On a warm sunny day last week, on the steps of St. Mary’s Church in Irishtown, friends and neighbours of Mary Cummins, circled her wicker coffin and sang her to her rest in the old songs of Tipperary.
Inside the church, where there had been standing room only, Fr. Billy Meehan concelebrated her funeral Mass with four other priests. He spoke about her unique qualities, her talents and gifts and the generosity of her contribution to her church, her parish, her community and her town.
Mary Britton was a citizen of that special old area of Clonmel, Irishtown, where she was born and lived all her life. She was “old stock” who loved her own place and community, and by extension loved and served her town and country. Like a pebble thrown into a pool of water, the ripples of her influence went far beyond her geographical boundaries and into the lives of many, especially many young people.
The influences which shaped her own life were first nurtured in her family, and then in the nearby Presentation schools, where in her last years in secondary school she participated in the choirs and verse choirs competitions in Féile Chluain Meala. It was a small step from there into the early foundations of parish choirs, initiated by the late Professor James White, and ultimately into St. Mary’s Choral Society. Later, she was the catalyst in the conversion of the old Methodist Chapel in Wolfe Tone Street into the little theatre dedicated to the memory of the same remarkable James White.
He, like Mary herself, left to his parish and his town, an enduring legacy of a love of music, and particularly of choral music. This legacy was superbly manifested in the quality of the choice and performance of the combined choirs of St. Mary’s at Mary’s funeral ceremonies. Again, it was the ripplies from the stone in the pool.
It would not be possible to confine within this space the extent of Mary’s life-work nor of her achievements. Much of what she had done as a scriptwriter, a producer, an actor, a teacher, might seem, of its character, transitory, such is the passing nature of stage performance. Here today. Gone tomorrow. That would be to totally discount the experiences of those involved in performance and of those sitting in the theatre seats, and the enhancement of the quality of the lives of both: the challenges, the achievements, the enrichments, the joys, the sadnesses, and the laughter.
But perhaps the most enduring of Mary’s achievements, as Fr. Billy said, was her work with young people, with whom she had remarkable empathy. While she did not have any children of her own, she had, in effect, hundreds, if not thousands, of children. For several decades she taught, what is labelled in the curriculum as “stagecraft,” to young people. It is not a very accurate description.
She did indeed teach the “crafts” of acting, singing, dancing and presentation, but there followed the much more valuable life-skills of interpretation, sensitivity, confidence, of looking at the other side, of getting under the skin, of assessing the alternative.
The presence of many of these young people at Mary’s funeral was notable. They formed a guard of honour, and accompanied her coffin on its journey westwards in Irishtown.
Looking at that sad procession, it was difficult for her legions of friends to realise that the warm and sunny Mary had died: that all of that vitality and vivacity, that joie de vivre, was no more. But that would not be quite true. She had passed on her talents to another generation, in the ripples in the pool.
And then, there is Eddie, her husband of many decades, her soulmate. Such was their togetherness that one rarely saw one without the other, as they shopped, walked the streets, the countryside, talked to friends. They shared a great love of travel and travelled widely. In the early uncertain days of glasnost they went to Russia, long before the organised tours.
Mary was the last of her family in Clonmel, and she had a passion for tracing and renewing contact with widely dispersed cousins. These journeys took herself and Eddie to far-flung places, especially from the eastern shores of the United States to the mines and big skies of Montana.
Perhaps it will be some comfort to Eddie, in these sad days, to know how much she was loved and how highly she was respected.
Mary Cummins made a difference. She made a very significant difference.