Fergus Finlay: Miles to go, gaps to close, but here’s to a happy birthday twin sister

My father had seven sons. None of his sons, except me, reached 70, writes Fergus Finlay

Fergus Finlay: Miles to go, gaps to close, but here’s to a happy birthday twin sister
You can’t get to 70 without discovering a few things about yourself.

I’ve always been slightly ashamed of the fact that I struggle to remember Finola’s birthday. 

No big deal, says you. But Finola isn’t just my sister, of whom I’m very fond. She’s also my twin sister. So (and I hope you’re still with me) her birthday, oddly enough, is on the same day as mine.

I used to get away with this lapse in the past, because Finola lived a lot of her adult life in Canada. 

When I realised with a fright that I had forgotten Finola’s birthday again, I could still be the first to ring her with birthday greetings, because of the time difference.

But now she lives in Ballydehob. No time difference, no excuses. So, Happy Birthday Finola. Have a great one.

It’s highly inappropriate, of course, to be using such a privileged space as this to be wishing each other a happy birthday. 

But yesterday, we passed through a pretty significant barrier. Finola, naturally, sailed through her barrier serenely.

I lurched through mine. But we got there.

We were born in 1950, alongside the invention of both the transistor and the credit card. 

Neil Jordan was born that year as well, and George Bernard Shaw died. But slap bang in the middle of the year, the auspicious arrival of the Finlay twins, Geminis (so born lucky, they say) passed almost unnoticed.

Finola (with her husband Robert) writes a fascinating blog about West Cork and other matters, so she can tell you whatever she wants to about being 70. 

You’ll find it at roaringwaterjournal.com. (She may choose to keep it secret, of course. Sorry about that, Finola!) 

But on the day that’s in it, I’ve decided that the rest of this column — the 800 or so words that are left — will be about me.

Because I need to come clean. My best friends will tell you that I am not the most self-aware person in the world. 

(Who needs self-awareness, I’ve always said, when you’re married to a Cork woman and surrounded by daughters?) But you can’t get to 70 without discovering a few things about yourself. And I’ve discovered two.

The first thing is that I am still a work in progress. So, at least, everyone tells me. Constantly.

I reckon I’m kind of like the opposite of Dorian Gray. The portrait in my attic has a full head of hair, not an inappropriate bulge anywhere, all his own teeth and a constant smile. That’s the real me — a sort of mild perfection.

But for reasons I can’t fathom, what I see as wisdom is sometimes seen by others as arrogance. What I see as wit and humour tends to be dealt with as sarcasm. My happy smiling demeanour can, incredibly, come across as grumpiness. 

My attempts to communicate — to be clear and simple and direct — are sometimes dismissed as mansplaining.

I don’t get it. I know I’m charming, witty, erudite. Perhaps a bit quiet and withdrawn, but never the loud overbearing gobshite that people claim to see.

My little habit of finishing other people’s sentences, and the fact that I can sometimes talk a lot, are just my way of bringing sunshine and wit to other people’s conversations. I can’t understand why they don’t see that.

But here’s the second thing I’ve discovered, at my venerable age - I’m one of the luckiest people around. 

Over the last couple of years I’ve had cancer and I’m out the other side. I’ve had to have stents added to my coronary arteries, and they seem to be working brilliantly.

Both of the conditions were both so well treated that I barely had to take a day off work.

And both of the conditions involved were self-inflicted, because of a lifelong addiction to cigarettes. While I can never say never when it comes to tobacco, I am now, and have been for quite a while, a non-smoker. 

But that pales into insignificance beside the fact that I’ve always been surrounded by people who forgive me my little imperfections and oddities. School friends who are still friends. 

Workmates honest enough to call it as they see it. When I was in a senior management position, a colleague told me that “they were prepared to concede that I might have one or two of the qualities of leadership, even though I was a crap manager”. You see? Forgiveness!

There was a period of soul-destroying unemployment when my missus and I were young. Even that had its compensations because we lived in a sort of caretaker capacity in a grand house. 

We were the only unemployed couple in Ireland, I reckon, with our own croquet lawn.

But apart from that, I’ve been lucky enough to have worked all my life in jobs I love, for bosses I admire and respect still — including people who made history — and alongside people whom I will regard as friends until the day I die. 

I can’t list them all here, but those I worked with know how I feel about them.

And I’ve been lucky enough to have made a difference, now and again. I haven’t always succeeded in closing the gap between what ought to be and what is — far from it — but I’ve always tried. And now and again I’ve left a mark on stuff. Concentrating on issues that matter helped. 

The privilege of this space in the Irish Examiner helped. Never quite losing the anger helped.

There are two areas in which I feel even luckier still. First, I’m Irish. 

There’s nothing better to be, in my book. I’ve travelled an awful lot of my country, and I love every inch of it.

And I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. The aforementioned woman from Cork, who has put up with me for nearly half a century, and the four daughters we had together — and now the grandchildren. 

Nobody gets luckier than that.

I’ve just realised that this reads a bit like an obituary, and that’s the last thing I mean. 

There’s miles to go yet, and buckets to do. Still a lot of gaps to close.

There’s one last odd thing though I feel the need to tell you. My father had seven sons. None of his sons, except me, reached 70. So, although I have three sisters still, thank goodness, I’m the last male of my family standing.

Two brothers died before I was born, so I didn’t know them all. But I did know some. Max was the character and the rogue, utterly lovable. 

Jeff was intense, and troubled, but rocklike in his loyalty. Derek (the priest in the family, of course) was humorous and deep. Hugo was — well, Hugo was my friend. My mate.

They’re having a party somewhere. If Max and Hugo and my dad have anything to do with it, it will involve pints and stories, whiskey and tobacco.

For the first big birthday in my life, I’ll skip the tobacco.

But there’s a bottle of whiskey in a box in our kitchen cabinet. 

It has stood unopened for almost 20 years. I think it’s ready now to drink a little toast. To all of them. And to all of us.

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