The Early Years in Portmarnock
“A smile costs nothing but gives much. It enriches those who receive, without making poorer those who give. It takes but a moment, yet the memory of a smile may last a lifetime.”
Growing up, the Duncan household was my harbour. We were shown the importance of close human bonds, respect and to find joy in the simplest things around us. My mother’s love of animals and nature fostered our appreciation of natural beauty, dad’s literary mind and storytelling enabled us to explore the world and see it as exciting and enjoyable. Mum became a foster parent for baby animals that were abandoned; Charlie the dove became our new sibling and an injured seagull was nursed back to health in our caravan during a holiday in Wexford. Our home always had a furry friend who became our constant companion and playmate. Cyril’s love of animals, evident in his adult years and on his travels, commenced with Sandy (a cross between an Alsatian and Labrador). We teased Sandy who had a jealous and possessive streak, by lavishing affection on Pamela’s pet rabbit, Rambo. We all found this amusing, particularly Pamela and Cyril who would imitate the madness of the situation by shrieks, leaping around and accentuating the chaos! As many of you know books was a big part of my dad's life. The large bookshelf in our front room accumulated many of the classics (Dickens, Bronte sisters, Tolstoy etc), as well as contemporary works and poetry. Our favourite bedtime story was not a tale from Dahl, CS Lewis or Enid Blyton; it was dad’s own story of the humorous antics of Moon man and Orange man. Moon man was thin and gaunt and his sidekick rotund and clumsy, who had a propensity for knocking over fruit stalls and slithering on his bottom. My father was a gifted story teller and adapted his voice and gestures to suit each character. How we waited each evening with anticipation for a fresh story about Moon man, his brave friends and his protagonist Orange man.
To the adult eye Portmarnock was a quiet seaside village, to a child the beach signified an exhilarating adventure where we became warring “goodies” and “baddies” and intrepid explorers of wondrous hidden worlds. One of my fondest memories was our weekly trips to” Rocky Beach” along Portmarnock coast where we used to play hide and seek amid the rocks and seaweed pools.
Cyril was nimble, elusive and at a very young age had acquired the rare gift of outwitting the seeker by moving from nook to cranny at a tremendous speed. This drove young Alan Quinn, Mark Grainger and Lurcan mad as Cyril was notorious for finding the best rocks to crouch under and then frightening the”bejaysus!” out of his friends! Cyril and Garmon shared a close bond and were often seen to be engrossed in games that their sisters were excluded from. Obviously, some degree of rivalry and squabbling between them was expected, but on the whole their connection was deep, with Cyril idolising his older brother and Garmon protecting and mentoring the younger. Cyril the prankster loved to amuse his older brother and torment his sisters much to the delight of the boys who shared many a giggle at their distress. We used to religiously count the days until “Sweet Day Friday” when Dad would arrive home with an assortment of fizzy delights from “refreshers”, “chewy laces” to “chomps”. After demolishing our share, we used to fight with whoever was guarding their hoard and tormenting the others. Cyril and Garmon tended to be demolishers, consuming their share in one go whereas Pam and I tended to maliciously taunt the boys by savouring each sweet. On one occasion, this resulted in an imprint of teeth marks on Garmon’s backside not from Sandy but his sister!
We attended St Marnock's National School where our first friendships and enemies were forged, and battles lost and won in the playground.
Cyril was indifferent to neatness and used to arrive at his class with his pants half way down his backside and his cardigan buttoned haphazardly. His attempts to pull up his pants failed dismally and Cyril’s crescent moon could often be observed during lessons and darting around the playground!
At different stages in 3rd year, Cyril and I were taught by Mrs. Blessing. Her classroom was known as Aladdin’s Cave: where the eye would alight upon Glitter Butterflies, ghoulish masks and crates of Lego. We eagerly awaited to be chosen as Mrs. Blessing’s helpers in art work, this meant the privilege of staying back to do more art and at the end of day, being awarded a jam doughnut. Mrs. Blessing’s enthusiasm and passion for art helped mould Cyril’s artistic mind and appreciation of nature which became evident years later in his wonderful travel photographs. We eagerly awaited The Annual Sports Day event of Egg Spoon Races, Three Legged runs, Relays and Sprints. Cyril of course being “Cyril Duracell Bunny” saw this as an opportunity to fool around and chuck the eggs at unsuspecting victims.
