Friday, April 9, 2010

Valē Peadar (Peter) Joseph McDonnell, 1930-2010

Eulogy delivered by his eldest child, Stephen, at St Jude’s, Langwarrin, Australia, April 9, 2010

Some of us are dreamers, we have a fantastic, creative imagination and can believe anything is possible. Dad was an engineer, they’re the ones who turn dreams into reality.

He didn’t have an artistic bone in his body. He dealt in algorithms,

disciplined planning, correct procedures. But at the age of 22 he fell in love with Nadia Cooperman, a dreamer straight from cloud nine.

They were married in London in December 1954 and the magic-carpet ride began.

Dad provided the stability that gave mum the freedom to indulge her imagination.

Peadar (Peter to most) Joseph McDonnell was born in Leenane, Ireland, in October 1930, the 5th of Captain Peadar and Tilly McDonnell’s eight children. The family later moved and settled in nearby Galway, where Dad served out much of his youth and schooling. He continued on to Galway University where he studied Civil Engineering.

He was also mad about sports – Gaelic football, hurling, rugby and rowing; He was selected for the Schoolboy fifteen to represent Connaught against Leinster in the Rugby Interprovincial one year. He also represented Galway Uni in the All Ireland Rowing Championships.

Like his mother and father before him, Dad was a devoted Catholic and in his diary at this time, every entry starts with ‘I went to Mass’.

After graduating he worked in England for the British construction company Wimpy and Co. and the Crown Agents office, seconded from the British Government.

However, adventure and travel was in Dad’s veins. Before long he and his young wife headed off to a life of adventure in Nigeria where the first of his 10 children was born – that would be me. When my sister Katie confronted Dad one day on why he went to Nigeria of all places rather than the more genteel Kenya with its established community of expatriates, he replied: “I fronted up at the civil service office for overseas postings and said you can send me anywhere.”

When an engineer constructs an all-weather road to an otherwise remote community they change the fortunes of the people in that community forever.

With his slide rule and theodolite, and of course his cinecamera, Dad built many roads and bridges connecting communities in Nigeria. These were primitive times, remote from the modern world. There was no ready-mix concrete to call on, nor a phone book of tradesmen to lend a hand. Concrete for piles and struts was mixed and moulded on site using teams of local labourers with improvised facilities. It's a task

that required exceptional innovation and ingenuity. As did the task of raising a young family in a primitive, tropical country, rife with exotic diseases and increasing political turmoil.

Two more children later, Mum and Dad finally left Nigeria just before the British colonial rulers did the same. Another short two-child retreat in England and Ireland our now, family of five children with one on the way, set our sights down under.

Dad must have wondered what he was thinking when he brought his young family to the wilds of the Pearcedale bush surrounded by wildlife and sword grass. There were many failures and triumphs in those early years, like the orchard he planted where the family home now stands, or the failure to catch a wallaby he had by the tail – an event watched repeatedly with much mirth on many a family movie night, or the failure to burn the sword grass, or even the failure to keep our horses fenced

in, none of which deterred Dad. But then there was the triumph of building a limestone house and successfully raising a family of 10 kids. A family I knew Dad was very proud of.

Many would agree that mum ruled the roost but Dad always had

the final word.

Dad continued his career providing utilities for the community. First it was water with the State Rivers and Water Supply and then it was homes for those who needed them most with the Victorian Housing Commission.

As I mentioned, Dad was deeply religious and caring and gave much to the community and asked for nothing in return – unless you happened to be eating some chocolate around him.

He was always a very active member of his parish. When St Marys Primary School needed some new classrooms Dad did the drawings and supervised the building work. When Hastings Parish needed a church, Hall for Pearcedale Dad once again did the drawings and plans and helped in the building work. You can always tell Dad's churches, they're the ones that look like they were designed by an engineer.

Dad was one of the founding members of the St Vincent De Paul Society here at St Judes attending regular meetings to help out the needy and the poor of the Parish.

