Maureen's Eulogy

Eulogy for Rita Colette Adams April 24, 2014
Our mother Rita Adams lived a full life, filled with love, affection, and laughter. She was born in Belfast Ireland in 1933 and raised by two remarkably strong women, her mother Josephine, and her Aunt Sarah – or Cissy as she was fondly known. Her mother worked to support the family and her Aunt Cissy raised the three children – Rita, her brother Seán, and her sister Maureen who died of a childhood illness. Aunt Cissy loved the children as if they were her own and they were blessed to have had two devoted mothers.

Rita also came from a large tight knit family – 8 aunts and uncles and many cousins who lived on the same street or just around the corner from one another. She was particularly close to her Uncle Sonny who like her brother Seán, and her cousin Ray are remarkably funny with exquisite timing. Her face always hurt from laughing from being around any one of the three of them. She excelled at school and unlike most of her children and grandchildren was a whiz at math. She was also a great writer and throughout our lives was a gifted editor on many of the projects we were working on.

She met my dad, Seán Patrick when she was 15 years old. She was an Irish dancer, and an avid cyclist, touring around the beautiful Irish countryside in the 1940’s and 1950’s with my dad. They were committed youth hostellers and opened and closed youth hostels across the north of Ireland each season. When my dad passed away 14 years ago, my own family took a trip to Ireland, staying in as many of the youth hostels that my parents had stayed in when they were teenagers. It created a very strong connection to a part of their lives that was so important to them. The two of them had a sense of adventure and a love of nature and the outdoors. I know when they came to Canada in 1953 that it was largely to try to build a better life than the one they would have had in Ireland because of the economic challenges and discrimination they faced as Irish Catholics. But I also know it was because of their wonderful sense of adventure.

My mom travelled by ship from Cork to New York City with my Aunt Rita when she was just 20 years old. And the two Seáns met them there that October. They settled in East York and she first worked selling paint at Eaton’s, and then was employed at Red Rose Tea. She sent boxes of tea home to her mother who had never used or maybe even seen teabags before, so she cut them open and put the loose tea into her tea pot!

My mom was married in 1954 and I was born in 1955. She had 4 children by the time she was thirty. There were a group of young Irish people who immigrated to Canada at the same time as she and my dad did and they socialized and raised their families together. There were sing - alongs on a Saturday night – music from the old country - and all of the kids would sit on the stairs listening to the laughter and the fun and of course sneak down to grab something sweet! These families – the Miskimmins, the Kavanaghs, the Shorts and of course my Uncle Frank, Jimmy Magin, and Tommy Hesketh (who is here today) surrounded us with a strong sense of our Irish identity and culture and stayed closely connected for many many years. She was very fond of all of them and of all of their children. And later in her life she developed a new community of great Irish friends through her involvement with the Emerald Isle Seniors Society.

She was a devoted mother to her four children, encouraging them in all aspects of their lives, as students, athletes, professionals and parents. She loved us like crazy and expressed that love through loads of physical affection – never too many kisses or hugs she would say. But she also had a very broad definition of family and at one time there were seven of us living together – the four children, her cousin Ray and her nieces Maura and Brenda. And even though her cousin Geraldine’s daughter Marion never lived with us, she always had a special place in Rita’s heart. Her house was also open to all of our friends and she had a legendary Christmas Eve party every year.  She was like a mother to everyone – embracing and welcoming and an amazing listener. Our friends nicknamed her Reet-Mama in recognition of the nurturing, support, and interest she had in all of them.

We didn’t have a lot of money but we never wanted for anything.  I never knew quite how she did it but she bought me my first leather skirt, complete with lime green fish net stockings and my sister Dianne got a “wet look” red coat that was her pride and joy. She found money for Frank’s hockey equipment and games, and travelled to Buffalo to buy a special football helmet for my brother Seán. There was also always a priority on summer vacations and we camped and cottaged all throughout our childhood. There are wonderful memories of those trips and adventures, including singing around the campfire, swimming from dawn to dusk, motor boat rides across the lake and stargazing after sunset.

Rita loved to travel and she had so many trips with her kids and grandkids, with Ray, her brother Seán and his wife Marlene, and friends and family from Ireland. I was counting the number of times that just she and I went on trips together and there were almost 20. They were mostly south to get away from the winter and to give her a break from raising the kids but they were always fun filled adventures. She loved the Blue Jays, so the trips to Florida included going to the Blue Jays training camp in Dunedin. I knew nothing about baseball but it didn’t matter – she loved it and her excitement carried the day. The same was true in Cuba, where we explored Havana and where we were able to get tickets to a National Cuban Baseball championship game. She was in heaven!

Two of our favourite trips were the first one and the last one. The first one was when I was I was 20. We spent a week in Mexico City, and then took a cross country bus ride to spend a second week at the ocean. She loved Mexico City- the architecture, the ancient civilization, the beautiful public parks, and the art galleries. It was also there that we both developed our lifelong love of Margaritas!

