‘Come to tea on Tuesday!’ Those simple words, spoken by Donald thirty six years ago almost to the day, marked the beginning of a friendship which has been one of the constants of my life and which I have appreciated and valued enormously. So it was that on Tuesday October 9th 1974 at 4 o’clock, I first visited 22 Bannvale and was welcomed by you, Donald, Stephen, Janet, Ruth, and, of course, Patch. During that year, my first year teaching in Loreto, ‘Tea with Donald and Isobel’ was a regular entry in my diary (which I still have). Behind those words lie a treasury of happy memories with you, Donald and all the family– walks on the beaches, trips to Corrymeela, Donald always there to give me a lift home, both of you giving me support and encouragement when things were difficult, hearing Ruth her spellings (sorry Ruth), singing Joseph and his Amazing Coat with Janet, a peaceful December evening spent sitting in front of the fire while you knitted a red Aran sweater and we listened to the Messiah, Donald writing out a recipe for pumpkin pie for the staff to make in Corrymeela, the McDonagh family trip to the Montrose in Dublin – and so many other moments of shared happiness and fun. When Seán became a part of my life, he was welcomed just as warmly and immediately felt at home in the McDonagh environment.
Then there were the sad and anxious times, getting the news in Scotland that you had breast cancer and not being able to visit, your card telling us that Donald was to have surgery for cancer, that last visit to Donald and the terrible phone call to say he had died, the lasting regret that he has not been part of our lives for so long and that our children did not know him as they grew up.
As the years have gone by, our visits to Coleraine and yours to us, have always been a great pleasure and also a positive influence in our lives. As Seán said once, visiting you always brought us back to the things that were important in life. For Michael and Philip, visits to Auntie Isobel were always exciting – not least because it meant being able to bring Mac for walks, and exhausting the poor dog. (Walks with Mac eventually translated into our very own Theo, a beloved family pet for fifteen years.) To me, it says an enormous amount that on their visits to Ireland you are always high on the list of people they want to visit.
It is nearly forty years since we first met, and we are all a lot older and have had many experiences and changes in our lives. That first year in Coleraine, I remember wondering why would you and Donald, who had so many good friends, befriend me, a total stranger, as you did. On this, your 80th birthday, thank you for all you have given to us and for being part of our lives.
Happy Birthday Isobel!