A man hailed as “a creative genius” was honoured last week, with the Mayor and a host of the county’s literati and glitterati lining up to pay homage to his stranger-than-fiction life and dazzling achievements
WRITTEN BY: JOHN FITZGERALD
PHOTOS: JACK MOORE
Ned Egan recently celebrated his 87th birthday but shows no sign of abating in his literary endeavours, despite battling several ailments.
The poet, prose-writer, and composer of numerous haunting ballads got the surprise of his life when he received a last-minute notification that a “little reception” was being organized at Stephen Buck and Marian O’Neill’s multi-award-winning bookshop/café in William Street.
What greeted the bemused octogenarian when he swung open the door of a venue deemed the intellectual hub of city life almost took his breath away: A standing ovation from a large gathering that included Kilkenny’s First Citizen, Mayor Joe Malone, wearing his golden chain of office.
The Mayor welcomed Ned to the café, which has in recent months become a home-from-home for the writer. He calls there two or three times a week to meet fellow intellectuals or just to have a chat with Marion or her husband Stephen about the latest news and gossip in Cat City.
Ned took several minutes to recover from the big surprise. Seated among friends who had all kept the event a deadly secret for weeks, he was visibly moved when his cousin, the eminent historian Michael Moroney, opened the proceedings.
Michael intoned: “We’re here to pay tribute to a remarkable man of letters and music, a man whose contribution to the cultural life of Ireland cannot be overstated. Ned was born into a different Ireland…a time and place tougher than many of us can imagine in the 21st century.
“Ned was born in the tiny County Kilkenny village of Baurscoobe in 1936. His school days were among the most challenging of his life, but the brutality of teachers was offset by the half-crown prizes that Ned received for his weekly essays in Primary School. Even the grumpiest of teachers had to defer to this teenager’s way with words.
“Like many a young chap in those far-off days, Ned left school early on and shortly thereafter joined the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen and women on the emigrant trail.”
Michael recalled how Ned boarded a cattle boat to find employment across the water. He toiled on building sites before joining the army. He saw service in the Middle East which was then, as now, engulfed in war and revolution. He also served in Europe, where he was stationed at NATO military airbases.
Ned later emigrated to Australia, where a mining accident cost him an eye and almost his entire vision. But he refused to let adversity deflect him. He rediscovered the innate writing talent that those grumpy teachers had recognized way back in his childhood.
Michael Moroney elaborated on how Ned penned his first literary work, a book of poetry, in 1980. Memories of a Leprechaun is a collection of charming tongue-in-cheek odes focusing on aspects of Irish culture and folklore.
Around that time he moved back to Ireland where he set up his famed copper etching venture in Callan. The shining beautifully crafted etchings depicted Celtic themes, extolling the heroes and heroines of the Emerald Isle. These found their way into pubs, clubs and hotels across Ireland, and Ned toured the USA with the Wolfe Tones- a promotional drive to introduce Irish Americans to his work.
Ned went on to write Tales of Old Ireland and Australia, a collection of memories and reflections of his own adventures in the home country, the Middle East, Britain, and the Land of the Kangaroo.
In a remarkable change of style and direction, he wrote the controversial but un-put-down-able Sex and Death: Green White and Gold, a novel inspired by that dark, oppressive and censorial “Other Ireland” that was so inimical to creative folk. Ned then took to song-writing, penning dozens of soulful, merry, and story-telling numbers. These included Luke’s Song; a tribute to the late Luke Kelly of The Dubliners.
After Michael Moroney’s spiff, other speakers added their own plaudits and recollections. Anecdotes flowed from longtime friends such as Sean Maher, Walter Dunphy, Brian Kelly, Martin O’ Shea, and Catherine Carroll, all paving the way for the long-awaited words of the Mayor himself.
Ned interacted brilliantly with the rollicking repartee as the evening progressed. He cast his mind back, musing:
“TB, broken bones, re-broken bones, blood poisoning due to poor diet, savagery of teachers, mitching from school at every opportunity, and an unwillingness to learn what I didn’t want to were a few of the impediments I faced…obstacles and dead stops thrown in the face of Academia by nature, society, bad times and my very own cranky self.”
