Denis got that ‘no problem’, ‘not a bother’, always looking on the bright side attitude.

The day of Bartlemy Races, the Gymkhana, the Carnival, Macra Field Days, and the Annual Bull Inspection were major events around the Cross of Bartlemy, and as time went on Denis became integral and involved in all of these.

Following in a proud family tradition, Denis studied to be a teacher - I remember him teaching us in school at one stage. Teaching, however, was not for him and he settled into a lifestyle of a farmer and publican. At different times he was involved with pig-rearing and buying and selling sheep. He was ambitious too and took on the contracts of event catering and providing the bar at races and other outdoor activities all over the South of Ireland.

The Eurovision in Millstreeet and local and national Ploughing Finals and Listowel Races were just some of the places he went and worked.

Oh lads, the fun and the craic and the stories of things that happened at both sides of the bar would fill a book!

Mrs Dooley herself had started this business when doing the catering at the ‘Old’ Mart in Fermoy. Denis just loved meeting people and nights in the bar with the Bartlemy Song Contest, the 45 Drives for the Foal and the 21st parties were legendary. He loved horses -- breeding, riding, training, showing and often had a local angle to the bloodstock names, like Julia’s Birthday - I suppose called after Johnny Shine’s wife Julia - just up the road!

Denis’ grandfather, Patsy Barry NT, was a great writer and historian and Denis himself was conscious of the importance of local traditions, and was the main man behind the revival of the Horse Fair in the early 1990s.

Then, after his horrific accident, Denis spent a long time in the Mater in Dublin, then the National Rehabilitation Centre in Dun Laoighaire. Paralysed from the neck down, I never once heard him express anger or feeling pity for himself. I often heard him say with a smile: “Shure, I got 50 great years without hardly seeing a doctor.” 

That positivity was amazing and I know that so many other people involved in different accidents were counselled by Denis.

Of course he hoped for some new medical intervention or procedure that might repair the damage to his spine, but he never complained.

In Dublin, he was far away from the Cross of Bartlemy but had plenty visitors and Mick O Connell was just exemplary in his regular trips to the capital.

They talk about the concept of ‘mind over matter’, and in Denis Barry’s case he just showed every single day that fierce will to live. Lesser mortals might have thrown in the towel and caved in mentally - not Denis. He accepted his lot and made the best of it.

For his wife Kathleen and Triona, Denis and Fiachra, Mar, Mossy and Dan, it was an awful upheaval and tragedy, but even his closest relations and myriads of friends drew inspiration from his attitude.

He learned to use social media and kept up to date with whatever was happening locally and nationally.

Eventually, Denis came back to Cork, initially to CUH and then to a specially built unit in St Finbarr’s Hospital. This would be his home for the rest of his life, and what a home it was.

The nursing and other staff went above and beyond the call of duty to make his time in St Finbarr’s vibrant and comfortable. His room became a place where relations and friends could gather in an informal setting for long, long chats.

It wasn’t the Cross of Bartlemy but it was a lovely setting with absolutely outstanding people working there.

Over the years, the Dooley and Barry families had contributed much to the community of Bartlemy so it was only right and proper to return the favour. A major fundraising effort resulted in the purchase of an ambulance for Denis. Over the years, with Micko at the wheel, this afforded Denis a degree of freedom to leave the hospital on a regular basis that, was heretofore impossible.

He loved the Races, the Opening Meet of the Coolnakilla’s, visits to stud farms and trainers’ yards and other events. It must be said that, until the arrival of Covid, Denis had some memorable trips down from the city - he loved meeting people and everyone was mad to meet him.

We often wonder - maybe especially at times like Christmas - what is faith? Is it ‘blind faith’ with more hope than certainty or is it something more deep-rooted than that? Well, if any man displayed and truly lived faith it was Denis Barry during the last 13 years.

He displayed no anger and lived every single day as a special gift. His mind was clear and he was determined to squeeze every last drop out of his life.

Over the years he baffled the best of medical experts. How many times had he pneumonia and other infections and ailments yet he battled back again and again. He had great faith but also an enormous love of live which he clung to right ’til the end.

Back in 1949, after the death of his son Denis, Patsy Barry wrote in his book The Cork Accent:

The soul of social sportsmanship in many a varied form,

His buoyant, bubbling spirits beamed a joyous radiance warm,

His kindly counsel, widely based on breadth of vision clear,

From those who differed widest an eager friendly ear.

Now, 73 years later, those same words can equally apply to Denis, who died on Tuesday.

It’s Christmas week - every week is a sad one for a funeral, but this special time for Christians makes it more poignant. Just as we are about to celebrate the birth of our Saviour, we are bidding farewell to a very special person.

We will all shed tears this week - I know Denis would not want that, but we will all miss him terribly.

Farewell, Denis Barry - in time we will smile when your name is mentioned. You taught us all one great lesson in the way you lived: “Live life to the fullest and never give in, keep right on ’til the end of the road”

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