Yesterday I had to attend a meeting in Donegal Town. On the way home I called in to visit an old friend in Strabane. It was pretty much a one-way conversation as usual these days. It wasn’t always thus.
My mate Decky Coyle passed away from Acute Myeloid Leukaemia on 23 February 1997. It was the inevitable end to a story that began the day I got a call at work to tell me he was unwell. Although I was optimistic for him, that gradually ebbed when his illness recurred and I began to fear the worst.
The last time I saw him alive was in the Cancer ward in the Royal in the last week of his life. What had brought him to this stage I thought? I couldn’t speak to him, so choked was I. He just looked at me and shook his head. I will never forget it.
He once told me if I was coming to visit not to be feeling sorry for him or depressing him. His reasoning being the hospital was bad enough without us boys coming and making it worse. On my first visit I brought him a copy of War and Peace, I figured if he was in for the long haul he would need some reading material. My naivety was quickly disabused when I called once after a bout of Chemo. I think he would have hit me with Tolstoy if he could have!
Decky was from Strabane. A larger than life figure, if anyone ever epitomised the phrase joie de vivre he did. At school he entered wholeheartedly into the craic. He used to regale us with tales of being out and about in Strabane, chasing girls, smoking; drinking excessively, throwing his guts up; being caught on by his dad Denis or mother Rose (he called her Aggie) and suffering the consequences.
When we were at school he frequently stayed over in our house for nights out. My mother loved him. He had that effect on women of all ages, charm, a great sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye. He could get away with swearing and saying things I never could.
Through University we shared a house and many’s a night reeling home, or propping up the bar in Queen’s Union, the Elms or the Crescent. At one stage he decided a girlfriend had become pregnant and we drunkenly agreed to raise any resulting progeny. Happily the drink was talking and he wasn’t as fertile as he thought he was, or maybe neither was she.
After graduation he went to work first in Draperstown for Workspace where he was known as the Man From Strabane that Couldn’t Drive. How he got to and from Draperstown I still don’t know. He moved on to Dublin.
There he began a short but impressive career as a Planner working on a range of prestige projects. He was a smart guy and had a very canny eye for detail, he was prescient and whilst he could bullshit with the best, he also saw through it a mile off. He also looked the part – perhaps that harked back to cutting a dash round the fleshpots of Strabane.
We used to head to Dublin for the craic at weekends, sometimes staying at Decky’s place in Portobello or later out round Terenure. And we would paint the town as red and white as we possibly could.
Latterly the long-standing love of his life Catherine had returned from the States. They had met through a school youth development project in Dublin. She from Dublin, he from Strabane. A match made in Heaven. They married when he was in remission although sadly their time together was short.
Decky’s influence on me was profound. As a friend he was resolute, always there. Willing to tell you when you were right and wrong. I recall one conversation in the basement bar in Toners’ Bar in Dublin, where he castigated me for working in the University. He said ‘you are better than that’. He encouraged me to go and work for myself and use my writing skills. It was more than the beer talking. I couldn’t argue with him.
Eventually about ten years after his death I left the University and ultimately realised that he was right. And my decision to work for myself was reinforced when entirely by chance his name appeared in a writing job I was doing for Workspace in Draperstown, his first employer and one of my early clients. It was as if he had spoken to me again across the years and from another place, reassuring me that this was the right thing to do.
He was buried on a typical February day in Melmount Cemetery in Strabane. Some years after his beloved father Denis died. Denis to whom I would speak to regularly on the phone as Decky’s illness progressed. Then shortly after Rose, his wonderful mother, also passed away. She of the beautiful home baking and sandwiches – we always loved the visit to 7 Owenreagh Drive in Strabane.
And now every year, those of us that know him well and a few that don’t gather somewhere in Ireland to play a game of (bad) golf; to eat, drink and reminisce about the man from Strabane.
I realised yesterday standing in Melmount that I miss him as much as ever. The music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more.