[Benjamin Oakley]

Tribute to Benjamin Oakley, 24 August 1933 - 27 July 2012

St. Brendan's Church of Ireland, Birr, Co. Offaly, Republic of Ireland.

6 August 2012

“Oakley” is an English name. How our strand of Oakleys came to Ireland is lost in the mists of time, but it seems likely that they were craftsmen who emigrated from England to work on the newly-created Irish estates after Cromwell. It is certainly true that craftsmanship is in our blood. I have two cousins who are builders, and indeed I like to regard my own work, as a computer programmer, as a form of craftsmanship. My great-great-grandfather, Jonathan Verney Oakley, ran the local building business here in Birr. The house he lived in, in Newgate Street, is currently occupied by Willie Wolfe, his descendant, who is a founding partner of Hogan and Wolfe builders. The house is substantial enough, but I still wonder how Jonathan Verney managed to raise twelve children in it.

Following the family tradition, great-grandfather Oakley, also Jonathan Verney, one of the twelve, became a carpenter, but the main string to his bow soon became his wife’s confectionery business, which later became the bakery, J V Oakley and Sons, the largest one in Birr, and by the time his grandson Ben was born, in August 1933, business was booming. Ben’s father – also Benjamin – was a conscientious worker, and managed the business well enough, but was actually a learned, bookish man, who in another age would certainly have gone to university, and possibly even have become a scholar. He valued education enormously, and made sure that Ben and his three sisters got as good a one as he could possibly afford. His efforts paid off – Ben junior eventually landed a place at Trinity College, Dublin, the first of my Oakley antecedents to go to university.

Ben junior had little interest in running the family business, especially as his father was convinced that there was no long-term future in it, but his father’s ill-health focused Ben’s mind on choosing a course at Trinity that would lead to a decent income after graduation, and he chose engineering. This was not his natural bent, which was economics and history, but somehow or other, he got his degree, graduating in 1956. After that, suitable jobs being virtually unobtainable in Ireland, there was little option but to emigrate, and, following a path well-trodden by Irish engineering graduates, he left Ireland for Canada later that year. It was at the Dixon Hall at Trinity that he met his first wife Brigid. Brigid was a student at the National College of Art: a pretty, lively American girl who was also a very talented artist. To small-town Irish like Ben, or his friends, Brigid and her family were wholly exotic. Her father was a diplomat and mother a Dutch painter who wrote children’s books in English. They, too, had met at a Trinity dance. Being a foreigner, Brigid was not subject to the rules that governed discourse amongst Irish Protestants at the time, and they loved her outspokenness. Also, her family, the Marlins, rented a large house in Dalkey and kept open house much of the time. For starving, penniless students, this was not something they could sensibly ignore.

The Marlins were living in Montreal by the time Ben graduated. Brigid’s father got Ben a job working for Montreal Engineering, and Brigid and Ben married in 1957. They did not stay long. Canadian winters, and the wish to strike out on his own, unsponsored by his in-laws, prompted Ben to move to London in 1959. The choice of London was partly because had had a wonderful time working for an engineering firm in Tilbury during a vacation while a student, partly because he wanted to study at the London School of Economics, and partly because his friend Shane O’Neill was already there. This suited Brigid well enough – in her view an artist was much better off in a hub like London than a relative backwater like Montreal.

Ben soon landed a job in the new town of Hemel Hempstead, 25 miles northwest of London. Apparently the name had stuck in his head as it was the final stop of the Green Line bus that passed near their tiny flat in North London. The young family then moved to a council house in Hemel Hempstead. Trendsetter that he was, soon his friends were following him to the area: Trinity friends Des and Joan Gibbons, Lindsay Bayne and schoolfriends Alan Jones and Shane O’Neill. Shane married Brigid’s sister Sheila around that time. By this time he had three boys: Benny, born in Canada in 1958, myself, born in Canada in 1959, and Des, who was born in Hemel Hempstead in 1962.

As young children we were subjected to two very different styles of parenting. One, emanating ultimately from Hilda, Brigid’s mother, could be described as theatrical. As mentioned, Hilda was a painter and published author. Her writing was given to glowing, and often idealised descriptions of family life. Hilda did not do things quietly and whether the event was a confirmation or first communion – she was very religious – or a dressing down for some misdemeanour, it was always accompanied by drama. The other style of parenting emanated from my other grandmother, Esther. I do not know whether it was more loving, but it was certainly less noisy. When we were young children, she would bring us presents when she came out to visit, but we soon were finding that the best present was just her being there. She was calm, and in the best possible way, intensely interested in us: what we liked to eat, what we liked to read, what our interests were. Even by Irish standards, Gran was talkative, and Ben was very like her.

