As part of the ongoing campaign to highlight the extraordinary work of the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust, there is a walk from Sliabh Liag to Malinbeg on Sunday, June 3rd.
Jimmy Ryan was from Tipperary. Although the London ‘site’ was a Donegal one, Jimmy was well known to all and sundry, but his hardy labouring days were long behind him.
He was ‘on the brush’, sweeping dust and detritus from floor to floor, in between sneaking off to the bookies.
I became very friendly with him, as I was one of the few who listened to his stories, more significantly to his dreams. Jimmy hadn’t been home in over 40 years. “I was ashamed to go back, with hardly an arse in me trousers...but when my horse comes in, I know the farm I’m going to buy in Tipp. They’ll all know Jimmy Ryan then.”
And so, day after day, Jimmy slipped off to the bookies, and waved his dockets excitedly on returning to the brush. Alas, as they say in Derry, they were all ‘beaten dockets’.
The foreman was more than indulgent but one day he said to me: “When Jimmy is no longer fit for the brush...we’ll have to let him go, and he’ll probably lose the room in Cricklewood, like many before him.”
I was horrified at the thought of this lonely and decent man ending up homeless and destitute. The last time we met, I bought him a pint before we parted, There were tears in his eyes: “Ah Donegal, you’ll visit me on the farm some day.”
I’ve often thought of Jimmy, knowing that in all probability, his horse never came in and that he may be interred in a pauper’s grave in London. Whatever about the indignity of not returning home during his lifetime, wouldn’t it be some consolation to know that - had circumstances permitted - he might at least have been afforded a decent Christian burial in Tipperary. Nowaday, thanks to the Kevin Bell Trust, that would have been possible.
Kevin was a 26-year-old from Newry who was on a J1 visa to the US in 2013 who was killed in the early hours one Sunday morning in an apparent hit-and-run incident in the Bronx.
According to the New York Post, the young victim was killed at about 3.30am a few blocks from the Major Deegan Expressway, which is located in the heavily Irish area of Woodlawn.
A photograph subsequently emerged of the body being placed in the back of a medical examiner van next to clear bags of recycling as a police officer covered the scene with a white sheet. It was an image that sparked horror and outrage in the Irish-American community and a spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said a the time that they were taking the matter “very seriously”.
“We are investigating the incident and have provided documentation to Employee Law,” the spokesperson said.
“The employee has been suspended without pay pending an investigation.”
Kevin was a GAA player and champion Irish dancer who was supposed to have played for the Armagh club in a New York senior championship game against Donegal that particular Sunday. That match was subsequently postponed.
He was out socialising before he ended up at the dangerous stretch of road near Woodlawn Cemetery which is notorious for cars racing on the stretch. According to the Post, Marielly Ramos, 33, who was driving nearby pulled over in an attempt to save the young Irishman.
She told the newspaper at the time: “I’m just so disgusted right now... I don’t understand people.
“I’m the only one who stopped the car to run to him. People were just driving by. And they throw him in a car full of garbage?
“It’s upsetting. He’s somebody’s child. You wouldn’t even do that to an animal. I put on my hazards and pull over and start running toward him and saying, ‘Hey! Hey!’
“ In a matter of seconds, he was hit... It was a gray sedan. By the time I got there, there was blood dripping down the side of his face. Whoever ran over him probably didn’t see him.’’
Dominic Bradley MLA, an SDLP Assembly member for Newry and Armagh, said at the time “Kevin’s parents, brothers, sisters, family circle and friends are devastated and heartbroken at the news of his death in a hit-and-run incident in New York. Kevin was an exceptional young man who brought joy and happiness to his family and to all who knew him. He had a great sense of fun and it was a pleasure to be in his company as anyone who knew him will testify.
“He was well known as a superb Irish dancer who along with family members represented the St. Moninna GFC, Kileavy, for many years in the Scór competitions.
“Obviously his family are in shock at the sad news which has reached them from America but in their bereavement they are finding great comfort in the response and support of their family, friends and of the local community.”
As it turned out, that response was remarkable.
Although Kevin Bell’s former employers paid for his body to be returned to County Down, (this can cost some £12,000), a massive fundraising campaign in Newry raised an extraordinary £150, 000 in just a week and a half. His parents, Colin and Eithne Bell, decided to set up The Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust with the money, in order to help other families in a similar predicament.
Eithne told the Irish Times: “"It’s the mothers I naturally empathise with, so, while Colin does all the necessary organising and financial planning, I find myself drawn to the mothers and there is an inexplicable, instant bond.
“Sometimes, we just hug because there are no words. I always remember how a stranger from Donegal who had randomly met Kevin in a pub in New York – it turned out he had entertained the crowd with some Irish dancing – arrived for Kevin’s funeral.
“He arrived home and saw Kevin’s photo on the front page of one of the newspapers and came to pay his respects. I was very touched by that.
“I have met fantastic, lifelong friends along the way, and when we meet up again we talk, laugh and cry together. It is a healing process. It still continues to astound me, the unbelievable necessity of this work,” she said.
“Young people think they’re invincible when they’re off enjoying life, travelling across the world – and why shouldn’t they? Many, for one reason or another, don’t have insurance when they travel, and even when they do, sometimes there is something wrong in the fine print.
“We helped one woman who died from a heart attack in the Greek islands while celebrating her 50th birthday because her insurance company claimed she hadn’t declared she was ‘obese’ on her form."
To date, the Trust has brought back almost 500 bodies of loved ones to Ireland, and as part of the ongoing campaign to highlight its extraordinary work, there is a walk from Sliabh Liag to Malinbeg on Sunday, 3rd June, starting from Carrick Old School at 1pm.
The fee is €20 and all proceeds go to the Trust. There is also an option of a shorter version of the walk rather than going to Malinbeg.
Recently, I came across a fragment of a poem I’d written over three decades ago for Jimmy Ryan.
A POEM FOR JIMMY
Jimmy Ryan swept his broom
Like a jockey with a whip,
“You’re coming in today” he laughed,
His dreams in rein and stirrup.
“Twenty acres outside Nenagh,
The best North Riding land,
They’ll all be coming, far and wide,
To see the Ryan farm.”
I see him still with beaten dockets,
Crumpled in the dust,
A brush with fortune not for him,
His silver turned to rust.
Jimmy Ryan swept his last,
The bookies closed their doors,
In Cricklewood, for one last night,
He cried amidst the snores.