Barbara Gill was a college friend of mine. We met on one of my first days – I started first semester late but that’s another story. I arrived into the lecture theatre, sat down and she was there. We exchanged pleasantries. She said she was from a place I would never have heard of – Clonbullogue, a small village in County Offaly. As it was, I had heard of it as my father was from and had many relations still living there. We became firm friends in my first days in college.
Over the years I met Barbara’s family who were always very welcoming to her friends.
After college Barbara went on to teach and later lecture in Developmental Education in teacher training colleges in Dublin.
One summer, shortly after we left college, she and I spent two weeks in India on holiday before she went on to do volunteer work there with VSI and I to see my sister, a volunteer in Bangladesh. Barbara worked tirelessly volunteering for many causes.
In her forties Barbara came to know great happiness meeting her partner Ruth and having baby Stephen. Ten years ago this year, when Stephen was eight weeks old, Barbara was killed in a bicycle accident. It was utterly cruel and devastating. Ruth and Stephen lost a wonderful partner and mother. Barbara’s parents and siblings lost a wonderful first-born and eldest sister. A wide circle of colleagues and friends lost a truly inspirational person.
At the time of Barbara’s death I wrote a blog post about her. Unfortunately that blog is now lost somewhere in the ether. This post remembers Barbara, but Barbara didn’t get her special qualities from the ground, so to speak, her parents are also truly inspirational people.
When Denis and I were on our recent cycling trip, I often thought of Barbara. On the very last night out of the blue I got a phone call from Margaret, Barbara’s mother. It felt surreal to be talking with her on that particular night. Margaret told me that she and Bill, (her husband), were coming to Sligo for two nights, had heard I had recently moved there and could they meet up with me. Naturally, I said yes. Luckily, we would be home just in time for their visit.
A number of days later, I picked up Margaret and Bill from their hotel. I picked them up at 2pm and dropped them back at 10pm. The hours in between were a life lesson for me.
We chatted incessantly.
Margaret and Bill initially didn’t understand homosexuality, but they welcomed Ruth and later Stephen into their family with great grace. Though totally and utterly devastated by their daughter’s death, Margaret and Bill were able to gradually put their lives back together, to continue living and not create a broken family. On learning that Barbara had a dream to build a school in Eritrea, Margaret and Bill just put heads together and made her dream come true.
Margaret spoke on the Late Late Show (as it happened the same night as a certain two Limerick brothers) and with great eloquence she was able to get the audience and the country to understand the injustice of family law in the new Ireland that was emerging. Margaret spoke in the lead-up to the same-sex marriage referendum. Hearing a woman, then in her seventies, campaigning for a yes vote was very powerful, it made a difference.
Margaret spoke and people listened.
None of us are too old to change and grow. Margaret and Bill certainly never were. That Monday we chatted incessantly. Much later I dropped them back to their hotel. I, in my fifties, was exhausted. They, in their eighties, were still sprightly.
I’m still reflecting on the life lessons I learned that day. I won’t leave it so long to meet them again – I’ve too much more to learn simply listening to them speak.