Usually when writing a eulogy or saying a few words at a memorial you
find yourself trying to remember. With Eugene I found myself trying to
forget. Those moments of terror. Nightmares which have refused to go
away. With Eugene everything was different. Looking back it is
something of a puzzle as to why Eugene had any friends, let alone so
Some of the days I try to forget are very personal. However they make it possible to identify those who knew him well by their nods of quiet agreement.
Liturgy and ritual were all important to Eugene. It was not enough to just have bread and wine. It had to be our own bread and wine. In the midst of a million other demands time had to be found to bake bread for Eugene. Of course the nostalgic aroma of fresh bread with all those images of a loaf of bread hanging on a nail in some Arabic souk instead of some mundane boring sign was exactly what Eugene wanted. The bread was the signifier. Fermenting the wine took a little longer. Somewhere lost in my cellar I think there is still one last bottle of Eugene’s eucharistic wine. It never won any gold medals, but on the other hand it never poisoned anyone. I would have brought the bottle along, but I thought that most people would probably prefer to forget.
Scent for Eugene meant scent. At the right liturgical moment Eugene wanted the whole church to be filled with aroma. My brother Clive was a pharmacist and he thought he could fulfil the prescription. I was of course running late for the baptism. One of Brian’s children, but now I have forgotten insignificant details like which one. It is the liturgy which remains in your mind. I raced into the church and ran to the sacristy where everyone was waiting for me. Half way down the aisle I felt dampness running down my trousers. I knew exactly what had happened. The cap had come off the vial of perfume. It did indeed fill the whole of the church. It went further and filled every space I went into for the next few weeks. No amount of water would wash me clean and the only choice was to send the trousers to the tip. I fondly imagined some landfill which smelt wonderful for weeks to the delight of all the passing seagulls.
I also keep trying to forget that moment at Mangere Airport when we farewelled Eugene.
The 747 taxied out. The Air NZ staff relaxed after the confusion when they had a wheelchair ready for this close-to-dying person who got carried in shoulder high like some football hero. We all went upstairs for a stiff brandy at the sight of Eugene flying away. The 747 lined up for take off. The jets rose to screaming pitch, but then they died. The 747 began taxiing in again. We all knew. It had to be Eugene. We all half suspected that Eugene was going to die before he got to Ireland. At every stop-over we had stationed friends to look after him but we were not prepared for this. We now all know it was just a spark plug. What we will never know is why God chose this particular plane.
All this was like the time when Eugene became progressively paralysed. We watched him fail until it seemed his eyelids would give one last flicker. But no. He slowly came back to life.
The doctors who did not know Eugene as well as the rest of us just assumed he would die and they did terrible things to him. It was after that that he came to live with me to recuperate. He actually lived in my house before I did because at that time I was happily living in the boatshed and I only needed a house for entertainment value. If I needed time on my own I only needed to pinch his jandals so that he could not get down my stepladder.
Eugene spent a lot of time singing in my sauna to get his larynx to work again. If I had taken more time to do the same I could probably speak more clearly today. He also spent a lot of time walking up and down Karaka Bay reciting poetry and became known as the Bard of the Bay. Ian Scott mistakenly invited him to say grace for one of our hangis, and then realised what a motley crowd of irreligious people were coming. “Please be brief.” he pleaded. “Nothing could be briefer than Ian’s shorts” began Eugene, before launching into a Dylan Thomas exposition of everyone who lived at the Bay. Nothing had escaped his eye. The beach was subdued for weeks.
Another time he spent six months recuperating in Coromandel. It was long enough for him to become friends with every potter, artist, and recluse in the district. Eugene returned to Auckland and Karaka Bay. “Can you help me with an exhibition?” he pleaded. I was too busy, but then discovered he had only allowed a week to get it all together. No one else was going to do it in that time. Joe Farrant and a crowd of students worked with me to build a bamboo cathedral inside the Chapel opposite the Town Hall. All of Eugene’s Coromandel friends came, along with monks who spent a week chanting, and enough candles to set off every smoke alarm in the district. That was more than twenty years ago and every year since then “The Coromandel Group” have held an Easter exhibition with a pot-luck dinner to match his culinary skills. At every Karaka Bay party since then we have erected the parachute which was the culmination of Rudolf Schwartz’s Cathedral of Light and remembered that first Ikon exhibition.
I could go on for Eugene was not only a great story-teller but also a great generator of stories. I am sure that someone else will do more justice than me in explaining what happened to the “Young couple from Aberystwyth, who tried to make love with what they kissed with….” or how some Irish moonshine got through customs inside what looked very like a duty-free bottle of Vat ‘69.
Let me end by remembering the time I went to Cork to visit Eugene’s grave. Paul Ramsey took me on a tour of Eugene’s Cork. Where he went to school and where he taught. Places they shared as they were growing up. Then I went out to the Hermitage to while the night away with his brother Tommy and Tess. One of his sisters, a Moynihan, came over to join us. They remembered other visitors from New Zealand. Ruth Millar, Tony Molloy, Hugh and Eugenie, Dave and Glenys. Tom and Tess were of course named after Tom and Tess, and the locals were surprised to find that Tess was my god-daughter.
Eugene had an enormous impact on all our lives in both sweeping and intimate ways.
Whenever I look north from brilliant sunshine at Karaka Bay to see dense black thunder clouds gathering over Takapuna beach I still surmise that Eugene must have decided to go to Takapuna for a swim, and that God must have noticed.
Thoughts at a memorial gathering at Newman Hall 20 years after Eugene's death.
10 August 2008
Kevin Toomey at Eugene's 2008 Memorial