Charlie Bennett – An Appreciation on the Occasion of his Death
By Stephen McCahill
As I sit down on an August evening to write about Charlie – I still find it hard to believe he is still not here. After a number of attempts at starting to write I decide to abandon it for the night and go to the Corner House Bar. To my surprise the first two people I meet there are John Keeney and Niall Gallagher home for the Keeney Re-Union.
As I greet them they immediately draw me into their conversation which was about Charlie. Both having known him for many years in different ways. Niall told me he lived with Charlie in “The Cooves House” in Glenties and they were all friends in England and always looked forward to meeting him when he and Mary Phylis came on holidays to Ardara.
Of course John Keeney could write his own story about his friendship with Charlie Bennett. Both of them coming from the same Townland, during their childhood playing together and both played football together, spent their young years together growing up in Ardara and meeting once again in New York before Charlie died.
Both John and Niall holidaying in Ardara found that people in Ardara were still coming to terms with the loss of Charlie. Indeed both men are so right. So many things in this Parish still shows the involvement of Charlie. The Council grounds at Herron’s field and Molloys fields, the Community Centre, The GAA, The New Sewerage, The New Reservoir and the well being of so many people by way of his work in fundraising over so many years.
My first involvement with Charlie was in a fundraising Campaign for a local Charity. In those days he was the master Fundraiser. Raising way more than anyone else in the Committee. It was a privilege to be with him in those Committees to learn and see a master Fundraiser at work.
In later years as he got older he did not fundraise as much personally but in the fundraising Committee he was always Chairman and was the best delegator I have seen, ensuring that everything was done, done properly and that every area that had to be covered was covered. But I suppose when talking about fundraising the work Charlie did for young Stephen Quinn of Manorcunningham was dear to his heart and it was right and fitting that on Charlies big night on 18th February, 2000 that the young Stephen Quinn was there too to honour Charlie.
In the Parish Council in his days as Councillor was truly outstanding. Certainly in my years as Chairman it was great to have Charlie as Councillor. He was unique in that Charlie’s sole priority was for the Parish of Ardara. He was so committed to the Parish and its people both home and abroad it was near an obsession with him. If it was possible to get something for Ardara he did his best to get it but if it was not possible Charlie was quick to tell you rather than waste time dwelling on the matter. His style of coming to each Parish Council meeting noting the opinions of the Community and dealing with the ensueing matters was highly successful for us all.
I suppose if it were possible Charlie grew more in stature in all our minds especially those of us who met his remains at Shannon, to see our County Manager Mickey McLoone, like us all waiting for the remains. When someone thanked Mr McLoone for coming all the way to Shannon his reply was “if Charlie was never County Chairman I would be here today after all the good things I heard about Charlie at “This is your Life” for Charlie in Ardara last year. I never realised before that we had such an important person in the Chamber”.
Over the days of the wake and funeral we got to know more about what the County Manager thought of Charlie when he told us he was one of the best Chairman they had, when he told us how he brought morale back to his Staff at a very sensitive time by his shrewd handling of the situation in the Chamber. He told us Charlie’s results were second to none in his endeavours for the people of Ardara because of his respect and appreciation of all the Officials in the Council. The Manager went on to say that he was non political in his approach and so clear cut in his thinking that if he could be got it should be got for Ardara.
From the GAA perspective Charlie was almost the complete Clubman. Having starred at all levels at underage with the pinnacle being his Minor medal as one of the Champions of 1952. Something he was proud of and planned a big celebration for next year to honour that great occasion. Charlie was one of our Clubmen on the County Team for many years. Later of course he was a Divisional Secretary and our Delegate to County Board for many years. In times of financial trouble in the Club Charlie came to our aid and put us back on the right track with his huge ability to raise funds. He served as Club Secretary in 1964 and was Chairman of the Club in 1983 and 1984.
Charlie made a telling contribution to our Dinner Dance and the banter between himself and Fear An Ti Bart Whelan was always enjoyable. The Hall Of Fame award initiated and decided by Charlie was close to his heart and he delivered those citations with skill and distinction making the recipient feel a million dollars.
Being an emigrant for a number of years Charlie was particularly aware of the emigrants’ desire for home and kept in touch with them by visiting New York, Birmingham, Glasgow and London on many occasions to attend Donegal Association functions there. He seldom missed the Dublin Association functions, who honoured him with “Donegal Person of the Year” in 1993 and at his big night in February, 2000, it was great to have a prominent member of the Dublin/Donegal Association to say nice things about him and that was our own Kathleen Sheerin. That night also saw a very dear friend of Charlie’s come to represent all emigrants abroad and to thank Charlie and that was Fr. Pat Heekin.
At the end of 1999 a lot of people in the Parish felt something or someone should be honoured in the millenium year which was just around the corner. With little talk and little decision making – as one person stood above all for honouring – Charlie Bennett.
The story of Charlie’s life in a “this is your Life” context was easy to put together. Charlie loved everyone and everyone loved Charlie. There was no one situation that could not be considered for input in the “Life” of Charlie because all was good. It was easy to get contributors to the event as everyone that was asked who could come along came along and we tried to reduce the political imput as we knew Charlie would not have wanted that, yet more politicians came than was asked and that was good because they were there as a genuine respect for Charlie. Indeed that night political consensus made him “Chairman Elect”.
