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Miriam Lord: John Bruton is mourned as a loved one and revered statesman at a funeral both public and private

The Bruton family, the Fine Gael party and former political rivals pay respects to ‘a decent man’ who ‘changed Ireland for the better’

John Bruton’s final resting place is in a far corner of the old part of Rooske Cemetery.

A modest plot beside a winter hedgerow of bramble and ivy, there isn’t much room for mourners.

When his family arrived at the graveside, they were on their own with him again.

They could see the lines of soldiers in the distance and the President of Ireland positioned away to one side. The Taoiseach faced them across a separation of headstones. Former taoisigh and serving Ministers gathered beyond with sitting and retired Oireachtas members, holders and previous holders of high office, and a multitude of familiar and vaguely familiar faces from politics past and present.


The two sides of these big State occasions were on view in this country graveyard: the public one and the private one, where a nation buries a statesman with full military honours and a live TV broadcast, and a family quietly mourns the loss of a loved one in the midst of it all.

Saturday began in Dunboyne with a mass influx of Fine Gaelers arriving to pay their last respects to John Bruton, a leader they held in the highest regard and someone they now revere as a true upholder of the values and spirit of their party.

Men and women who used to be big noises with a fair bit of pull in Leinster House or the council chamber, reconnecting with their tribe. They still had a touch of the swagger about them.

They overran the Spar shop before the solemn requiem Mass in St Peter and Paul’s – John Bruton’s parish church – laying siege to the coffee machine. There were more blasts from the past than blasts from Army trumpets as the State funeral got under way.

Journalists struggled to put names to faces from the deceased’s last-century government heyday. There was a frisson of excitement when Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, arrived with her party colleague, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. It was heightened by the third member of the group – a mysterious woman in a black wearing a chic hat.

No big funerals of important men should be without one.

Is it? Yes, it is – Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly of the DUP was with them. This trio of women stood out over an impressive establishment line-up of suited leaders and legislators. A living testament to Bruton’s early vision of a shared island, to his belief in the political process and commitment to achieving peace through non-violent means.

In his homily, Jesuit priest Fr Bruce Bradley, a family friend, spoke of Bruton’s “patient, pioneering, co-operative part in enabling a cessation of violence in Northern Ireland” and his “capacity to stand in other person’s shoes, a quality of particular importance in the discussions and negotiations with Northern unionists”.

Former taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern, another veteran of the peace process, spoke fondly of the man who was his political rival across the decades. Bertie was in huge demand for interviews, ambushed by a succession of microphones as he made his way along the requiem carpet.

“Well, it’s a sad day ... he was a good guy ... he served the country well.”

Entrenched political rivalries aside, the two got on well outside of the day jobs because they were the kind of fellas it is difficult to fall out with.

Throughout the day there would be much talk of Bruton’s positive impact on the national and world stage, but Bishop of Meath Tom Deenihan brought it back to the “eloquent but simple” phrase he heard many times since the announcement of his death.

“‘He was a decent man!’ It is the supreme accolade in rural Ireland,” he said.

And in they strolled to mark the life of this decent man who, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said at his graveside oration, “changed Ireland for the better”.

Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan, Alan Dukes, Ivan Yates, Nora Owen, Jimmy Deenihan, Lucinda Creighton, Maurice Manning, Charlie Flanagan, Michael Ring, the Cabinet Ministers, TDs, Senators, handlers and hangers on swelling the grieving ranks of Blueshirt true believers.

Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin walked confidently through the Blueshirt hordes with Ministers Thomas Byrne and Charlie McConalogue riding shotgun, just in case.

Big Phil Hogan barrelled in after the main crowd went inside.

A measure of the depth of sorrow among Fine Gael Cabinet members (they all looked a bit shook) could be gauged by the brisk arrival of Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris. As he walked up from the gates, he did not even give the large phalanx of media standing to his right as much as a sideways glance.

There were warm greetings from all sides for former Fianna Fáil taoiseach Brian Cowen. Still recovering from a serious illness, he walked on crutches to his seat.

Enda Kenny, who led Fine Gael back into power in 2011, mingled with everyone, dispensing friendly backslaps and thumps to old political friends like Brendan Howlin and Donie Cassidy. Labour’s Pat Rabbite got such a wallop we feared he might cough up his breakfast.