Yes – Ben could talk the hind legs off a donkey. And there was an unbelievable amount of information stored in his head, available to be dispensed at any time. Whether a person he met on a cruise ship, a work colleague or a Moroccan doctor at Tullamore Hospital while he was slowly dying, any new person would be pumped for information regarding career, education, dwelling place, and if Irish, family, and who they might know in common. And he would remember it.

It was when we were young children that Ben was at his best. Calm, but protective, I particularly remember the Saturdays, about once a month, when he would hold the fort while Brigid went to London to promote her art career. The routine was always the same. Lunch was fish and chips from Weston’s Fish Bar in Boxmoor. Tea was boiled egg, salad and toast and maybe a can of sardines. Ben had many interests, but cooking was not one of them. I never remember the Saturday menus being varied, and I suppose that Ben’s view was that if something was not broke, then why fix it?

When we were young, Ben’s supportiveness went beyond the call of duty. If he possibly could, he would get to football matches when Des – who was the sporty one – was playing. It did not matter whether the team won or lost – he was not one of those parents that requires his child to be best: he just wanted to provide support.

One thing particularly sticks in my mind from that era. I cannot have been more than about six. There was a machine that dispensed banana, strawberry and chocolate milk cartons at the market place in Hemel Hempstead. I loved it: the colours, the flavours, the clicking sound it made when you put the money in. Everything about it was fascinating to me, and one Saturday afternoon after we had already been down town, I asked him to take me there again. A sensible parent would have told their child to shut up and wait until next Saturday, but not Ben. Although complaining, and berating me every inch of the way there and back, his joy at my joy at being able to operate this wonderful machine again fully justified the inconvenience.

Ben was very public-spirited, a trait that he unfortunately failed to pass to the next generation. While working for Hemel Hempstead Borough Council, he studied politics and economics part-time at the London School of Economics. He joined the Labour Party, eventually becoming a Labour councillor. Inevitably, left-wing tendencies tended to go by the board as he started to accumulate money.

Ben’s restlessness and, probably, the search for more money caused him to move on from Dacorum Borough Council to John Laing Construction. From there he moved to Limmer and Trinidad. I remember being taken down to a quarry near Bodmin in Cornwall with my brothers in the school holiday, probably in 1969. We were staying at a nearby hotel, and I remember being taken to the beach, and to The Aristocats film. I also remember discussing the chemical formula for carborundum with one of the engineers in the quarry (I was into chemistry).

His next job with management consultants KPMG took him to Kuwait, where he was a consultant to the Ministry of Public Works. As with everywhere he went, the friends he made there, in particular Robert and Christine Miles, and Bedia Kassawat, a Syrian, remained so for the rest of his life. He liked the Arabs. Kuwaitis were nomadic tribesmen who had suddenly inherited a fortune thanks to the oil, and behaved accordingly. They would build expensive villas, but spend most of their time outside them clustered around the TV in the sand. If a car got a puncture, or broke down, they would just get a new one. “Everything in Kuwait looks either half-built or half-demolished,” Ben would say, and it was true. The contradictions amused him.

In 1971 the family went there for the summer holidays. We stayed at a beach club, which we boys liked well enough: swimming and amusing ourselves with records, puzzle books and with what was then the height of technology: a cassette recorder, and Brigid, though initially bored, soon got work painting portraits of the children of expatriates. The highlight of the week was the Tombola, where my older brother Benny had such an un-statistical winning streak that the Arab women would touch him for good luck. We were living in a bubble, interacting almost exclusively with expatriate English, and only going to oil company haunts, but it was still an eye-opener.

One day, we took a dhow to Failaka, an island that was also an important archaeological site. On the way back we stopped for a swim. None of the Arabs went in the water. When Ben later told the story to his Kuwaiti colleague. He was shocked. Apparently, we had been swimming in one of the most shark-infested places in the gulf!