And our last trip to Paris and Florence for her 70th Birthday was a fabulous trip for both of us. We didn’t have much language capacity in either French or Italian so we spent a lot of time getting lost and giggling about it. She loved all of the usual beautiful things about those two cities – the food, the art, the wine, the great churches, the long walks, the Eiffel Tower. But what she loved most was the music. In the evenings we would always find small beautiful chapels where musicians played classical music – she simply loved it. And in Florence she was able to attend mass in a chapel built in 1450. The mass was in Latin and this was very special for her. When I turned to look at her when a particularly beautiful song was sung, tears were streaming down her face. It was pure happiness.

But I wouldn’t want you to think that her only trips were with me. She had glorious trips with my dad, all of my siblings, Ray, and her brother, across Canada and the USA, to Florida, Cuba, Mexico, Cape Breton, Newfoundland, and of course to Ireland. Sometimes you couldn’t keep up with where she was going and when she would be back! And in Ireland she developed many – too numerous to count- special relationships with her cousins, nieces and nephews and their children. Each one was equally important to her.

My mother loved music and she was always singing. I can’t honestly remember a time when she wasn’t. Of course she sang in her church choir, and on Sunday afternoons we always listened to Irish rebel music, and the music of her era- Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole. And she embraced the music of her children’s generation – Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Sinéad O’Connor and KD Lang. Music and signing was joyous, celebratory and a cure for everything – especially colicky babies, of which I had two!  And of course, with singing comes dancing and Rita also loved to dance. If the mood struck her, she would have a little twirl in the kitchen, on the street, or at concerts! She loved musical theatre and went to all of the big productions that came to town and she loved them all. She particularly enjoyed Riverdance, the Soweto Gospel Choir and our house on a Friday evening - where my partner Dan and his brother Steve and our friends Dan and Rod played guitar and sang well into the morning hours. She also was a member of the Emerald Isle Seniors Choir who are here today and will be singing a song shortly. And even though she had a number of debilitating strokes, she still hummed along to songs and danced, even though she was in a wheelchair.

Rita was also a community activist committed to social justice issues. It started in Canada with her political involvement during election campaigns. We grew up in Stephen Lewis’ riding and she and my dad worked on his campaigns and all of the other NDP members who followed Stephen. She also did volunteer work at her church for many years and in the community – at a distress centre, in a women’s shelter and on campaigns for universal daycare, the environment, Latin American issues and of course her work with the Emerald Isle Seniors. But her deepest level of community engagement was as an Irish Republican working on Irish unity issues. It was very hard work in the beginning to bring awareness on this to Canada but she was relentless. My brother Seán will talk more about that part of her activism but two of my proudest moments were when she pushed Irish unity to the top of the agenda at the International Women’s day organizing committee here in Toronto. The second is when she introduced her nephew Gerry Adams at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto. She spoke loudly and proudly at the event where he was first allowed to speak in Canada about ending the British occupation of Ireland. My heart burst with pride to see her on that stage.

But by far her greatest joy was her grandchildren. She was their number one fan. Whatever activities they got involved in from hockey and soccer, to Irish dancing and learning the Irish language she was always there cheering them on. When my own girls were dancing, she would automatically start moving her own feet in perfect unison with their dance steps even though she hadn’t been an Irish dancer herself for over 40 years! The weekly Irish language classes that she attended with the grandchildren were an important part of her life. She spent hours with the kids in her backyard pool, giving them all attention and encouraging them as they learned to swim. She had the best camping trips ever under the dining room table! She made the best French toast and we could never believe how much of it the kids could eat. She never tired of singing and reading to them and encouraging them to draw and to make up plays. And she kept all the drawings and cards that they made for her over the years. She loved her grandchildren deeply and they loved their Máthair Mór back a thousand fold. I’ve been trying to think about what exactly it was about her and her relationship with kids that was so magical. I know that I felt it, that my brothers and sisters felt it, and that many of you in this room felt it too. It was more than “spoiling” although that was important – it was as if whatever you did or said or wondered about was the most important thing in the world. And when she smiled at you with those big beautiful blue eyes and held you in her embrace, it was as if you were in the safest place in the whole world. What could be better than that?

The great American writer and poet Maya Angelou said “the quality of strength lived with tenderness is an unbeatable combination.”  This was our mother and unbeatable she surely was...

Thank you.

April 24, 2014.



Seán's Eulogy


Fáilte romhaibh, a chairde gaoil, chun ceiliúradh i gcuimhne ar son saoil  Rita Colette Adams, no an lasainm Máthair Mor, teideal a bhí sí an brodúil  as.  Gaelach Poblachtacht brodúil ab ea í. Bhí dúil a anama sa  cultúir,  cheoil,  spoirt,  rinnce  aice, ach, os coinn achan uile ní, an teánga Gaelach.     Thainaig Rita go Ceanada, sa blian (1955 ), togadh  sí ceathrar  paiste.   Thit sí i ngrá  leis an tír seo, agus rinne sí lan cairde anseo.   Anois, tá sí imithe ar an slí na firinne, in a chodladh samh, i measc a chairde. Slan abhaile, Máthair Mor.   