There is no question that Dad touched the lives of so many people in Africa, England, Ireland and Australia through his work. And there is no doubt that most of them would not be aware of who he is or what he has done. He never talked about his work or himself. We had to do quite a bit of research so we could tell you what he actually did at work all these years.

He was not one of those married to his career – he was married to Mum and his family. At home with his kids, that's where Dad really lived.

He was a very quiet, gentle and caring man, but never-the-less there was a side to Dad that would surprise many. For example, his adventurous, fearless spirit.

It must have come as a great shock to Mum when he took on the gruelling Murray River Marathon with some of his sons. Ironic that by the same river I was playing Nigerian rhythms on Congo drums at the Down to Earth Festival. Or the time he agreed to accompany Rory on a flight in a light plane to Queensland and back. Rory had just got his pilot's licence and was keen to give it a try. Or the time he went hunting razorbacks on the banks of the Lachlan River. Not with guns – with dogs and knives.

Dad was never a horseman, but his daredevil spirit compelled him to occasionally saunter out to one of the children on a horse declaring it was his turn. On one such occasion, at the age of 55 the spirited horse took off and dumped our poor Dad, leaving him with a punctured lung, six broken ribs and a broken collarbone. He never got on a horse again.

His strength and belief in standing up for what was right came out in unusual ways.

Like the time Mum opened an antique shop in Frankston when Joanne, her youngest, started school. With no allocated parking space and surrounded by two-hour parking zones, Mum had a constant barrage of parking fines which she would occasionally appease with a cheque. Fed up, she went to the police station and demanded all outstanding fines which she would pay, and did. When, in the next few weeks another summons came for some fines they had missed, Dad said “Enough”. He would go to jail rather than pay another cent. Off he went with his book under his arm to the Dandenong lock up. Mum was in the shop that day. She rang home to see what was needed. Jackie answered: “We need milk and bread – and Dad’s in jail”.

Around 1975 when I was working in the city, dad suggested we both do a public speaking course the Knights of the Southern Cross were running, to help me overcome my fear of public speaking.

Dad introduced us to current affairs and British comedy. News and AM in the morning on the way to school, PM in the evening then This Day Tonight, Monday Conference, Point of View with Bob Santamaria and the comedies, At Last the 1948 Show, The Frost Report, Monty Python and others.

Another surprising side of Dad was his eclectic taste in literature – He was never without a book but also read his Catechism, The Catholic Advocate, The Nation Review, National Times, and how can we forget, Harry Potter. In recent years, no book was safe. When visiting his children, he would take any book he happened to find handy. Often frustrating when he disappeared with the book you had nearly finished.

Dad’s legacies to his children and grandchildren are many. Like his father before him, he always had a camera and we have home movies going back to the early days in Africa. He was always a playful tease, delighting those around him with the ‘whiskers kiss’, 'Gee Up a Guppolin', his constant urge to tickle, and tease, particularly the dreaded ‘horse-bite knee tickle’.

Many of you that knew Dad realised that his mind was deteriorating over the past few years and deteriorating rather exponentially. Even though he knew us all and his cherished grandchildren, 32 in all, this period has been punctuated by some rather comic and bizarre behaviour, too numerous to mention here. But when family members would continually lose their keys only to find them clutched firmly in dads right hand after a frantic search we really started to worry.

Dad never had a bad word for anyone. He had a genuine love for everybody he met and he had the ability to make everyone feel special and welcome.

Barrister John Styring captured this perfectly in a tribute he sent to Sally. He wrote:

"I have the fondest memory of Peter sitting in a comfortable chair in your log cabin just across from the open fire, cradling a baby, and smiling at me with a look of utter contentment. There was great noise and movement in the cabin, but for Peter, it was just him, the baby, and by his smile, me."

His Grandson Oscar – also grandson of his best friend in Galway, Mossy Power – said it all when asked by his father “Do you want to be a doctor like me when you grow up”, he answered: "When I grow up I want to be just like Grandpa."

We all miss you so terribly, Dad.