A United Irishman, a long way from Tipperary


A couple of years back, the head of department at the university where I teach suggested I should meet a man called Pat Hanrahan for lunch. Pat was about to start his first semester on campus, and I’m guessing the thinking was our shared nationality might prove mutually beneficial. My boss is a very knowledgeable man but his grasp of Irish geo-political reality is weak. “This guy Hanrahan is from Tipperary,” I tried to explain. “I’m from Cork. We are like the Hatfields and the McCoys with more primitive weapons and a better ability to hold grudges.”

As I drove to meet him that first August day, I could only think of one thing, that “Tipperary – The Home of Hurling” sign that greets you when drive over the border from Kilkenny. A simple sign that captures a county’s innate arrogance (who better to talk about arrogance than a Corkman etc…) Within minutes of sitting down to eat, Pat confessed his truest and most enduring sporting passion was not the Tipperary hurlers but Manchester United. This, I thought to myself, is a Tipp man I can work with.

“I’ve been to Old Trafford for at least one game every season for the last 40 years,” he said.

There are glory hunters and there are fair weather fans and then there are men who travel from New York to the north-west of England every year to support their team – and, remember, there were some bad United teams in that time. This man was not a product of the Alex Ferguson era, of all those trophies. No, he traced his devotion back through darker days in the club’s history. He enjoyed all the success because he had witnessed so much failure.

People tell you that the older you get the less friends you make. Well, once he told me about his long-distance love affair with United, we instantly became friends. Good friends. How could we not be? Never mind that I’m not a United fan, Irish men speak the language of sports. It’s easy and it’s familiar. The sporting world is always our most convenient bond.

Suddenly, there was somebody at work with whom I could discuss the failure of Moyes, the appointment of Van Gaal, and the horrible way Chelsea play and behave under Mourinho. During televised matches my phone would ping and there’d be a text from Pat, offering an opinion or, when my beloved Aston Villa were, almost inevitably, losing, extending his sympathies.

Pat was the kind of fella that no sooner had you met him you felt that you’d known him all your life. He was wonderful, entertaining and gossipy company. He had a terrific sense of mischief and, to use a very Irish word, a bit of divilment about him too.

“I heard that the place you are from is like the Texas of Ireland,” said an American colleague one day.

It took me a moment to figure out where he’d have come up with that line from.

“Oh yeah, and Pat is from Tipperary, the West Virginia of Ireland,” I replied.

He was quite a remarkable character when it came to work. In his early 70s, retired after decades in Aer Lingus (How do you think he funded all those trips from Long Island to Manchester?), he’d graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing. At a time when so many are winding down the clock, his brain was going up a gear. From there, he’d been invited to teach writing at Stony Brook University and that was when we met, as he threw himself into teaching as an adjunct.

This was just the latest chapter in a diverse career into which he seemed to have packed several different lives. There was a stint in Cork, a sojourn in England and then a lifetime in New York.

Unfortunately, two months ago, Pat had to walk away from the classroom when he was diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, those texts that brightened up so many matches, praising United, hating on others (especially Liverpool!), were soon replaced by updates from his chemotherapy sessions.

Last Saturday morning, I received one such medical bulletin where he gave the latest report on what the treatment was doing to his body. I didn’t respond right away because my son was making his first communion. Hours later, Pat died.

As I write this, I can see stuff on my shelves that he loaned me the last time we met. An anthology of new Irish short stories, an Irish film called “When Brendan met Trudy”, and a Manchester United match programme from his last visit to Old Trafford that he gave to my son. A typically eclectic Pat parcel, items that will stay there forever now as constant reminders of his generosity and his friendship.

See, in the all too brief time I knew him, he was my own personal library. No sooner had I read a review of something by an Irish writer than he had it in my mail slot for me to borrow. He was a prodigious reader, and like all the best readers, somebody determined to share the joy with those around him, constantly loaning out treasures to friends and family.

A while back, one of the books he left in the main office for me went missing. In the classic Irish way, we denounced every colleague who ever had access to the office, traducing reputations, and, even wondering, for a spell, whether it was a light-fingered student who made off with Joseph O’Connor’s “The Thrill of it All.”

Turned out the book had simply been taken in error by the boss who quickly returned it. All our thoroughly enjoyable slandering had been in vain. When I think back on it now though, I smile. Our boss, unwittingly, had managed again to bring the Tippman and the Corkonian together in a common cause.

Pat Hanrahan is survived by his wife Siobhan, his daughters Fiona and Sinead, five grandchildren, and a Corkman who wishes he’d have been lucky enough to known him longer.

(this article first appeared in The Irish Echo, May 13th)