Ben’s next job was with Occidental Petroleum, an American Oil Company, working on the North Sea Oil project. His boss, Dick Pearce, later explained his reason for hiring him, which he had decided on before they had even properly got to talk. “You have an honest face,” he said. “You look like Abraham Lincoln.” Setting up the oil platforms was costing a million pounds a day, and there were plenty of opportunities for siphoning off funds, and too many people were doing it. His assessment was correct: Ben was, and always has been, scrupulously honest. The job was in Flotta, in the Orkneys. He would be out there most of the time, returning home only every other weekend.

One reason for Ben seeking better-paid jobs was my brother Benny. Benny was severely epileptic, and since he seemed unlikely to ever be able to earn his own living, Ben felt he needed to be able to provide for him. We accepted as part of life Benny’s fits, which would happen a few times a day, but his medication made him dopey, and it seems highly likely that he was getting a hard time at school as a result. He never complained, but he cannot have been happy. One day, when he was 14, he announced that he was not going into school, and that he had taken an overdose. This was the start of a long nightmare for Ben and Brigid that finally ended seven years later when one of his suicide attempts succeeded. This is not the place to tell the full story, but, if you are interested, you can order Brigid’s book on the subject, “A Meaning For Danny” from Amazon at a very reasonable $12.44.

A shared problem often brings couples together, but in the case of Ben and Brigid, it had the opposite effect, and with Benny gone, Ben was looking for a divorce. He married again in 1981 to Ann Ballantyne, from Canada, whose own marriage to Mark Casimir had ended in divorce. That marriage too, had foundered when they had had to deal with a handicapped son: theirs, Dominic, being actually far more handicapped than Benny.

Ben’s Flotta experience must have lasted two years. In my year off between school and university I went up there for a few days; my job was sorting drawings. The two oilfields they serviced from Flotta were Piper and Claymore. I later facetiously asked him whether he was personally responsible for the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988. He merely noted that Occidental were remarkably cavalier on matters of health and safety.

His next, and final, paid employment was in Tripoli, Libya where he was head of construction for Occidental’s oil project. The job was well paid, and after just eight years there he was able to retire. There are many horror stories circulating about life in Arab dictatorships but for all his craziness Gadaffi did know which side his bread was buttered on, and apart from a few inevitable inconveniences, he had the good sense to leave people like Ben alone. There was a story circulating that at one of his Revolutionary Committees the issue of dependence on foreign workers was raised. Gadaffi apparently lost his rag, threw the microphone down, breaking it, saying, “There! If any of you can fix this, then we will expel the foreign workers!”

Retirement to Ireland suited Ben very well. Ben and Ann bought a large house in Whitegate, County Clare, near the western shore of Lough Derg. He made a new batch of friends at the local Church of Ireland in Scariff, and East Clare Heritage. On even years, Des and I would go there for Christmas, and we bonded well with our step-brother Nicholas who would come over from Canada. Ann’s daughter Alex would come over in the summers with her family, and just as he had been a wonderful father to us when we were young children, he turned out also to be a wonderful grandfather to Francisca and Cristina, Alex’s two daughters.

In April 1994, his neighbour Sampson’s daughter Fiona was abducted by Brendan O’Donnell, a local boy with a fascination for guns who had gone insane. Unlike the priest who had befriended him, and a young mother and child, Fiona survived the ordeal, but Whitegate was in a state of terror for many days before the Gardai finally caught up with Brendan. During these dark days Ben kept a shotgun under his bed. This disturbing experience seemed to erase much of liberality in Ben’s outlook – from then onwards he seemed to be all in favour of flogging and hanging!

Eventually, though, Ben found the enormous amount of work involved in running a large house with large grounds more than he was prepared to do, and he wanted to downsize. Ann was not in favour – if they were to downsize, then they would have to go to Canada. But Ben did not want to leave the land he loved. As a result, in 2000 they went their separate ways. Ann returned to Canada, and Ben moved to Birr.

Ben loved people dropping in on him without needing to knock, and being able to do the same with others. He loved keeping up with other peoples’ news, and sharing his own. Formal dinners were not his bag: he did not like dressing up. He preferred all socialisation to be casual, something I think of as characteristic of the Irish. He led an interesting life, travelling all over the world, and working in an incredible array of different environments, but Ireland was the only place he really considered home.

Ben did not really believe in an afterlife.

I do, and I fancy that, in the next world, Ben has already been allocated some task. I am guessing that it will be something unobtrusive. I am guessing that it will be something unglamorous – what I am sure of, though, is that whatever it is, it will be essential.

Christopher Oakley