My friend John: A life well-lived but just too short

January 3rd, 2019 7:05 AM

By Southern Star Team

Beara photographer John Eagle at home with one of his beloved trainsets.

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Marc O'Sullivan Vallig pays tribute to his friend, Beara's popular and colourful photographer John Eagle, who died last month after an illness

JOHN Eagle was a familiar figure throughout my childhood. His mother Dorothy bought a house at Formones, outside Eyeries, back in the 1960s, and the family were regular visitors from England.

Dorothy was great friends with my grandaunt Bella O’Connell. Bella was a Cumann na mBan veteran who looked like a Comanche and ran a pub in Eyeries; Dorothy was the quintessential English lady, and worked as the editor of the Illustrated Oxford Dictionary. I often wonder what they talked about. Shakespeare, probably.

You couldn’t miss John. He was 6’5”, and seemed always to be festooned with cameras. I didn’t really get to know him until after his mother died, and he moved to Ireland, in 1991. He bought a house a few miles from Eyeries, in Derrivore, Kilcatherine, a place he loved with all his heart. 

John did me all sorts of kindnesses. I didn’t have a car in those days, and he’d often call to the house in Eyeries to ask if I wanted a spin, to Castletownbere or Cork, or wherever. He did the same for any number of people. I always liked that about John – that he treated everybody with respect. He told me often that he was embarrassed about his great height; he couldn’t help but loom over the rest of us.

I liked also that he went to the considerable trouble of learning the intricacies of people’s names and nicknames, a potential minefield if you’re not attuned to local sensitivities in Beara. And he relished the place-names – Aughabrack, Derryvegill, Gortnabullaige – which can be murder to pronounce, even for those who learned Irish in school.

Some people have nice normal ambitions. To make money. To acquire property or whatever. Yada yada yada. John had far more imagination. He started off producing postcards and calendars of Beara. Then he wrote to Irish Lights and asked if they would mind him photographing their lighthouses. When they wrote back and gave him their blessing, he took it as permission to ride in their helicopters. And soon he embarked on the greatest adventure of his life, photographing every lighthouse in the country.

John could be painfully shy, but that adventure brought him out of himself more than anything. To get at the lighthouses, he contacted lighthouse keepers and helicopter pilots and boatmen all around the coast, and everywhere he went he made friends.

It took John 15 years to complete his mission. Along the way, he published two books on lighthouses through Collins Press, and established a website that made him known throughout the world. Later, with Tommy Hartnett, he ran lighthouse tours, bringing groups of enthusiasts on trips around the coast.

I was friends with John in so far as we nearly always adjourned somewhere for a coffee when we bumped into each other, in Beara or Cork. I mightn’t see him for ages, but we kind of kept up in our own haphazard fashion. He’d pop up in the unlikeliest places; I have this wonderful memory of him performing with Tim Goulding at the Half Moon Club back in the day, flapping his hands by his ears as he rapped in what sounded like Bengali. 

I left him deep in conversation with a beautiful girl who was dressed as an angel. Or an angel dressed as a beautiful girl, perhaps. Either way, he looked well pleased with himself.

I saw a lot more of John over the past few years, when he fell sick and was in and out of the Mercy Hospital. His diagnosis was terrifying – cancer of the oesophagus – but he handled it with bravery and grace. He underwent a major operation to remove the cancer last year, and it seemed to have gone well, but then it returned with a vengeance in September, and this time there was nothing to be done.

John spent some time in the Mercy in October, before it was agreed that he should return to St Joseph’s Hospital in Castletownbere. I felt privileged indeed to be the one who drove him home. His ‘getaway driver’, he called me. He couldn’t wait to get back to his beloved Beara. 

The journey was a hoot. John proposed to rob the bank in Ballincollig – after all, he had nothing to lose – but it turned out to be on the wrong side of the street, and we agreed that the danger of him being run over by a car while fleeing with the loot would be too great. So ignominious an end would hardly have been fitting for one who had lived so colourful a life.

John hoped his stay in St Joseph’s would be temporary, and that he could move home to Derrivore. But it was not to be. The last time we really spoke was on the phone a few weeks ago, and he sounded very weak. I called in to see him with his great friend Sue Swansborough last Wednesday, and it was obvious the end was near. I’d like to think his passing was peaceful.

John showed his paintings regularly at our Beara Arts Festival exhibitions down the years. I loved his landscapes; they were full of soul. Last year, he asked that we auction a painting of his in aid of Cancer Connect, the local initiative that helped John, and has helped so many others, to get to and from hospital appointments. That auction raised €615. 

One of the last acts of his life was to arrange, through his friend, fellow photographer Niall Duffy, for a sale of his 2019 calendars at SuperValu in Castletownbere last Friday. That raised another €2,000, again for Cancer Connect.

There’s a few lessons one could take from how John conducted his life. 

The first is: Follow your heart. 

The second is: Be kind.

John was blessed indeed to have had so much support at the end. The care he received from the staff at St Joseph’s Hospital was fantastic, as was the compassion shown him by his friends. It meant the world to John to know he was loved by so many.

I’m inclined to agree with Paul Durcan’s assertion that “There is no God – only his Mother.” But just now I’d love to think there was a heaven. A heaven with lighthouses, helicopters, trainsets, race cars and photographic gadgets. And a rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, of course. John and I talked a lot about Keith Richards’ solo albums on that last drive home to Beara. Talk is Cheap was John’s favourite, as it is mine.

John had an infectious, earth-shaking laugh, and I think it would have amused him no end to know he flew the coop on Mr Richards’ 75th birthday.

My condolences to Martin Eagle, John’s surviving brother, and to his many, many friends, in Beara and beyond. 

When he learned a few months ago that he was dying, John assured me he’d had a great life. He had that, and then some. And in truth, he made it so. 

I think everyone who knew him would agree the world was all the brighter for his presence. I only wish he’d had more time.


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