Montenotte man, Mowbray Bates, a champion of community creativity, left behind a moving testament to his final days and his extraordinary life in his blog, How To Live With Cancer, writes Ellie O’Byrne
Anyone who knew Mowbray Bates knew him as a gentle, thoughtful, extremely giving man.
When Mowbray was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2017, he started a blog called How To Live With Cancer. It was to be a short-lived project: he succumbed to his illness in August of this year, at 73.
His blog remains, a collection of reminiscences and reflections written with honesty, wit and courage. It was not, he wrote, a manual for living with cancer, but a tool to help him to come to terms with his disease.
“Before diagnosis, I could quip blithely about the random possibility of being run over by a bus as I crossed a road but without really thinking twice about the actual fragility of human existence,” he wrote, in his second blog post. “Post-diagnosis, all uncertainty has been swept aside. I hang on to dear life as the moments gallop away.”
Mowbray, or Mo to friends, wrote his first post in July 2017, shortly after his diagnosis, and continued until shortly before his death in Marymount Hospice. He wrote about illness, interspersed with snippets of wisdom on family, diet, mortality and lighter topics like soccer. His wife, Mary Brady, says the creative outlet of writing sustained Mowbray in the final year of his life.
“He was given a very short time to live when he was diagnosed: we were told he had three months,” Mary says. “He was an incredible fighter but also extremely positive and the writing most definitely helped.” Not only was the blog a personal exercise in creativity, but it serves as an insight into the life of an unassuming man who, for many years, was a quietly influential figure in community arts in Ireland, not only in Dublin and Cork, but also in Belfast, where he and Mary met in the late seventies.
Mowbray grew up in Wiltshire, and worked in the UK’s first-ever dedicated community arts centre, the Black-E in Liverpool, following a postgraduate cert in education and a stint teaching English in Algeria.
“When I met him, he had wanted out of England because politics were changing,” Mary says. “So he decided to come to Belfast at the height of the Troubles.” The couple co-founded a community arts scheme, Neighbourhood Open Workshops (NOW), with several others. They helped develop Crescent Arts Centre, the first arts centre in Northern Ireland, and then rented a house and developed The Box, a studio theatre.
While Mary trained as a dancer, Mowbray became director of the Old Museum Arts Centre and was also involved in the Play Resource Workshop, which now benefits over 300,000 children and young people in Northern Ireland each year.
“He initiated so much, but he never took the credit because he didn’t see himself as a leader,” Mary says. “In some ways he could have done with adopting more leadership, but that wasn’t his style. He believed very much in the power of the imagination and encouraging participation and access in the arts. He never really wanted to work within the formal education system. He wanted to engage people in looking at their own possibilities through creativity.”
Moving to Dublin after the arrival of their first-born, Máille, the couple balanced their respective careers. Mary became director of the Dance Council of Ireland, while Mowbray taught a community theatre module in Trinity College and ran theatre workshops with an inner-city drug rehabilitation centre.
Their family grew to include sons Oisín and Benóg before they moved to Cork in the mid 90s when Mary started working at the Institute for Choreography and Dance (ICD) in the Firkin Crane, where she became director until the ICD lost its funding in 2006.
Late fatherhood — he was 43 when Máille was born — suited Mowbray, and for several years he was a full-time, stay-at-home dad. “He was a fantastic parent, so hands-on as a father,” Mary says. “People used to joke he was the only man they’d see out around the place pushing a pram. He was way ahead of his time in that way too.” Mary wants her husband remembered as “someone who had a huge impact on so many people because of his patience, generosity and foresight. He was so gentle, and so tolerant of people.” But to her, he will always have been far more; friend and mentor, and a life-partner whose support was a bedrock for 32 years of marriage.
“There never is a perfect marriage, but we were interdependent and afforded each other a lot of freedom,” Mary says. “We had our fair share of ups and downs but we both got strength from each other and it worked. I was only ever independent because of him; he was the force behind everything I did.” Mowbray’s final blog post is from Mary: an RIP notice and a snippet of video showing Mowbray hill-walking determinedly, with the aid of sticks, just weeks before his death. His softly-spoken manner belied an inner resolve and force of character that he kept right up until the end, Mary says.
“We walked up Mount Eagle in early July. We had a mobile home in Dingle and we were down there and I said, ‘Do you feel up to a walk on the beach?’ And he said, ‘I want to go and walk up the mountain.’ And he did. There was something amazing about him doing that: he had such incredible resilience and determination.
“We had an open coffin in Mayfield funeral home and a humanist ceremony and there were poems and readings, and then he was cremated, which was what he wanted.”
Mowbray ended his days in Marymount Hospice where, Mary says, his care was “phenomenal. We would have liked for him to come home at the end; he’d been in Marymount for almost six weeks, and I thought he was coming home, but he didn’t and it was the best thing for us as a family, really.”