He made and lost several fortunes, mainly in the construction business. But the cruelest blow of all was the loss of his beloved daughter, Noreen, when he lived in Australia. Not a day has passed without Ned thinking of Noreen.
He was inspired by a love of learning, he says, from an early age. Unfortunately for him, his teachers felt he was learning all the wrong lessons and that his attitude was “outrageous, totally unacceptable and an appalling example to other pupils.”
He explained: “Not wanting my intelligent and musically gifted mother to discover what a wretched scholar I had willingly become, I used to have my schoolbag- a desperate old sacking affair- full of rocks and sticks, in order to give the impression that it was the weighty library of a studious boy.
“Yes, they were unprofitable schooldays; viewed from a conventional standpoint, although I left with the ability to read and write. That was inevitable. My mother had most of us reading before we ever went ‘down the road’; this was a mistake really, as I read all the books in the school in the first week, and was bored witless for the next ten years.”
Ned said he completed his MA (“Muckin’ About”), before boarding the cattle boat to England.
“I slaved and laboured for the all the usual suspects: Wimpey, McAlpine, Tarmac—all the legendary names I used to hear my brothers talk about on holidays home.”
Ned recalled how he strove to uphold Western values in the Gulf, Cyprus and Libya. He reflected sadly: “I saw things on those battlefields that I’d prefer to forget, but you never do forget the sights and sounds of war.”
In 1962, he was stationed at an air force base in England at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He recalled: “Nuclear-tipped rockets in East Germany were heartbeats away—our only reassurance was the now almost forgotten Four Minute Warning. That was how long it took doom to travel the few hundred miles to where we were waiting.
“Wives and children had to be kissed goodbye on a regular basis. We were at the Atom and Hydrogen Bomb Underground Holding Area. It had a fancy name, but old habits die hard, so I still never say what or where. But it was Bomber Command territory.
“We never thought Khrushchev—a notoriously tough and legendary Russian General in the war against the Nazis—would buckle when the ships started sailing… We thought we were goners. Five colours on the ‘Tannoy’ Broadcast Code—all except red had been named and howled over the twenty one Victor Bombers lined up for take-off, with engines running—for three days and nights. Two atom bombs each.
“Five or six bombers might get clear before the Lad (missile) arrived. And the electro-magnetic pulse might down those anyway, as it knocked out electrics and electronics over a vast area. But Khrushchev blinked, and the ships turned back, and the world really didn’t know how close run a thing it all was. They were never told everything. Nor were we. It was the only time my military outfit gave three cheers for a Russian.”
Australia was a welcome change of scene for Ned, but he’s never regretted his later decision to return to Ireland. In recent years, he moved from a house in Mullinavat to Kilkenny City. Despite continued visual problems and suffering a stroke, he soldiers on.
Among the gathering in the café/bookshop were singers who offered renditions of Ned’s own songs. Olivia Dunne of Kells excelled on the guitar, and Olivia’s former teacher, Collette Dwyer, now 90 years old, accompanied her on accordion.
Seamus Cullen, formerly of the Black Aces showband, was there to perform, as was Liz Kitt, famed for her Kitchen Sessions in JB Burke’s pub in Kilkenny’s John Street. Others sang numbers like the Bansha Teddy Bear that Ned penned decades ago.
Marion O’ Neill, herself a critically acclaimed novelist, recited two of Ned’s poems. Ned’s vast repertoire of songs augmented the unique cultural ambience of the café/bookshop.
Mayor Joe Malone opened his remarks by lavishing praise on the café bookshop, complimenting Marion on her “singular achievement” in creating such a cavern of intellectual and culinary delights in the heart of the City. He said he’d probably be making further visits to this “wonderful establishment.”
The Mayor listed Ned’s lengthy list of achievements and presented him with a piece of Waterford Crystal in recognition of an extraordinary life and “a glowing example of how the human spirit can triumph over adversity.”
A lively session followed, with singing, dancing and further recitals of poetry. Someone remarked: “all we’re missing now are the Leprechauns” – a reference to the author’s homage to the Little Folk.
Long may Ned continue on his creative journey…