Remembering Dr Maurice Hayes: ‘He treated everyone with the respect and dignity that people deserve’

It’s not everyone that has the President of Ireland attend their funeral, but Dr Maurice Hayes, who passed away at the age of 90 a couple of days before Christmas, lived enough for several men.

Dr Maurice Hayes then Down GAA Secretary, with his wife Joan at the Iconic Event to celebrate the Down All-Ireland teams of 60/61.

And it’s few enough men that would have their funeral mass celebrated in a Catholic Church, in this case St Patrick’s Church in Downpatrick, and — by his own request — be buried in the Church of Ireland Down Cathedral, not far from the reputed resting places of St Patrick and St Brigid.

That may have come as a surprise to some, but not to those that were familiar with Hayes’ lifetimes’ work in healing division in the North.

The son of a Waterford father and a Kerry mother, Hayes grew up in Killough during his formative years, moving to Downpatrick where his father who served in Mesopotamia as a private in the British army took up the role of town clerk, a role Maurice later inherited.

Hurling was his first love and he played on Down county teams, already a mould-
breaker given that the county hurling team comprised almost exclusively players from the Ards Peninsula.

As a teenager, he attended his first GAA Congress in 1947 when Alfie Oakes — a grandfather of All-Ireland winners Conor and Gerard Deegan — co-opted him onto the list of Down delegates.

It proved to be an eventful one, as Canon Hamilton convinced the GAA it would be a good thing to host the All-Ireland final in New York later that year.

It was to be his achievements as a central figure while Down county secretary that brought him to national prominence.

He, along with others, were architects of a plan to win an All-Ireland for Down and they became the first of the six counties to win Sam Maguire in 1960, defending the title in 1961.

In a chat with the great Sean O’Neill, who was named on the Football Team of the Century and the Football Team of the Millennium, he told this writer over the summer that they “would not have won those All-Irelands, only for Maurice,” as he put structures in place and coerced players to buy into the vision.

He was voted out of his role by 1962 but his life only got going in terms of his enormous contribution to public life. His list of achievements are too many to name, but a brief summary includes the first Catholic Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services, chairman of the Community Relations Council and Acute Hospitals Review Group.

He chaired The Ireland Funds and served two terms in the Seanad as an independent. He was voted European of the Year in 2003.

Along with Chris Patten, he wrote the report on policing in the North that led to the
abolishment of the RUC and the establishment of the PSNI, a force that would give a greater representation across the two communities.

As a spiky, dry columnist with the Irish Independent his output was phenomenal.

In 1982, he sent a private, six-page memo to Ewart Bell under the title ‘Fodder for a Farrow-Devouring Sow’, a reference to James Joyce’s description of Ireland as “a sow that eats her own farrow,” laying out Catholic attitudes in the North.

He also penned three incredibly rich and detailed memoirs, two from his childhood; ‘Sweet Killough: Let Go Your Anchor’, ‘Black Puddings with Slim: A Downpatrick Boyhood’ and one detailing his adult work; ‘Minority Verdict: Experiences of a Catholic Civil Servant.’

Devoted to his wife Joan, with whom he celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary last summer, they had five children, Clodagh, Margaret, Dara, Garrett, and Ronan.

At his funeral, Ronan delivered a eulogy that recalled their many happy times spent travelling to football and hurling matches.

“It was during these times that I was able to observe how Daddy treated everyone with the same respect and dignity that people deserve,” he noted.

“My job on these journeys was to read him out the crossword clues and fill in the answers.

"That memory made it all the funnier for me when a friend at my wedding snapped a photo during the ceremony of Daddy with the London Times crossword folded up to fit seamlessly into the booklet so he could work on it while his youngest child got married!

"When I relayed the story to his twin, Carmel, she said ‘Sure I’ve been at funerals with him where he’s done that!’”

This writer was lucky enough to secure an interview with him last summer in the week of the Down-Tyrone Ulster final, where I sat in his Downpatrick home surrounded by shelves heaving with books on art, literature, politics, and everything in between.

His company was a sheer delight as he embarked on a series of tangents off the general theme of sports, generously piling anecdote on top of anecdote, such as the circumstances in which a former Fine Gael senator became the witness for Brendan Behan’s wedding, and some juicy political anecdotes.

The time spent was an absolute pleasure and towards the end as I asked how he filled his days, he fixed me with a stare and answered, with black humour, “filling in the crosswords. Reading and writing. Gently freewheeling down the hill, really.”

Another son, Dara, delivered a second eulogy at the funeral, noting, “My father was interviewed by Eamonn Mallie on the BBC last spring.

"He was asked if he believed in life after death. He said that he hoped there was and that he would find out one of these days.

"That day has come and I hope that he has found it. I strongly suspect that his fervent desire was for Heaven to look something rather like County Down.”

And he revealed that in the days following their father’s passing, he received a text message from the comedian Paddy Kielty, who wrote; “He was everyone’s hero but only you guys called him Daddy.”

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