TWENTY years have passed since Donegal’s first citizen Charlie Bennett died suddenly while taking part in a St Patrick’s Day Parade in Brooklyn, New York.
As Cathaoirleach, Councillor Bennett led the official party from Donegal County Council on the St Patrick’s Day visit to the United States. The group had taken part in celebrations in Philadelphia on Sunday, March 11, 2001, while Charlie led the Donegal Association contingent in the official St Patrick’s Day parade in New York.
He was joined in New York by his wife Marian while their two children Cathal and Sinéad remained at home. The Ardara native was 67-years-old.
Speaking to the Donegal News, Sinéad said it was hard to believe that twenty years have passed since her father’s untimely death.
“My mum broke the news by phone to my brother Cathal and I separately that Sunday night around 8.30pm. I was in Galway for St. Patrick’s weekend with friends including Fiona McBrearty from Ardara when the call came through.
“Cathal was at home in Ardara and was blind sided by the great Ann Byrne into going up to my Aunty Mena’s house where people had gathered for her 60th birthday bash, knowing that he’d be surrounded by family once they broke the news. The fact that Daddy’s family were gathering at home in Ardara for Mena’s birthday celebration as the news broke was poignant in itself,” she recalled.
“The following day, my aunts, uncles, cousins and friends gathered in the house as we waited to get news on when we might get my father home from New York. I remember hearing reports of Daddy’s death on the radio and could not reconcile it,” she added.
On Sunday 18th March, 2001, Charlie and Marian Bennett had gone to St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for mass before heading out to Brooklyn to take part in a St. Patrick’s parade in honour of the late Willie Joe Cunningham (former Donegal Person of the Year).
“Not long into the parade, someone turned to mum, who was walking with Mike McGovern, to say that Dad was complaining of cramps and had stepped out. She spotted him on the side of the street, hands on the bonnet of a car and made her way over to him. A passer by noticed what was happening and helped her to get him to the curb before calling an ambulance. I often wonder what was going through his mind in those last few minutes before he lost consciousness and we take a lot of comfort from knowing that Mum’s face was the last that he saw.
“The ambulance quickly rushed Daddy to the Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn and into an emergency room whilst Mum was ushered to a ‘Quiet Room’. Shortly afterwards, a doctor entered the room and simply handed Mum Dad’s wedding ring and told her he didn’t make it, marking the end of their 42 year marriage,” she said.
As chairman of the Donegal County Council, Charlie was there in an official capacity to lead the Donegal contingent in parades in Philadelphia, Manhattan and lastly in Brooklyn where he died. This meant that people from Donegal and Ardara who lived there and who had also travelled for the occasion, were gathered quickly to support Marian and each other as the news filtered through to their hotel where many of their friends were staying.
“Mum’s sisters and brother, nieces and nephews who lived in NJ and Philly, were able to get there quickly also, this was a true blessing. I believe one of greatest things about Irish culture is the way that we deal with death.
“The evening of Dad’s death, friends gathered in their hotel room to support my Mum and each other through story telling, prayer and song. Billy Maxwell, Dad’s lifelong friend sang the Homes of Donegal. My heart swells with pride and emotion for Donegal and Donegal people when I think of this scene,” she said.
Through the support from Donegal County Council, Marian Bennett was able to make the lonely journey home with her late husband from JFK airport the next day and arrive in Shannon airport on Tuesday 20th March.
“The things that come to mind now when I think about Dad is his relentless energy and positivity. He was always on the go with work, fundraising for people and causes, community projects, going to GAA matches or playing golf. Through the 80s and early 90s, I remember there were always permanent markers, heavy paper and fundraising tickets at hand in our house.
“He was a kind and compassionate soul whose greatest loves were people, music, sport, animals and many of my happiest memories are with him and my brother Cathal on his Gallagher’s Bakery run around South West Donegal delivering bread to peoples homes. He had a great sense of humour and peppered every day with plenty of wit. There was no such thing as leaving a standard note in our house; ‘ Turn off the immersion’ was usually followed with a one liner or joke to lighten the instruction.
“His way with people was a gift and he had a great understanding of humanity and the impact of a positive community environment on peoples lives. It was only after his death upon reading the tributes that poured in from around Donegal and later in life did I fully realise the skilled leader that he was.
“He was a man who loved public life because of his love of people and the value that he placed on community. I can honestly say that I never heard him say a negative word about anyone.
“His love of Donegal, Ardara and the GAA lured him home from London in the 1950s and he absolutely embraced everything about community life from that point forward across community, charity fundraising, sport and eventually politics when he was co-opted to the Donegal County Council after his friend Connell Boyle also passed suddenly. I remember thinking at the time that this was a strange venture as Dad was the most apolitical person I knew who made no distinction between peoples’ creed, colour or background.
“There have been many accolades bestowed on him over the years but we take particular comfort in the ‘This is Your Life’ Night put together by the parish council in 2001 just weeks before his death. To have your life narrated and your contributions recognised by family, friends and colleagues over several hours would have been one of the highlights of his life and to his own sisters and brothers too. I hope this was a comfort to everyone involved,” she said.
A past recipient of the Donegal Person of the Year Award, Charlie Bennett was first co-opted on to Donegal County Council on June 30, 1997, to fill the casual vacancy which arose from the death of Cllr Connell Boyle. He served on the General Council of County Councils Committee and the Islands Committee. He was also a member of the Glenties Electoral Area Committee and the General Purposes Committee of Donegal County Council.
Cllr Bennett was re-elected in his own right to the Council following the local elections in June 1999, and was selected as Cathaoirleach of Donegal County Council at the Annual General Meeting held in June 2000.