Tribute to a local legend

Nicky and his pet crow Buddy in Inistioge

A mighty heart stopped beating when Nicky Fitzgerald, who divided his life between Callan and Inistioge, said goodbye to the world. He was sixty-one. News of his passing on September 10th grieved his vast circle of friends.

I felt privileged to be present in the ward in St Luke’s hospital when Nicky drew his last breath. He was diagnosed six years ago with a difficult to treat form of cancer. He fought it bravely and creatively with a combination of orthodox medicine and natural remedies, managing to keep it at bay. But recently it returned and the final curtain came down on a man referred to as a “local legend” in Inistioge and who made a lasting impression on almost everyone he met.

Nicky’s life began in Callan. He attended the CBS and after completing his Inter-cert exam he worked for a while at Heron’s saw mill before qualifying as an electrician. His work took him, first, to every part of the county and then to Europe and South Africa.

From an early age the picturesque village of Inistioge was his second home. His grandmother, Mary Kenny, whom he adored, lived there and she loved to see him arrive, full of fun-loving mischief and a new helping of anecdotes about his always intriguing encounters and predicaments.

In her later years, he cared for his beloved granny until she died in 1989, lightening the burden of her illness on even the worst days and nights.

He doubled as a nurse and jester to her, giving selflessly of his time to someone who, in turn, had welcomed him into her home since he was a child.

Following her death, Nicky moved to live in Inistioge where he continued his electrical work and added daily to his legion of friends. He met some of them in one or other of the four pubs (the village now only has two) and others along the banks of the River Nore where the leaping salmon twinkled in the spring and summer sunshine.

He acquired a phenomenal knowledge of the village and its surrounding countryside, eventually taking up photography as a hobby and snapping any little miracle of nature that caught his eye… a bee visiting a flower, a ladybird meandering around a blade of grass, or, a special favourite, the sun rising and setting over the village.

All four seasons had their attractions for him, but he preferred the summer, when he’d sit outside one of the pubs in a setting redolent of the South of France, sipping cool beer and rejoicing in the good times that life sent his way.

His electrical career entered a new phase when he found work on film sets nationwide. When Nicky arrived back in Inistioge or Callan after his stint in Tinsel town he had tales of friendly chats with Liam Neeson, Chris O’ Donnell, Brendan Gleeson, Minnie Driver, Pierce Brosnan, Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts and other stars of the Silver Screen.

He worked on the epic Braveheart and Michael Collins movies, and the rain-sodden Angela’s Ashes, but he took special delight in the news that two major films, Widow’s Peak and Circle of Friends were to be shot on location in Inistioge.

These were the golden years for Nicky, and when Niall Jordan picked Callan to shoot part of Breakfast on Pluto he was on the job from day one. Many locals served as extras but Nicky reveled in his assignments that offered him a close-up view of film making. He said he felt like royalty some days, enjoying the banter in the pubs at the end of each stint.

But then Nicky felt the urge, or ambition, to venture into new and unfamiliar territory. Though he’d left school after Inter-cert he relished the challenge of ascending the academic ladder to see where it might take him.

He enrolled in the Mater Dei Institute of Higher Education from which he graduated with a degree in history and theology. His graduation day was among the happiest of his life. His mother Kitty, whom he’d kept up to date on his demanding scholasticism, stood in to be pictured with him at the college, proud of this new milestone.

But he didn’t let his bookish achievements go to his head. He was still the same jovial Nicky that chatted to the river men and joked over pints in O’ Keeffe’s or O’ Donnell’s, or exchanged yarns in the village square from which he and his pals a watched a rapidly changing world go by.

Then, six years, ago, the big C struck. Doctors told Nicky that it was terminal and that he had just months to live.

A cruel blow to a man who loved life and didn’t want to quit Planet Earth if he could help it. When it seemed that chemo mightn’t be enough to check the disease Nicky turned to nature, his faithful friend, for alternative ways of healing.

The tumors went away, granting him those additional years of precious life to sip coffee with friends, travel to music festivals, pursue his photography, and, later on, compose poetry.

The poems he posted on Facebook covered a multitude of themes, ranging from the gloom of Covid Lockdown and the romance of Valentine’s Day to the marvels of the natural world and the fraught relationship between fishermen and the ever-vigilant water bailiffs.

His affinity with nature took a new twist when he developed a fondness for a crow that turned up on his doorstep one morning. He fed it some crumbs. It returned for more and soon began to follow him everywhere in the village. When he left the house in Hatchery Lane to go to the grocery “Buddy” the crow flew overhead and waited outside the shop for him.

Locals and tourists photographed Nicky feeding the crow on the fair green or from a table in O’Keefe’s outdoor cafe. “Buddy” became a kind of symbol for his interest in eco-issues and he posted daily on Facebook about the joys and woes of environmentalism.

Nicky used the extra time created by his fight-back against illness to live life to the full. Then the cancer came back, exacerbated this time by a severe lung infection. He resolved to resume the fight. But the cancer spread.

Nicky greeted visitors to his ward at St. Luke’s with the same big smile and hearty words of welcome that that brightened many a heart over the decades. He jokingly invited them to his funeral, promising a party after it. Family and friends hastened to his bedside, hoping…praying.

Nicky said his final farewell to a world he had enriched with his rare brands of humour, kindness, fun and adventure.

His open-minded attitude to religion and the question as to what lies beyond our physical world was reflected in his choice of a humanist service. This was beautifully arranged at the Inistioge community hall, into which sunlight streamed as his life was celebrated in words and music.

Months before I’d asked Nicky to let me know how he got on when he reached the Other Side. His reply was typical. He said he’d try but that I shouldn’t be put out if there was a bad line or the reception wasn’t great.

That was Nicky, my brother. He fought the good fight and now he’s having the best party ever. (Pictures show Nicky with his pet crow “Buddy”, with his mother Kitty on graduation day, and as an extra in a sci-fi movie.

Pre-deceased by his father Gerry. Missed by his mother Kitty, brother John, sisters Mary, Emily, Ger and Catherine, uncle Pat, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, relatives, cousins, neighbours and friends.

– John Fitzgerald

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