Breffni the Lions Fan
My mate from the Hawkes Bay Denis O’Reilly, social activist and essayist, is a great storyteller. Here is a gem from Den ahead of this weekend’s giant All Blacks vs the British & Irish Lions test decider…
There was a “comment piece” from Bryan Gould in this week’s NZ Herald (July 5th) holding British rugby journalist Stephen Jones to task over the bile he spills about New Zealanders in general. Gould, who’s British Parliamentary experience has equipped him to understand that each section of the British Isles has its own way of laughing, except Wales, which doesn’t. Jones carries the rugby grief of the land of his fathers on his sleeve, more wails than Wales, so much so that it has come to manifest as a form of Alzheimer’s whereby all he can remember is grudges against the All Blacks.
Gould finishes his excellent article with an indirect admonishment to the acerbic Welsh scribe “And rugby with no help from Stephen Jones will have done what it should be allowed to do – bring people and peoples together”.
So, just last week, the British and Lions Tour brought me and Breffni O’Reilly from Killinkere together. Our lines have not met since October 1875 when my great great grandfather Denis and his wife Margaret and children Mary and James left London for Lyttleton New Zealand on assisted passage.
I’d spotted a story in the NZ Herald some Lions fans heading to Wellington on scooters as a fundraiser for Starship. Winter: State Highway One; Desert Road; Foxton Straights, on a scooter! They must be mad. And so it proved to be. The spokesman for the crew (it seems that this is an intergenerational family feature ) was Breffni O’Reilly. Breffni. We hail from Breffni. I tracked Breffni down left my number. An hour later “Denis?”. “Is that you Breffni?” “Aye it is” “Cuz!”.
We met on the Wellington waterfront last Wednesday. He had some mates: a Scotsman an Englishman and himself an Irishman. It sounded like the start of a joke. I told Breffni and his mates to hop in our truck. I said I’d give them an experience they’d never forget.
“Er, where are we going Denis?” “To a wake Breffni, to a wake”. Indeed, it was the beginning of the tangihana for the late Bruce Stewart, poet, playwright, poacher. I had some brothers with me. All of us had lived together with Bruce at Walton House in Newtown in the mid-1970’s. Bruce was sort of paterfamilias.
At Tapu Te Ranga I told Breffni to stick by me and the other brothers looked after the rest of our visitors. The architecture of the many buildings at Tapu Te Ranga Marae reflect Bruce: barely a straight line to be seen, odd angles, the warp and weft of a hugely creative personality evident everywhere. The old man lay in his waka mate which looked like a fair-sized pontoon. He was always a big man but as age and illness took over that giant frame he swelled horizontally so that his height and width were vaguely proportional.
I sat Breffni next to me on the paepae manuhiri. The welcoming speeches were given and then we visiting mourners replied, Eugene Ryder on behalf of the Black Power, a speaker from Heritage New Zealand and another from the Maori Wardens. I spoke last as part of our unique group. Out of deference to Breffine my waiata was an Irish folksong “Tralee fair Tralee” which ends “I’m a typical Irishman”.
And so, I found, I am. My cuz and I share the same sense of humour, an unquenched thirst, and, it seems the same manic approach to getting results. He left me his football club hoody. On the eve of the last Test I wished him and his boys the best of Irish luck. No need to repeat myself this time. But, yes, Mr Gould, you are right about the purpose of rugby and I’m grateful for it. Go the All Blacks.