Inside the church, former tánaistí Mary Coughlan and Joan Burton sat side by side along with Martin Fraser, who used to be the country’s top civil servant and is now Ireland’s Ambassador to the UK. Eoghan Harris, an adviser to John Bruton back in the day, with varying degrees of success and controversy, sat at the end of the row. A team of uniformed Dáil ushers showed people to their seats.

Among the locals arriving early was 104-year-old Anna McEnroe and her son, Seán. She knew John Bruton and his father Joe very well and had no intention of missing this funeral.

Before the Mass started, President Higgins and the three Coalition leaders expressed their condolences to John’s widow, Finola, and their four children. And there were comradely embraces too for his grieving brother Richard, retiring from the Dáil at the next general election after his own distinguished career in politics.

Sunlight flooded the airy church, streaming through big stained-glass windows under a barrel-vaulted ceiling. A spray of yellow roses rested on the tiles in front of the former taoiseach’s Tricolour-draped coffin.

Two symbols of his life rested on a nearby table – his book Faith in Politics and a cherished old family photograph. They were brought to the altar by two of his young grandchildren, Oliver and Robin.

It was, everyone agreed, a lovely Mass. Finbar Wright and Lisa Lambe sang beautifully.

The simple Mass booklet featured a picture of John and Finola on their wedding day in 1978. There was a fine study in charcoal of Bruton the Statesman on the back cover, drawn by his daughter Emily, an accomplished artist.

Afterwards, it took a lot longer than anticipated for the cortege to leave. For this was an event packed with local and national politicians who know a thing or two about condoling in churchyards after funerals. It would take more than the Irish Army and three gardaí on horseback to move them on before they got the chance to relay their sympathies in person.

Finally, the people who watched the service outside on the big screen got an opportunity to support their neighbours in their time of loss. They lined the pavement, applauding as the gun carriage transporting the remains passed by.

John was one of their own. Finola smiled in acknowledgment.

There were the inevitable logistical lulls in this carefully planned ceremony. These gaps were smoothly filled in the live broadcast by RTÉ’s panel of commentators and talking heads, marshalled by news anchor and historian David McCullagh.

It can be difficult to fill that empty airspace, though. After a heroic few hours, one panellist, deep in the throes of gravitas, murmured “Today, in many ways, has been a funeral of two halves.”

It was bitterly cold in the graveyard.

Strains of solemn marching music drifted on the air as the procession wound its way around the narrow tree-lined roads. And then, a single drum beat, coming closer and closer until the Defence Forces Band, in slow step, crested the brow of the hill.

Pall bearers removed the coffin from the gun carriage, lifted it shoulder high and moved towards the graveside. The band played The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Halls, and the mourners fell in behind.

Those last few metres were covered in silence.

The bearers party placed the coffin on a low trestle, then carefully removed and folded the flag – orange side first, green side last. An officer stepped forward and presented it to Finola. She draped it over her hands and held it close.

It was time for the oration.

Leo Varadkar delivered a low-key, nuanced address, blending some pointed political lines for current opponents with tributes “to a statesman of unshakeable integrity and moral conviction who led our country with distinction at home and on the world stage”.

And one for the Fine Gael family: “He was our once and always leader.”

Independent TD Michael Lowry, appointed a minister by Bruton in 1994, stood beside the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, true to the end to his “friend, best friend forever”, the famous words he uttered when forced to resign two years later amid controversy over payments from Ben Dunne.

Varadkar’s speech was laced with affectionate recollections of the man who was so encouraging to him in the early days of his political career. This admiration and appreciation reflected the surprisingly emotional response of the younger cohort of Fine Gael politicians. Most of them are far too young to remember the Bruton era.

But they like the certainty of what he stood for.

The Taoiseach recalled a recent think-in when members were “inspired by his reminder that while other parties might suffer from an identity crisis from time to time, that wasn’t a problem for us.

“We were the party that founded the State and would always stand by it and its citizens.”

The State, now, was honouring John Bruton for his life of public service.

The 15-member firing party fired three volleys of shots in the air.

The fanfare party sounded the Last Post and Reveille.

The officers saluted.

The soldiers marched off, leaving Finola and Richard and the family to their private mourning.

The Taoiseach’s words lingered. “And I would give anything to speak to him one last time and to hear that great, booming laugh just once again.”

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