I wanted to speak a little bit about my mother's political life, in particular, her Irish Republican activism.

My mom's very first protest march was when she was still in her mother’s belly during the Belfast Outdoor Relief Strike of 1932. She remained strongly non-sectarian throughout her life. Coming from Republican families on both sides of her family, she learned Amhrán na bhFiann and other rebel songs at an early age. She developed a beautiful voice and sang in choirs for many years. Her life was steeped in Irish culture; she loved Irish music, dance, sport, agus Gaeilge.

Her reputation as Gerry Adams’ favourite aunt began when Gerry was a child as she and her future husband used to cycle to Greencastle to visit his family and babysit the wee lad. Like many of her generation, having a bicycle was a way to escape the poor living conditions of Belfast and explore the beautiful Irish countryside.

Her mother, who worked in Belfast’s linen mills from childhood to retirement, once told her that she would tie her to a chair to prevent her from working in the mills. Looking for a better life, she emigrated to Toronto as a twenty year old in the early 1950’s, finding an unorganized Irish community living in a city dominated by the Orange Lodge. She grew and changed with the city as Toronto became less sectarian and more multi-cultural, building on the Republican and socialist foundations which she acquired in Belfast.

Like many Toronto Republicans, she became involved in a new wave of activism which began during the 1981 Hunger Strike. She worked closely with Pat Rooney, Helen MacDonald and Michael Quigley in the Irish Prisoner of War Committee, with Alan McConnell and the Irish Freedom Association, and with the numerous other activists and groups that emerged and morphed throughout the years. Under her influence, her children and grandchildren became activists as well.
But her children also influenced her as she became involved in many of their causes ranging from peace, anti-nuclear, feminist, anti-poverty, Latin American solidarity, gay rights, daycare, and education causes. She did all these things with a deep commitment to positive social change, a great deal of energy, and a contagious spirit of activism.

However, Rita’s overarching concern was for justice, unity, and equality in Ireland. She believed peace and the flowering of Irish culture would flow from these three pillars. She was a founding member of the Emerald Isle Seniors Society and key activist for many years in promoting Sinn Féin’s unity and peace strategies. At the same time, she retained close ties to Ireland and her large group of family and friends there. In her retirement years, she visited Ireland every other year while she was still able to travel. These trips gave her the energy and renewed her commitment to work for Irish freedom.

She knew we were on the right road to Irish freedom and I am saddened that she didn’t live to see it realized. We still have work to do and Rita was an inspirational example for all of us. Tá sí ar an tslí na fírinne anois.

I also wanted to speak a little bit, personally, about some observations I made about my mom over the years. The first one is, I've long marvelled at how thoroughly modern and flexible a thinker that she was. She was truly a 21st century woman. If you consider that her views on religion started with believing it to be a sin to go into a Protestant church, to being a devoted Catholic for many years, to abandoning the church altogether - these are remarkable changes to her core values.

She also took strong positions against homophobia and racism. She even began recycling long before blue boxes. She was a strong enforcer in her home to make sure that not a single bottle or can would go in the garbage. I can't think of a single area of her life where she wasn't progressive and forward-thinking.

The second thing I wanted to talk about is that she had a very special relationship with her children. In particular, it was so much a symbiotic relationship. She gave us our values and politics, but she also integrated our values into her own. There's lots of examples. For instance, she gave us Irish music and we gave her Neil Young. She brought us camping, we brought her on wilderness canoe trips. One trip, just weeks after she recovered from triple-bypass surgery and here we were scrambling around in Killarney Provincial Park in the wilderness.

All four of her children work in the helping professions, which is a huge influence that she had on us and all six of her grandchildren embraced Irish culture - dance, music, agus Gaeilge. At the same time, under our influence, she became a proud vegetarian, an activist in the peace and anti-nuclear movements, a feminist and an environmentalist.

But it would be wrong to characterize my mom as constantly changing as if she had no moral centre or core values. For example, her Irish Republican and socialist values which she learned as a child and teenager, remained with her for all of her life. Her love of the outdoors and deep spiritual appreciation of the natural world, if anything, increased in intensity as she got older. Underlying it all was her love of people, especially her friends and family. And even this distinction between friend and family was blurred. She regarded so many friends as part of her family. There's a number of people in the room today who, for one reason or another, didn't have a place to live and she took them into her home, and not just family members. And at the same time, I considered her to be a best friend. She was my mother, yes, but also my best friend. Lucky me to have both in the same person and lucky me to have a life full of memories to cherish now that she's gone. April 24, 2014.


Gerry's Eulogy