Cyril as a child still had his cheeky grin, mischievous twinkle in his eye, kind heart and a swarm of friends. People gravitated towards Cyril; he was the most popular Kid on the Block, not just with children his own age but with the local adults whom he delighted in amusing with his witty comments and playful manner. Cyril’s first childhood friends were Alan Quinn, Mark Grainger and Lurcan who were often around at The Duncan household consuming Cyril’s brew of coke and ice cream shakes. His cocktail-making talent commenced with his fizzy concoctions which resulted in spilt ice cream and impatient demands among his friends to be served first. At the age of 10, Cyril acquired a new and spectacular toy “the electronic organ” which became an added feature of the lounge. Cyril, Garmon and the lads delighted in imagining themselves as an 80s rock band and were deluded that they were extremely talented musicians! In later years, the focus shifted to Heavy Metal for Garmon, to electronic beat for Cyril and to indie for Pamela and I. The Duncan household vibrated with a medley of raucous sounds not to mention slamming doors and catcalling when one got in a tiff with the other.Cyril was quirky, a born comedian and loved amusing those around him with his naughty antics. Once while mum was painting the kitchen, he grabbed the paintbrush and drew two yellow splotches on his bum and mooned his friends, bowing dramatically at the end of the act!
Summer was always a magical time. Our neighbourhood had a lot of kids, and we spent all summer playing. We considered an entire two or three blocks to be our private playground, disregarding property lines and ignoring the possibility that anybody would object to us racing through their garden playing hide-and-seek or tip-the-can. We organized huge games, often with ten or fifteen kids playing at once. Then, the key to success was to find the “unfindable place”, whether that is a bush, shed or under a van and to remain as still as possible which in Cyril’s case was no mean feat. He couldn’t keep still for 10 seconds and found it a challenge to keep his “squeaks” and “quirky sounds” in! As we raced by, we would hear a large “bop” or “eeeee” from behind a van or wall and literally jump out of our skins!! Space hopping was a religion on my block when I was a kid. It was sacred knowledge to Cyril and Garmon: how to hop around the block at a tremendous speed while others struggled behind them. They taunted me with their prowess and I had to content myself to hopping on one spot and looking on enviously as they hopped from one end of the road to the other. Dad used to take us to the movies to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark” “Star Wars” and “The Never Ending Story” with 10 of us in the Red Ford Fiesta like squashed sardines in a tin. We also spent our summer holidays swimming in the Irish Life Pool in Dad’s work and slithering down the water slide in “Rainbow Rapids! Cautious by nature as I am, I always waited for Cyril to go down the slide first as he attempted acrobatic manoeuvres and fooled around. Knowing Cyril and his scheming mind, this was the wise and safe choice!
Summer holidays also meant a visit to Granny Duncan in Kilconnel. Behind her home was the sacred “Abbey” which also became our playground, since it was constructed of bridged walls, towers and secluded passages. Running breathlessly up the spiral staircase, tearing through the narrow tunnels, and in Cyril’s case getting infamously stuck on the Bridged Wall.
The little rascal managed to climb on to this wall and seemed unperturbed that he couldn’t get down. He sat in the middle, swinging his legs, grinning and watching the pandemonium below as Uncle Dermot arrived with a ladder to fetch him. He chatted amiably to us; unconcerned that he was 50 feet off the ground, sitting on a narrow ledge. Cyril’s fearlessness was evident at an early age; even then he attempted daredevil things the rest of us shied away from.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
The serene smile of Cyril’s that you are all very familiar with, in those days signalled mischief and crafty plans. He took great delight in expressing his disdain of the girls who were his sisters by finding all sorts of ways to tease them. For instance, on one occasion, enticing his “scaredy cat” sister to go on the roller coaster by waving a refresher bar in her face. There was no competition my fear of heights was bowled over by my sweet tooth. Regretfully, my taste buds did not get to relish the refresher bar once I was on the rollercoaster; the scoundrel shoved it in his mouth and opened it to show me the gooey mess! My tears and shrieks of “Let me off” with Cyril’s yells of “we are going downhill!” echoed throughout the Funfair. My terror quickly dissipated to rage when I noticed the audience of laughing and sneering kids below pointing at Cyril who was imitating my looks of horror by doing his “monkey face”. He leapt out of the cart, called me a “coconut” and bowed solemnly to his audience which lent more humour to the situation. Cyril Duracell Bunny was a lover of practical jokes: attributes that accompanied him into adolescence and beyond. Cyril’s humour was one of the many traits that let me know, now and then, that my brother was special, better and more fun than other people’s brothers. When he gets that look on his face, I always have to wonder what he is up to. I am sure you have all experienced this look!
“Parents are the unsung heroes of every person that has ever done anything great. If a person is great, remember that greatness is not achieved in a vacuum. There were people who sowed the seeds of greatness.”