The Parish was proud of that night and it was truly appreciated by Charlie in the company of his family, his brothers and sisters with the exception of Mary who had died. The family meant a lot to Charlie and he made a very emotional speech that night about the family and the importance in his life of Marian, Cathal, Sinead, Roisin and Conal. There are still videos of that night around and we were all proud of the man who held the show together for over three hours. MC for the night Bart Whelan.
Charlie’s special ability to relate in a very real way to the youth of the Community and yet know the older members of the Parish and know their history, relations and friends made him quite unique. I really did not know anyone in the Parish presently who could command that ability.
I must also acknowledge the remark of his friend throughout life James McGinley when he said “We are all proud of the many qualities he had when you consider he was a brilliant footballer, was a great speaker, in his young days great with the ladies, was a superb entertainer, was a Councillor and was most of all a good up righteous member of the Community and a great friend throughout my life”.
The preparations for his funeral was a sad time, an emotional time yet a time of great significance for all the Parish. It was unique in that purely on word of mouth a large Committee of all different Organisations of the Parish came together to prepare for the laying to rest of Charlie. The input from everyone was most important.
– The emotional speech of Billy Maxwell at the Committee meeting when he told us of the sad events in New York and how he and others coped with it and the lonely journey home.
– The arrival of John McDermott from the Glen of Glenties (when the wind was right) to play for the last time for Charlie his Bagpipes as he led the remains to the Church (Ironically he also led Charlie into the Hotel for his big night in February, 2000).
– The delivery of a fitting homily by Fr. Austin Laverty at the funeral Mass.
– The wonderful oration by John Michael O’Donnell at the Graveside.
These are amongst the special memories of that time.
Amongst my own personal memories of Charlie was our GAA Dinner and Dance last year when he was at his brilliant best in the company of the Press and speaking about people he was proud of like the late Packie Watters and the late Danny Maloney and his very own idol the late Phil “Tammy” McHugh.
His very last Parish Council Meeting in February, 2001, when he abruptly got to his feet and looked at the large crowd who were there for other reasons and with that smile he waved goodbye and said “I will miss your next meeting as I am off to the U.S.A.” and we all bide him good luck and jokingly remarked he looked more like the President of the United States than the present occupant.
The day before we went to the U.S.A. he rang me and was in jovial mood. Very excited about his American visit and the personal satisfaction it was for him to lead the Donegal County Council Delegation there. He was full of the joys of life and he assured me he would really enjoy every moment of New York. He really rang to tell me he had some really good plans for the Parish and had organised a meeting with the County Manager to get approval on his ideas on his return from the U.S., though I pushed him he was not prepared to tell what plans they were until his return from New York. I often wonder what he meant.
My final and heart breaking memory was of Marion arriving alone through the Arrivals at Shannon Airport without Charlie. It was a poignant moment and one not to forget.
As I have said before it has been great to have lived in the era of Charlie Bennett. May he rest in peace with the good people who died in the year 2001.
As we finally close the story on Charlie I would like to acknowledge some of the things said about him:
Councillor Padraig Doherty – at the Golf Classic in his memory (Charlie was Captain of Narin/Portnoo in 1974) – “We are all better people for having known Charlie”.
Michael McLoone – “Charlie was a man of great honesty and integrity. He had the ability to diffuse a tense and controversial situation with his turn of phrase and wit”
Fr. Peter Heekin – “Charlie was a gentleman and found it much easier to make friends then enemies”.
Columba Diver – “He had a knack of getting people behind him in whatever he was doing. Who could say no to Charlie?”.
Bart Whelan – “He will be irreplaceable. He had a great enthusiasm and great energy and we will never forget him”.
Clr. David Alcorn – “His wit often got a laugh but also results. I am particularly thinking of when he told the County Manager that a horse could drink all the water supplied to Ardara in his attempt to get a Reservoir which is now being achieved”
John McConnell – “Charlie was Mr Ardara. He was the No 1 citizen and his loss is unquantifiable. Anything he touched tuned to gold and was guaranteed to be successful”.
Clr. John Boyle – “He was a modest man and he did not have an enemy in the world. He was an excellent Chairman. He marvelled in the position and was a great ambassador for the County”.
John M. O’Donnell – “Charlie was given many gifts and over the years developed those skills and used them to the full. He was an elequent public speaker and a charming entertainer. He was youthful in his outlook on life and as for personal charm had few equals. Yet, despite his many achievements and personal awards, he never lost the common touch”.
Fr. Austin Lafferty – “His name was almost synonymous with the Parish and its wellbeing. How he worked tirelessly to make this a caring and progressive Community”.
A Life Long friend – “He was of a unique band of people who did not need to drink or smoke to reach the highest acholodes”.
Packie Maguire – “Charlie was loved by everyone, we all miss him terribly. His death leaves an unfathonable void”.
Clr. Alice Boner – “Charlie made a lasting impression on me and I was delighted to have known him. It is said “God only takes the best” and that is surely true in this case as the best man has been taken from the Chamber of Donegal County Council”.
Clr. Terence Slowey – “Everything good that happened in Ardara over the last 30 years Charlie was associated with it. People often say to me “You’re the man who replaced Charlie Bennett on the Council”. That is not true. No one could ever replace Charlie Bennett. Thanks for the life that was Charlie Bennett’s”.