Softly as I leave you - our oldest Olympian took life in his stride

GREAT cities have a genius for throwing up characters and institutions, people and places that somehow manage to represent the quirks and foibles of the city.

For years after I married into the Carpenter family, I couldn’t travel anywhere in the world without meeting someone who knew the Club Hotel in Glenbrook, just outside Cork city.

They’d had their first dance there, their first drink, their first kiss. It often seemed that for thousands of people, and not all of them from Cork by any means, the little family hotel by the banks of the Lee held a very special place in their affections.

And what made it so special for many was the personality of the Club’s proprietor, George Carpenter. A man larger than life, George had built the Club Hotel, a lot of it with his own hands, and ran it for more than 30 years. Now, “ran it” might be a bit of a misnomer. George was made to be a host, a man capable of welcoming the great and the good but extending exactly the same warmth to the not-so-great (and sometimes the not-so-good).

It was Joan, his wife, who did most of the work behind the scenes, with a small and dedicated staff, but she was always content to allow her husband to represent the public face of the hotel.

What made the place famous in its early days was not just the warmth of his welcome, and his ebullient and outgoing personality, but also his attitude to Lent. Cork at that time was run, to all intents and purposes, by the dictates of Bishop Cornelius Lucey, a man who strongly believed that all dances were occasions of sin, and dances during Lent were actual mortallers.

George, on the other hand, was a Protestant, and besides, the Club Hotel was just outside the diocesan limits. For a number of years, therefore, if you wanted a Saturday night dance, or even a Saturday night drink, during Lent, then the Club Hotel was the only place in town - except they were called ‘socials,’ and not dances. That was George’s solution to the conflict between God and Mammon.

And throughout, he was the heart and soul of the place, always welcoming, always on duty, always ready and able to break up a fight. He was, through all the years I knew him, a strong, fit, athletic man, brilliant with his hands, and always ready to tell a yarn.

He was in his day known throughout the city as a man willing to defend Cork against all comers.

It wasn’t surprising that he was so fit because he had been one of the city’s most successful sportsmen throughout his youth and adulthood. Last year he and Joan attended a Dublin lunch where Ronnie Delaney was honoured as Ireland’s greatest Olympian, and George as Ireland’s oldest living Olympian - he was then 95. Standing there, in the company of Delaney, Eamonn Coghlan and other great Irish sportspeople, George was as proud as I’ve ever seen him.

He had indeed represented Ireland, not once but twice, as a fencer. The first occasion was in Helsinki in 1952, and the second was in Rome in 1960. Throughout all those years, he was a regular winner of the Irish Fencing Championship, as indeed was Joan. And he taught fencing to others - there is still a prized photograph in his house of George helping to prepare Micheál MacLiammóir for a fencing scene in Hamlet.

By the time he qualified for Rome he was already over 50, and gained distinction as the oldest competitor in those games. For years afterwards he would tell stories about how he and Joan had travelled there, in his own car over several weeks, and of how they had had to organise their own accommodation and training facilities.

But he had a way with him. Not too many Cork Protestants representing their country in the Olympics wangled a private audience with the Pope in Castelgandolfo. Mind you, George Carpenter was possibly also the only Corkman alive who had met Adolf Hitler. HE told the story himself in a colourful memoir he wrote and had published when he was over 90. A trip to Germany on the liner Columbus in 1935 as part of the Boys Brigade; an accident that led to himself and a friend being treated as first-class passengers, gorging themselves on cold beef and salmon while their pals were in the third-class mess with bangers and mash and cups of tea; arriving in Germany to be told that the entire troupe were now the guests of the Hitler Youth; a visit to Templehof Airport where they were shown Goering’s private plane.

And, finally, lunch in the Reichchancellery where they were joined by the Fuhrer himself. He spoke to them in German about the virtues of youth, and gave them the Nazi salute as he left. They replied with the Boys Brigade salute. Throughout his long life, George was an avid and astute follower and teacher of sport. I remember him saying to me, years ago, that he had seen a young girl of 16 from Cobh in a race at the Mardyke, and assuring me that she had the talent to go a long way. Her name was Sonia O’Sullivan. And until he was well into his 80s he taught fencing to students in UCC, and was always proud of the fact that the youngest and fittest of them never got through his defences.

And for years and years he was an ardent fan of two teams above all - Munster and the Arsenal.

But those who knew him will remember one thing more than any other.

It was never just George, it was always George and Joan. Next month they would have celebrated 67 years of marriage - surely some sort of record. And throughout all those years, Joan was his rock, his commonsense, his anchor. Those who knew them best knew how much he really depended on her, and how important she was in his life.

The 67th celebration won’t happen now, because George passed away last Saturday night. His health had been failing steadily for some time, as the years finally caught up with his indomitable spirit. He protested regularly that he wasn’t ready to go, and several times proved there was life left in the old dog yet. Last year, for instance, he and Joan celebrated their 66 years of married life by taking not one, but two, cruises on the Shannon - and staying up late over a glass of Paddy in Johnny Hough’s pub in Banagher in the course of the trip.

In recent days, though, it was clear he was ready to give up the fight. He lay on his bed, breathing steadily, as life slowly ebbed away. Then Frieda and Yvonne, two of his daughters, decided to play him some music. As the sound of Finbar Wright, one of his favourites, filled the room, singing Softly As I Leave You, his breathing changed, quieted, and stopped. And one of his city’s oldest and proudest citizens, a Corkman to his boots, finally slipped away.

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