Cyril shared a deep attachment with mum. His appreciation of worldly beauty, humanity and animals was nurtured by his mother. Mother’s gentle Thai nature brought a unique perspective that taught Cyril how to be a loving, sensitive, patient and idealistic young man. These qualities stayed with him in adulthood and were evident in his ability to enrich the lives of those that came into contact with him. Cyril would lounge around in his navy dressing gown and wonder in and out of the Kitchen sharing a joke or a piece of “Cyril wisdom” with his Mother whom he fondly called “Lekkie”. He would proudly speak about mum’s delicious Thai curries, seafood dishes and her infamous “Pavlova” to “the lads”. On our birthdays Mum cooked this food for us and we got the opportunity to share her delightful culinary talent with our friends. A decade later, while living in Thailand Cyril picked up the language and would converse with mum in Thai with the odd English word thrown in. He was extremely proud of his Thai roots and curious about his heritage, his main reason for his travels around Thailand and Asia. Cyril’s relationship with dad was like a pint of Guinness - familiar, warm and refreshing. The two would often sit watching telly, with Cyril teasing dad mercilessly and dad feigning annoyance but struggling to contain the laughter. Cyril’s ability to coin quirky sayings and see the good in people around him was acquired from dad. Cyril’s humour and capacity for friendship is a Duncan trait apparent in both Dad and Granny. All three have a close circle of friends, an ability to spin a yarn and thaw the coldest hearts with their warmth and wit. They are extremely empathetic people, always the first to lend an ear to a distressed friend and a helping hand to those in need.
Christmas time meant the arrival of Granny Duncan, the incessant chatterbox, story teller and fantasist. Her diminutive frame would sit perched on the couch like a bird of paradise hidden among layers of woollen cardigans and jumpers. Her little eye would crinkle at the corners as she eagerly perused the latest bonk buster and romance. This provided fodder for her recounts of how her fine legs and even finer intellect caught the affections of many handsome men in Galway. Granny Duncan enjoyed recounting tales about her life as a Galwegian who networked and fluttered amongst the West of Ireland elite. Cyril would listen to Granny with a patient ear and a devious mind, while fuelling her imagination with “yes you have the brains of Einstein, looks of Marilyn Monroe and wit of Tommy Tiernan”! Granny would nod in approval at Cyril’s flattery and the two could often be observed sipping tea and smiling enthusiastically as her stories became more outrageous. Indeed, Cyril and Granny Duncan shared a deep bond and similar traits: a radiant smile and charisma that drew those around them in to their exquisite worlds. Although, Kilconnel is part of our childhood, Galway city became a feature of our adolescence and adult hood. Many a weekend was spent “gargling” in Galway town whilst visiting Granny Duncan. She adored her 7 Grandchildren and never forgot birthdays - the birthday card written in a flamboyant and illegible hand with money, would arrive on each of our birthdays without fail. Granny took great pride in her appearance. Every day she would apply her Yardley powder and trademark painted red lips. She was Irish to the core; protective of her brood, had the gift of the gab and wit to match! Granny Duncan sadly passed away 3 weeks after Cyril. Her last wish was granted to never spend a Christmas away from the Duncan household; it would have broken her heart. As Cyril said “Granny, Christmas is never the same without you.”
Cyril’s ability to form deep and significant relationships with friends was notable as a child and continued throughout his life. The same friends were with him throughout his secondary years in Portmarnock Community School and beyond, with new additions Kevin Tighe, Stewart McCormack, Neil Collins and Richie Power.
Cyril and the lads trudged up the road to school on a daily basis, elaborating on their plans for the weekend or discussing the merits and pitfalls of the latest gossip in school. Once when it was raining Monsoon-Irish style, Cyril’s school bag got soaked and he arrived at his lesson, dripping wet and creating puddles on route to his seat! He whipped out drenched book after book, secretly enjoying the incredulous look of the teacher and delighting in the welcome distraction to the lesson. Cyril had a propensity to see the humour in every situation but also to laugh at himself and the chaos he sometimes created! For instance, while reclining in his seat and nodding off during a particular lesson, the teacher nearly tripped over his stretched leg and snarled “You’re like a sack of spuds!” Whereas another person would be indignant, Cyril was delighted to be seen as the class joker. His unmistakable kindness and compassion was shown towards a particular teacher who had cancer and later to his friend Gerry.
Cyril and his friends were obsessed with their commodore 64s and used to lock themselves in the front room and spend an age battling against each other on the screen. Their playful bickering and competitiveness along with their yells of “yessss” “loser” “ha got you” could be heard in the front room. During adolescence, once-close siblings may temporarily weaken their ties as they exert their individuality with Garmon and Cyril, this was never the case. They shared friends and moved in the same social circle. Cyril and Garmon’s love of music and appreciation of all genres took root in our teenage years in the 1990s. The homegrown Indie scene to come from the nineties was 'Baggy jeans,' with so-called 'Manchester' bands including the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. 1990s music was interjected with an array of dance music stemming from the rave scene and included the likes of The Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk. Cyril loved both types, he found electronic dance uplifting in tempo to his vibrant spirit, the words and sounds of Indie he found inspiring. My brothers revelled in playing their music at full volume whilst tearing through the streets of Portmarnock and Malahide in Dad’s car. When the car was spotted people got confused on who the driver was; as both boys as teenagers were similar in looks and mannerisms.
