Fergus Finlay: In memory of my dad, who finally got to write his own script on the 16th tee

Hugh Finlay devoted his life to his loved ones, but spent his final day on earth enjoying the simple pleasures of life. As his son says: 'Way to go, Dad'
Fergus Finlay: In memory of my dad, who finally got to write his own script on the 16th tee

The way we were: Fergus Finlay (centre) in the early 1950s with his mother, Lilian Roberts Finlay, his twin sister Finola, his brother Hugo, and his father Hugh Finlay.

For years and years now, I start every day with good coffee and two slices of toast. In more recent times I have gone for wholemeal sourdough bread, to support our local bakery.

The first slice is buttered only — I can’t bear to have anything else on it. The second slice I allow myself marmalade with the butter.

It’s a legacy thing. My father spent most of his life worrying about money. Every now and again he would insist on the entire household having an economy drive. The immersion, of course, was a constant preoccupation, as were the lights left on in bedrooms. But the saving on jams and marmalades was, I think, unique to him. I don’t know where he got that idea.

But I’m guessing that I was about 10 when he announced that from now on, you could only have jam on your second slice of bread at teatime. And, for whatever reason, it stuck with me to the point where I still can’t have anything on the first slice. After all, he would remind us (and where have we heard that refrain before or since?), he wasn’t made of money.

Frieda Finlay's portrait of Hugh Finlay. 
Frieda Finlay's portrait of Hugh Finlay. 

Of course he wasn’t. I think of him every year around Father’s Day, and I still wish I could give him something like the little bottle of Green Spot whiskey my daughter Mandy gave me. As a matter of fact, although he’s dead nearly 40 years now, I think of him most days. But on Father’s Day — when I’m celebrated more than I deserve — I feel he warrants a special mention. Maybe it’s because he had seven sons and I’m the last one standing. Or maybe it’s because he just deserves a special mention.

Around that time, when he was doing the ineffective assaults on immersion usage, he was (to use a phrase of his own) up to his oxters in a genuine Irish scandal. 

An experience that nearly broke him

You wouldn’t remember this, but a guy came to Ireland called Paul Singer — from Bratislava of all exotic places — and he took over a little company in Dún Laoghaire called Shanahan’s Stamp Auctions. In no time at all, he turned it into a high-profile glamorous company, in which thousands of Irish people invested their savings for the promise of quick returns. Most of them lost everything, because the thing was effectively a Ponzi scheme, artfully managed and promoted by Singer. He was put on trial, and it was a huge cause celebre, with acres of news coverage every day.

My dad was the accountant of the company. Worse than that, he had been lured from a lifelong career in Aer Lingus — and he had risen to middle management when he left — to go and work for Paul Singer. Singer fooled everyone, including my dad. But Dad ended up spending 11 days in the witness box in the biggest criminal trial for years, trying to help the State to figure out what went on.

Dad was guilty of no wrongdoing, apart from trusting a highly plausible but essentially corrupt boss. The experience nearly broke him, because he was the most honest and steadfast man I ever knew, and the sniggering about his time in the witness box had to have been hard.

It also made him unemployable for a while, until eventually he was recruited again by Aer Lingus — but at the bottom: He had to work his way up all over again. And when he went back, he was too old to be readmitted to the company pension scheme, which accounted for hardship later on.

But he had mouths to feed, a pretty large family — three girls as well as the seven boys — and a very unique wife (that’s another story, about which I’ll write a book some day). 

After the Shanahans fiasco, when it looked like his career was in ruins, he took on odd jobs wherever he could get them, which usually involved doing accounts and tax returns for half the shopkeepers in Bray, where we lived in those years.

His kids knew little of this at the time. 

We probably resented the poverty that befell us, the fact that potato soup became part of the staple diet of the house, the fact that we had to take in lodgers, and of course the endless economy drives.

And they never really ended, because despite getting a career back on track in Aer Lingus, he never recovered financially from the several years after Paul Singer. When I was 17 I won a university scholarship of £50 a year. But the fees in those far-off days were £55. And I can still remember Dad wondering where he was going to find the balance. But he did.

Dad's strong sense of duty

If you’re of my generation, you sort-of know that it’s only as you grow older that you develop a real relationship with your dad. Men of his generation weren’t demonstrative — they certainly weren’t touchy-feely. They were just there for you if you needed them.

I think people like my dad were driven too by a strong sense of duty. It was duty that made him join the fight against Hitler, by being one of those quintessentially Irish men who joined the British Army in the Second World War. And it was duty that ensured that he tried his darndest never to let his family down.

In some ways, he didn’t do things by half. There was a famous rugby international match between Ireland and Wales in 1970. A grudge match, in Lansdowne Road, because Wales had murdered us in Cardiff the previous year.

It’s remembered still amongst aficionados for one of the all-time great tries. Scored by Ken Goodall for Ireland. I remember that match because my dad, who was in the stands, had a massive heart attack as Goodall crossed the Welsh line, but refused to be taken out of the stadium until the match was over and Wales were stuffed.

Men who are driven by a strong sense of duty and loyalty to others never get to write their own script. 

My dad — I should tell you his name was Hugh, though I never called him anything but Dad, and I never will — only once in his life wrote his own script. That was on a day in 1984. Dad had three great loves in his life by then — his garden, the pub where he had a pint and a sandwich, and his weekly 18 holes with his mates in Royal Tara Golf Club. He did all three that day, in sequence. And on the 16th tee box in Royal Tara, he turned to his partners and told them he felt funny. And then died. Instantly.

He spent his last day at the pursuits he loved 

I’ve often thought about that moment. He left a biggish hole behind for me, in part because we had some unfinished business. Not a big deal, just a conversation I always wanted to have but didn’t get to. But when I think about how he died — the garden, a pint and a sandwich, and then drawing level in his weekly fourball before it was time to go — the same thought always comes into my head.

Way to go, Dad. Way to go.

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