My brother phoned me yesterday from Ireland with the news that cancer took Breda Lewis’ life last week.
I first met Breda in Boston in about 1981 in the Black Rose. She was playing her round-back mandolin up on a stage with her husband John on the flute, son Liam on the fiddle, and daughter Patsy on the concertina. The concept of a family band fascinated me.
Little did I know how great a part Breda and her various instruments would play in my life over the next seven years. I moved to Galway and found her and Liam in regular sessions in the City and Salthill: the Brasserie, the Cottage, the Galway Arms, the Quays, The Crane. Breda always smiled a welcome, encouraged me to play and to sing, taught me new tunes, sold me her mandola. Many young, shy musicians owed Breda their start. She had a way of inspiring even the most timid and unskilled of us.
When I came back to Ireland after a year in the Middle East, she opened her Furbo house, Straidp Cottage to me. Blessings on her, she always welcomed waifs and strays: “Sure, come out and keep me and the cats company!”
Breda wasn’t always easy. “Uppity!” an American might say. And “Ornery!” She drank a lot, smoked a lot, could be outspoken and completely contrary. Stubborn as a mule. But she’d give her money to a stranger if she thought it would do him good, and somehow, despite a life that saw some heartbreak, she kept innocence alive in those unfathomable brown eyes.
I’d go to bed after playing at one of her sessions in Teac Furbo, but if the night were clear, she would get out the telescope. “Lets see what’s happening in the heavens tonight!” Early the next morning, I’d make tea and breakfast while she packed the ‘scope away: “Mighty craic with the stars and planets last night, oh, you should have seen it! Jupiter was as clear as anything… And the moon…”
We called ourselves Helles Belles when we played, just for the laugh.
When I finally left Ireland, she gave me a handmade black Aran jumper that she had knitted for me. For twenty winters it has kept the cold at bay – though the Cyprus weather hardly warrants it.
Strange, the sky is weeping today. After two days of spring sunshine, yesterday’s afternoon clouded over and a soft rain began to fall. I unpacked Breda’s jumper and pulled its heavy warmth over my head. It comforts me in the cold and through my grief.
Years have passed since I saw her: I’m sure she knows that I finally found a man, settled down, had children, but the times that I was in Ireland since, although I asked after her, and although she lived not too far from my brother’s house, I never visited.
Regrets are pointless, but I would have liked her to have met my children, and would have loved for them to have met her.
And now it’s too late. She has ‘gone on’. Winston said that her funeral in Wexford was a gathering of musicians – that many a glass was hoisted in her honour, and many a tune that she loved rang out.
Rest well, Breda. I will never forget you, and I know that I’m not alone.