Cyril and Pamela shared a love of humorous, questioning and peculiar films. They would sit late at night, with a can of beer, enjoying each other’s company and discussing the shortfalls of contemporary films. One of Cyril’s favourite films was Amélie directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starring Audrey Tautou. Amelie romantically daydreams a life of love and beauty and marvels at life's ironies. Quote from Amelie:” I like to look for things no one else catches. I hate the way nobody ever looks at the road in old movies." Cyril and I loved twisting the English language into a humorous vocabulary unique to us. We shared many giggles at our bizarre and quirky words. Cyril applied chocolate to objects he considered cute and squeezable. For example, a cool pint of bud is “chocolate” after a hard day’s work and a bean bag is “chocolate” on a Saturday morning. Other notorious words included: ”Coconut” and “Round”. Coconut he applied to anything that was eccentric and wacky like a person’s head! Cyril would creep up on an unsuspecting victim and put his two hands on their head and pretend to crack an egg open while exclaiming, “Bop Bop!! Cyril had a fascination with “round” objects and “roundness” was something he loved to point out and discuss at random!
Cyril and Kevin Tighe started to work in Gibneys as teenagers, the much loved haunt of the local Portmarnock and Malahide posse. Everyone from 17 upwards flirted, gossiped and downed pints in the beer garden and video bar. Cyril was well loved amongst the Gibneys staff and locals. He had an extraordinary empathy and ability to win people of varying personalities over. From extrovert to introvert, quirky to normal, young to old, people gravitated towards Cyril. We used to socialise in the local night club Tamangoes, full of the “jingly janglys of the projects”! We shared many giggles and made caustic comments about the nightclub, the people who frequented it and the overall gaudy décor. In his early 20s, Cyril secured a job as barman in Ireland’s most prestigious nightclub, the POD. Located in an old train station, the Pod is one of Dublin’s best known clubs where many of the world’s top DJs have played and is frequented by Irish celebs. Indeed, after the European Music Awards in Dublin in 1999, Cyril got to meet Kat Deeley and serve some of the musicians that played during the event.
Cyril’s love of foreign lands was ignited in 1999 when the family accompanied Dad on the annual Blazing Saddles Trip to Thailand, mum’s birth country.
For the first time we met our Grandmother, uncle and cousins and sampled the divine food, immersed ourselves in the languid way of Buddhist life and witnessed some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Cyril and I loved seafood and ate jumbo prawns soaked in chilli sauce. We rode elephants and paid a visit to my worst phobia – a 12 foot coiled white baby anaconda. The snake keeper draped the snake around Cyril’s shoulders and Cyril grabbed its face and thrust it at me. One look at its flickering tongue, glassy eyes and scaled body sent me shrieking through the village much to the amusement of the other Blazing Saddles members. Reader you probably have distinguished a difference in character between Cyril and I: my brother was fearless and Brave, his sister squeamish and cowardly. Cyril took a keen interest in the intricate and beautiful architecture of the Buddhist Temples and the serenity of the monks. The locals looked at him as if he was important and it is incredible how a simple smile from Cyril could lift the spirit instantaneously. One can spend a lifetime trying to acquire what Cyril had: an ability to treat everyone as an equal, to see the good in humanity and make those in his presence feel joyful and light hearted.
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Cyril loved things that were down to earth and substantial such as the warmth of close friendships, a pint and a good joke. He relished excitement and adventure and continuously sought out both. It was his dream to teach kids and live in Thailand. His sunny nature, patience and winning smile won over his Thai class who affectionately called him “Teacher Cereal” as they found it difficult to pronounce Cyril. Children’s natural spontaneity and sense of mischief would have appealed to Cyril’s sunny disposition. The opportunity to be silly with songs, stories and paint would have been too much to resist. His fun filled lessons were much sought after by the pupils in his school. He was named “Teacher of the Year” in 2007.
The last time I saw Cyril was at my wedding in April, he arrived at the airport with jovial cheer, teasing me mercilessly that I would either trip walking up the aisle or knock things over at the reception. The next day he practiced his Church Reading with a theatrical flair, bowing solemnly at the end of each recital. I was very stressed coming up to the big day and on many occasion would snap at any poor soul in my presence, Cyril would say,” You shouldn’t do that, if you laugh instead of getting angry you will feel less stressed.” A Cyril anecdote of wisdom which showed his positive philosophy on life. Cyril was an incredibly caring brother, son and friend. He was a great friend to all who knew him and will be missed beyond words. Cyril, we love you very much and not a day will go by that we don’t think of your beautiful smile first thing in the morning and last thing at night. You have acquired wisdom, love and joy and these traits will remain in our hearts and minds for all eternity.
Love you forever, Genevieve.
© Cyril Duncan
Siam Children's Foundation