My late buddy: fisherman, banjo man, above all fine man

How neighbourly my neighbours can be — and how universally popular is the heron, Ron, writes Damian Enright

Last Sunday afternoon, as I was dropping notes through local letterboxes asking if anyone would like to temporarily adopt him — feed him — while we are abroad, the family at the fourth house arrived home, read my note and offered their services instantly. We made arrangements there and then. The remaining 12 notes no longer needed delivery.

Kevin Hanley, hunter-shooter-fisher turned ardent conservationist, fine banjo player and raconteur, independent thinker, admired and respected by all who knew him. ‘After he was made, God broke the mould.’

In the 10 minutes that followed, each of the three families whom I’d already “letterboxed” got in touch to say they’d be glad to look after the bird. I felt sorry for their disappointment, and wished I had four herons for short-term adoption. All I could offer was sincere thanks, apology for the letdown and the promise that “Next time we go away, we’ll let you know ...”

They all know the bird. Children are, of course, intrigued. He perches in prominent positions on nearby trees and visits selected, lucky lawns. He even decorates their roofs sometimes.

My wife and I are going to a Spanish island where the weather will not be a great improvement on here, but will provide a conducive ambience for me to get into a book I intend to write (or intend to try to write) which may take two or three years. Taking on a three-year project may make me seem extravagantly optimistic, but then book writers have to be optimists. I will be on the island for three months, but will still be providing this page with weekly news of nature in Ireland and of natural history in the Mediterranean in winter.

One of my providers of information about nature at home when I was away, was my friend and neighbour Kevin Hanly, recently deceased. Also, he, and particularly his wife Beth, were the staff of life for the heron Ron when my wife and I were away for months at a time in far flung corners of the world. But for Kevin and Beth we could not have gone.

They formed a strong bond with Ron, and Kevin, with his deep knowledge of nature and keen powers of observation never failed to report to me events in the natural world at home. He was loved and respected by all who knew him. He was a member of his community unlike any other.

He had the character of a true Bohemian. A free thinker and unique personality, family, conversation, laughter and music were his treasures in life. He sported no trendy jackets, thousand-euro binoculars, late model Land Rovers or ostentatious fishing paraphernalia. He had his banjo, and he banjoed with the best of country fiddlers and boxplayers and singers, and often struck up a ballad himself.

A lifelong hunter-naturalist, we see him in photos showing pairs of specimen salmon caught in one day. When stocks grew threatened, he became an ardent conservationist. After retirement, he wore his hair long, and his beard halfway down his chest. He was unique: one of those of whom they say “After he was made, God broke the mould”.

He was a man full of interest and curiosity. He knew everybody and their families, he knew children, grandparents, in-laws and the family dog by their names. I have seen him sitting at a pub music session and every second person, of the dozens who came through the door, stopped to talk with him. When he wasn’t playing, he was surrounded by folk I’d never seen before, sitting there chatting, face now alight with laughter, now grave in concern.

You’d never know how “crocked” he was at times but with the hurts and harms of age he was uncompromising. One day on a Zimmer-frame, a few days later you’d see him arriving in his elderly jeep on the pier, limping across to his dingy to row himself out to his boat, to go to sea, to motor seven or eight miles out beyond the Seven Heads or the Old Head of Kinsale, a lone boatman in his 76th year disappearing in a lone boat beyond the horizon, not to return until dusk. But return he did.

Then one night, after dinner and wine with Beth at a local restaurant, he went to bed, to sleep, and didn’t wake in the morning. The passing was gentle. He had earned it.

Beth, his perfect partner in a long life together (I imagine she had few dull moments in the company of so unusual and genius a man) and his admiring children and grandchildren must miss him every day, and everywhere they look.

They have my deepest sympathy. He is a man I will never forget, from whom I learned much, and to whom I am ever grateful.


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