Tuesday 17 September 2019

Sadness in the town he loved so well as Denis Collins laid to rest

The late Denis Collins, at the opening of an exhibition in January
The late Denis Collins, at the opening of an exhibition in January
Denis Collins enjoying the music at the official opening of the Creative Hub in Wexford last year
Denis Collins with his old friend Michael O’Byrne after they’d worked all night preparing for the 1988 St Patrick’s Day Parade in Wexford

Maria Pepper

Wexford has been shocked and saddened by the sudden death last Wednesday of well-known art gallery owner, poet and activist Denis Collins at the age of 58 years.

His unexpected passing is deeply regretted in the town that he loved but particularly within the arts and Tidy Towns communities in which he was active for many years.

Denis, of St. Brendan's, Waterloo Road, was educated at the CBS secondary school and studied Philosophy and English at UCD. He was a former board member and artistic Director of Wexford Arts Centre and more recently, he operated art galleries in Rowe Street and Rosslare Strand.

Apart from being a life-long promoter of the arts and a mentor to artists, writers and musicians, Denis was a social and political activist who was involved in many campaigns down through the years from the Anti-Nuclear Protests in Carnesore and the Anti-Apartheid Movement to working to have Wexford designated as a Fair Trade town.

When it came to the environment, he had a passionate hands-approach, serving for a number of years as chairman of Wexford Tidy Towns Committee and continuing his active involvement in the organisation, turning up to take part in litter picks, including a major clean-up at the Rocks in Maudlintown recently.

At the funeral, his family asked that instead of flowers, mourners would give donations to Wexford Tidy Towns and among the symbols of his life brought to the altar were his Tidy Towns yellow jacket and the new anti-racism badge which the family found in his pocket after his belongings were returned to them by Wexford General Hospital where he died after becoming ill at home.

In a practical tribute that he surely would have loved, one Tidy Towns volunteer litter-picked the route from Mackens Funeral Home via Waterloo Road to Rowe Street Church on the evening before the funeral.

A close friend from his early days, bought a waistcoat to wear to the church - waistcoats, sandals and long hair were trademarks in Denis's unique sartorial style.

A painting by the artist Paddy Darigan, of his famous red sandals, was also among the items brought to the altar by family members and friends, along with the tin whistle or 'thistle' that he played, a poetry book and a surviving Smarties easter egg, representing his love of sweets.

Fr. James Cullen who celebrated the funeral Mass in Rowe Street Church with Fr. Aquino of the Franciscan Friary where Denis served as an altar boy, said the Wexfordman's death had brought 'a huge sense of loss', especially because it wasn't expected.

His brother Pat who is County Secretary with Wexford County Council, delivered a eulogy at the start of the funeral Mass, remarking to much laughter, that he felt he should begin by pointing out the fire exits - many people could recall Denis's comedic way of delivering the fire drill at the start of shows in the Arts Centre many years ago.

Pat said Denis lived a very full life filled with memories. He meant a lot to a lot of people and he mentored and supported many people in their artistic and political lives.

He thanked everyone for their support following Denis's death. Sometimes, people don't know what to say when someone dies but it is their presence that matters. 'Just the fact that you are here is a fantastic support for the family', said Pat.

He said Denis loved playing the tin whistle and had a great knowledge of traditional music. He was always learning a new tune. The last one he was practising before he died was the four-part jig 'A Lark in the Morning'.

Denis and Pat played music every week with P.J. Murphy and Niall McGuigan, the venue alternating between each other's homes. 'We joked and we had a lot of laughs. We used to finish up around midnight but it was difficult to get Denis to leave. He had a tenuous relationship with time', said Pat, to knowing laughter.

His good friends James and Alice McIntyre played played beautiful traditional music during the Mass.

Growing up, the Collins brothers and other boys from the neighbourhood served as altar boys in the Franciscan Friary Church where they had a 'fantastic time', according to Pat.

Michelle Dooley Mahon posted a photograph of altar servers from that time and Denis is easily recognisable as his hair was a giveaway, even then.

Pat said that when they were young, they talked and talked about everything from politics to music, books and films and they really never stopped talking. They also played a lot of scrabble.

Denis was involved in the Carnesore Anti-Nuclear Campaign in the 1970's and he gave his time to many other environmental, social and political campaigns over the years. He talked but he also did something about it, Pat said.

Having grown up in Wexford, they all loved the town and Denis knew every inch and corner of it. Even while studying in UCD, he would 'thumb' a lift home in the evening to get back to Wexford to be part of everything that was happening.

He loved poetry: reading , writing and reciting it. He hosted a poetry club and he edited and published anthologies of poetry and women's writing. He loved music and attended hundreds of gigs, the most recent being Steeleye Span in Waterford and Jim Paige in Dublin. He loved Woody Guthrie, the musical champion of the poor and disenfranchised and Pete Seeger whom he went to see in Washington for his 80th birthday concert. He had a tape in his car of a Pete Seeger concert from the 1950's.

Denis had an interest in his family history and kept up with events involving the extended family at home and abroad. He had a great relationship with his nieces and nephews, taking them on walking trips around the town and also car journeys, famously getting them to sing Jingle Bells on the way home from Tramore one day in the middle of August.

Pat said Denis lived in Waterloo Road with his mother Maeve and they had a very close and loving relationship. They went on trips together, he took her to doctor's appointments and to Mass in the Friary. Maeve loved conversation as much as he did and she will miss him the most, said Pat.

Pat thanked the staff of Wexford General Hospital for their efforts in trying to resuscitate Denis following his admission. 'They did everything they could. Nobody can say they didn't try', he said.

He quoted the words of the Tom Petty song Wildflowers: 'You belong among the wildflowers; You belong in a boat out at sea; Sail away, drift off the hours; You belong somewhere you feel free.'

Fr. Cullen said that while Denis studied Philosophy in UCD, he often said that he learned more about the subject during the lifts home to Wexford than he did in the lecture hall in college.

'He had a great love of art and was a gifted poet. He loved to meet people and always had time for them. He was much loved and will be sorely missed. He was always willing to lend a helping hand in time of need. At the drop of a hat, he was always ready to support anyone in need', said Fr. Cullen.

'He was a wonderful man who will be remembered by all who knew him for his goodness, his uniqueness and his love', he said.

Denis was laid to rest on Friday last with his late father Denis and sister Bridget in St. Ibar's Cemetery, Crosstown.

He is survived by his beloved mother Maeve; his brothers Pat and Liam; his sister Triona; his sisters-in-law Noreen and Louise; his brother-in-law Paul; his nieces and nephews and his extended family and many friends.

Wexford Arts Centre paid tribute to Denis as a champion of the arts and said he will be greatly missed in the community. As a mark of respect the lights in the gallery of the centre were dimmed from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the day of his funeral.

Wexford People

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