New York’s Irish community is shell-shocked over the sudden death of one of our own, 12-year-old Rory Staunton, and as April Drew writes, the young angel was beautifully memorialized by his friends and family in Queens last week.
“The death of a baby is like a stone cast into the stillness of a quiet pool; the concentric ripples of despair sweep out in all directions, affecting many, many people.” -- De Frain, 1991
To watch tough grown men crying, sobbing uncontrollably is a hard thing to witness. But to see little boys and girls no more than 13 wipe tears from their eyes with their sleeves and to watch mothers weep as if one of their own had been taken from this earth was even more heartbreaking.
These were the sights I witnessed (and actions I participated in) last Thursday morning at an Irish church in Queens.
Most of you have heard the news by now. The life of a handsome, bright, brave red-head boy was taken from this world way too soon.
His name was Rory Staunton. He was only 12. Although still a boy, he was more mature than many grown men I know. He had a wise old head on his shoulders.
I’d only ever met Rory a few times during his short life. The last of these meets took place at his uncle and aunt’s home in Long Island last summer. Rory’s uncle, Niall O’Dowd, is the publisher of this newspaper and at the kind invite of Debbie McGoldrick, Niall’s wife and editor of the Irish Voice, we spent July 4 celebrations with them.
As many of you know by now Niall’s sister, Orlaith, is Rory’s mom. His dad is the well-known Ciaran Staunton, owner of O’Neill’s bar and restaurant in Manhattan and the newly established Molly Bloom’s bar in Queens. Ciaran is also the president of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, a position he takes extremely seriously, and the community is forever indebted to him for his tireless work on their behalf.
I remember the July 4 party like it was yesterday. I was only a few weeks pregnant with my now six-week-old daughter, Sadie. I was suffering from morning sickness and still not able to tell the world my news.
I devoured well-done burgers, drank sodas and chatted with those around me. One of those people was Rory.
The last time I met Rory (at a dinner dance with his family) he was a small boy, young and innocent. That day in Long Island he astonished me. He was now tall, mature and handsome.
While Niall and Debbie’s wonderful daughter Alana and Rory’s sister Kathleen took our son Colum (seven months at the time) into the house to look after him and play mommy, Rory joined in on our adult conversations. Of what I remember he was well versed on many things, including football and politics.
He spoke to John, my husband, about his love for flying and his plans to become a pilot. He mentioned that he was given flying lessons by his parents for his 12th birthday. John was very impressed. I could see a successful charming man develop before my eyes.
So when Niall rang me the Sunday night Rory passed away from a toxic infection he received from a cut on his elbow (who would ever have thought) I was speechless. What can you say to news like that?
John and I spent the evening trying to wrap our heads around the sudden death of such a young beautiful person. When word trickled throughout the community that one of their own had lost their beloved son there was heartbreak.
As soon as news of a memorial service was planned to celebrate Rory’s young life people scheduled time off work, mothers booked sitters and Rory’s classmates and friends were given a pass from school to attend the service. We all wanted to be there to share that very last bit of this young man’s life because he touched us all in some way.
I traveled to Queens with my good friends Pete Coyle, Mary Brennan and Orla Kelleher. Together that day in St. Mary’s Church we wept for Rory and wept for his family.
We laughed together too as Ciaran bravely stood up and shared many fond memories he had of his son. At one point I looked around. There was a sea of people, most dressed in black, jammed into the pews, old, young and middle aged.
People lined the sides of the church, and because of the spill out onto the street a viewing screen was placed in the car park so no one could miss out on celebrating Rory’s beautiful life.
On a few occasions I would see boys with Rory’s stature standing in the church, and for a split second they reminded me of the younger Staunton. I kept thinking if I see Rory in these boys poor Orlaith and Ciaran must too. How heartbreaking this time must be for them.
While we were waiting for the Staunton family to arrive we watched a collage of pictures depicting Rory’s life from birth to death. Sniffles could be heard echoing throughout the century and a half old church.
But it wasn’t until 10 a.m. when the family walked through the doors that everyone felt their pain. They slowly and sadly marched up the church behind their son’s coffin. A sight I hope never to see (or experience) again in my life.
They were visibly devastated, and why wouldn’t they be. I couldn’t help but think of my son Colum and how I would cope if I lost him.
As they took their place at the top of the church in the first pew a family friend, Father Tom, began to celebrate Rory’s life. He explained to those present that Rory was with the Lord. He would celebrate this Easter period in the hands of the Devine.
He mentioned many times that Rory’s life hadn’t ended, it just changed. And I believe that. I believe that Rory is with God and his extended family.
I also like to think that God chooses the good people of this earth to populate his heaven, and Rory was one of those he couldn’t leave behind.
For the next hour and a half several friends of the family, Rory’s teacher, Niall and Ciaran took to the pulpit to eulogize Rory’s life. It was beautiful, more than beautiful.
His life was epic really. He accomplished so much in such a short space of time.
Rory’s achievements put a lot of us to shame. He was positive, energetic, eager, and most importantly empathic and kind hearted. A trait he gets from his parents.
Orlaith is a soft soul that embraces everyone she meets. She has kind eyes, a big smile and one feels immediately welcomed in her presence.
Ciaran has one of the biggest hearts anyone possesses. He firmly acts on what’s right, stands up for the better good and spends countless hours fighting for the rights of others. He is well-known and loved throughout the Irish community and beyond. So with parents like that Rory was bound to be an amazing kid.
It must be hard for his friends to understand what happened. I think everyone in the Irish community and the Sunnyside community is still trying to figure it out, but most of all it must be next to impossible for Ciaran, Orlaith and Rory’s sister Kathleen to make sense of it all.
I hope with Rory’s help from above the Stauntons will find some sort of peace with this. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow and maybe never, but I will pray that at some point it will get easier and life will begin to seem bright again.
After the service, Mary, Orla and I (all moms of six-week old girls and older toddlers) went home and hugged our children tightly. I think every parent at Rory’s celebratory service did the same that day.
The saddest words any of us could every say to our children is goodbye. I pray we won’t have to.
As I write this the family is back in Ireland to bury their loved one in Drogheda, Co. Louth, beside his nana. A beautiful resting place I’m told.
We, the Irish community in New York, pray for Ciaran, Orlaith, Kathleen, Niall, Debbie, Alana, Robbie and all the extended Staunton/O’Dowd family. And we pray for Rory who is now one of God’s angels.
“Then the child opened its eyes and looked up into the angel's beautiful face, which beamed with happiness and at the same moment they were in heaven where joy and bliss reigned. The child received wings like the other angel and they flew about together hand in hand.”
-- Hans Christian Andersen