A true character
Written in London, 22nd June 2015
Quite by chance this evening, I discovered that an old teacher – and I’d like to think a friend of mine – had died. James ‘Seumas’ Gildea from just outside of Glenties passed away at the end of May. The term ‘character’ is bandied about a bit too frequently these days and often to those who are in truth, just a bit odd and/or as dull as ditchwater. Seumas however was a character; for me this was due to the fact that what you saw and what you got were two different things, the public and private personas were worlds apart.
To those who came across him in Irish class over many decades, he was a stern pedagogue who seemed devoid of humour. He taught Irish in the era when it was a chore to learn and was tolerated with an uneasy mix of indifference and disdain by students. To a man as well-read as Seumas, this attitude from a generation of ingrates was most unfortunate. I met men in their sixties in Inishowen who shuddered recalling being taught by the then raven-haired teacher way back in the fifties – the man never really aged right up until the last time I saw him. A picture was in an attic somewhere it seemed!
My own first memories of the man were shaky enough – I remember being rigorously interrogated by him as gaeilge on Day One of me moving from a boarding school to the Abbey Vocational School in Donegal Town aged 15. That I got to know, and in time admire him, was due to my increasing interest in all things to do with local heritage in the mid 1990’s. I had set up a heritage festival around St. Patrick’s Day and one of the events was to have history lectures in the local courthouse. Fellow organiser Emmet McCauley and I kept hearing about how helpful Seumas could be and though we were at first reluctant to deal with him due to our respective experiences, we were very glad we did.
Gracious, patient, reliable, supportive and knowledgeable are words that spring to mind about this man as I got to know him better. He was a mentor and active participant in the years we held the McGarrigle lectures in that courthouse. Better still for this hedonist, there was a Bohemian side to Seumas that he was more than happy to share with those who had sought him out and were prepared to dig a little deeper. His impeccably kept cottage in Drimnacrosh, near Glenties was on the outside a quaint edifice from another era.
The rural swashbuckler
Inside it was a different story – the token pictures of the Pope and De Valera were nowhere to be seen and instead we found a resplendence of mementos, objet d’art, paintings, sculptures and all sorts of treasures gathered from years of travelling. This was the secret den of a rural swashbuckler, a man who came alive when in full hosting mode. They say that the two best reasons for teaching are July and August and to a curious pilgrim soul like Seumas, this was a time to savour his passions for hillwalking, history and travel. Having avoided walking up an aisle, Seumas was able to enjoy the freedom of a bachelor lifestyle with vigour. On one occasion, I remember he had just come back from a Bacchanalian wedding in Bulgaria which had lasted several days.
Tales of chandelier-swinging merriment were told with aplomb and washed down with the most exquisitely potent liquors brought back and offered with flamboyant generosity. By chance, I’d managed to see a slice of this colourful and knowledgeable man’s world – one far removed from my earlier assumptions that he was a stick-in-the-mud dullard. Well wrong. He’s a true example of how we should never judge a book by its cover.
Those in the Bluestack Ramblers walking club, the Donegal Historical Society or the Patrick MacGill Summer School committee in Glenties will tell you of this tall, big-hearted man who had old school charm and gentility; a man full of wit and wisdom. His mellifluous voice hinted at his fluency in the native language and his origins in the glens.
The value of gathering voices
Via my Audio Archive, I’ve been lucky enough to have recorded some real characters from all over Ireland and his voice is worth hearing time and again. No one else sounds like Seumas Gildea though. Listening to some of the material I have from Seumas reminded me of how worthwhile gathering the voices of knowledgeable characters is for posterity and for pleasure. His candour is refreshing – be it talking about how a lot of Heaney’s poetry is often impenetrable, how MacGill’s poetry is underestimated or how he listened with incredulity to Eamon Casey talk insouciantly about racy prose. If there is another life after the long one Seumas enjoyed, then no doubt he is at the heart of it and lighting the place up with his easy charm. Walk tall Seumas. Maireann croí éadrom a bhfad – a light heart lives a long time.