Honouring Brian John
Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís: We’ll never see the likes of him again.
My apologies for the lateness of this note and, perhaps, also for its length.
Master of Ceremonies Peter Walmsley, Chair of the English Department, and Michael Ross, a contemporary of Brian, set the tone of the gathering, Peter describing his diffidence in early meetings with his first boss, whose playful wit he found as mysterious as the daily presence of a Mars Bar on his desk; Michael confessing to shared corridor mischief and the singing of flippant duets in the elevator.
The spokesman for CAIS rose to explain that the consumption of the said chocolate bars perfectly reflected the wisdom and balance of Brian, a Man of Peace who made a daily propitiatory offering to the God of War.
Joan Coldwell, a colleague for decades, wrote that she especially remembered Brian’s unflappability in their mutual efforts to prepare for the CAIS conference and art exhibition in 1977, and remembered too their subsequent laughter at their fiscal genius in determining that Americans should pay their fees in Canadian dollars–just before the US dollar soared.
Ann Saddlemyer described her memories of Brian as so positive that it seems too Irish to believe and then combined warm praise and cold blame in this memorable expression: “All I recall are lengthy meetings when patient Brian managed to steer matters with his usual wry wit, even when dealing with explosive other members of CAIS.
Joe Ronsley’s memories centred on Brian’s quickness of the mark when the host of the 1980 CAIS conference at Western not only collapsed with an apparent heart attack but, to everyone’s relief, entered the banquet hall. Seeing Ninian enter, Brian, who was on the podium, immediately quoted Christie’s famous line in The Playboy of the Western World: “Are you coming to be killed a third time?”
Michael Kenneally, Principal of the School of Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia, and Pádraig Ó Síadhail, D’Arcy McGee Chair of Irish Studies at St.Mary’s spoke for the younger generations of scholars, Michael writing of Brian as a man of unfailing fair-mindedness, civility and humour. He was a good man, whose personality and behaviour always accurately reflected his values. Pádraig, for CAIS, offered our condolences to Margaret and the family and praised Brian for his part in pioneering and promoting in Canada the study of Ireland, its culture, and, especially its literature–and for his active service on behalf of the association.
Speaking with reference to the 1977 conference at McMaster at which he met George Eogan, famous archaeologist of Brú na Bóinne, I paid my debt to Brian, in that a year later my children, then 10 and 11 years old, were led by Professor Eogan to the very heart of passage grave at Knowth, where they conversed with Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, a student of pre-historic art. Quite the historic privilege! The site is not yet open to the public.
Secondly, reflecting on Michael’s “He was a good man,” I wondered if it was not time to imitate the early medieval Irish tradition of naming saints by acclamation, because in this post-christian age our agnostic culture has need for agnostic saints–people of goodness rather than sanctity, people who in my life were “saints” of benevolence and beneficence, not blessèd but truly blessed—and I named three: Gioia Gaidoni of UCD, Sid Warhaft of UM, and Brian John of McMaster.
In a sense, the rest of the ceremony was a canonisation-by-acclaim: Bob Goodfellow and Roger Clark, speaking for Amnesty International, praised Brian for a life that was a model of sincerity, gave us a history of the tireless efforts of his role in Amnesty, called him a mensch and, quoting Séamus Heaney, called him an “ambassador for the Republic of Conscience.”
Gloria Nafziger, read a tribute from the Hon. Ron Hoffman, Ambassador to Myanmar, praising Brian’s inestimable moral influence on the modern history of what we used to call Burma; his commitment to principle and hope and his faith that the e-mail had greater impact than armies, the Ambassador asserted, led to recent positive changes in the life of the country. His final tribute was to recite the last stanza Yeats’s “Municipal Gallery Revisited,” the stanza that ends with the line, “And say my glory was I had such friends.”
Brian’s son Paul’s address was so affective that I dare not summarise it, but I must tell you of the ending. On what turned out to be the night before the death, Paul told his dad that he’d miss him.
Brian, honest to the end, confessed his scepticism about the afterlife and then added, “But if there is one, I’ll miss you.”
As the audience wiped their tears, James Lafferty (a student of years gone by) read one of his poems, a Celtic lament for the lost leader.