This week, I had the very sad experience of having to say goodbye to my friend Ulrich Martin.
I wanted to write a few words for him, as I do, but it’s not entirely easy. It was always clear that there were several versions of Ulrich and, although I had the privilege of knowing him, I was always aware that I really knew only one version.
The Uli I knew was the West of Ireland Uli. Twenty years ago Uli and Heike came to live in the beautiful home they made for themselves in Lecanvey, between Westport and Louisburgh, just a stone’s throw from the wild Atlantic ocean. They divided their time between Switzerland and here and, as the years marched on, more time was spent down by the ocean.
I knew this Uli well and liked him very much. The other ‘Uli’s were a little like his shadow. They were always subtly there, always complimenting and adding to who he was without ever for a moment getting in his way.
There was Political Ulrich, who could sometimes be glimpsed on his Facebook page, railing against some moral injustice in his assured and level way. There was Family Ulrich, who showed himself in the pride that would sometime betray in his countenance when he spoke of them. There was Professional Ulrich, the shadow of whom travelled very lightly beside him when he was on our side of the water but who was obviously a major part of him in those other worlds which he inhabited.
Professional Ulrich was a highly accomplished man. An eminent figure in his long and full working life. But you would never know this because he told you. You would have to find these things out for yourself. West of Ireland Uli did not wear his professional accomplishments loudly on his sleeve, as others might have done.
Uli was a fun-loving man, an outdoors man, an adventurous, daring man and a most engaging conversationalist and raconteur. He was more Irish than I am, in many ways.
Last night, there was an event in Staunton’s Pub in Levanvey. There was music, singing, and stories, laughs, hugs and smiles. It was an evening that Uli would have loved and, of course, his spirit was there, carried by us all. In many ways, it was an interesting group. A collection of people who might not normally have ended up in the same room socialising together. Hard bitten men of the sea and soft spoken patrons of the arts rubbed shoulders and bounced off each other amicably. It is another sound measure of the man, this diversity of folk who interested and engaged him and who befriended him easily. Each as comfortable in his company as the other.
At the event, Heike told me a story. Heike and Uli were together forever, husband and wife for many great years. Here in Ireland they were an inseparable double act of vivacity and fun, of warmth and friendship.
That little story that Heike told may paint a picture of Uli better than I can. Forgive me if I embellish it a little, it’s what I do.
Uli had almost forgotten that he had a hang glider but he got it out of the shed one day and set off on an impromptu flight, volunteering Heike to follow along beneath him in their car so that she could cart him home after he landed. Heike tried to watch the skies and drive at the same time, struggling to keep up with the multi-coloured dot in the sky. It wasn’t easy. An errant wind drove Uli a little off course and Heike had to negotiate some little-used laneways to keep up with him. Eventually he came down, somewhat ingloriously, in a boggy field to the side of a tiny stone cottage. As Heike pulled up in her car, a small round woman dressed entirely in black ran out of the cottage and accosted Uli where he lay on the ground beneath the lurid fabric of his glider.
“Hey,” she shouted, “hey, you, no camping here. No camping!”
This was West of Ireland Uli. Action Man.
Uli bought himself a yacht, in need of some repair. I’m not a sailing person but it was one of those bigger ones that required a team of six to sail it. Through trials and tribulations, he saw the boat repaired and made seaworthy. He assembled a crew and they sailed her through many summer evenings in Clew Bay out of Mayo Sailing Club in Rosmoney (53° 49.45'N, -9° 37.12'W). They competed and won trophies for their sailing. It is easy to see how this became a large part of the joy which the West of Ireland brought for Uli. This amalgam of ocean and adventure, of kinship, teamwork and achievement.
Uli was a great encouragement to me in my writing. Heike and he would turn up in odd places, unannounced, if some little play of mine was on. They were always kind and supportive. As with everything they did, they always brought this natural air that they were simply enjoying themselves and not fulfilling any kind of social obligation. At one of my plays, Uli was clearly genuinely moved by the story that was told and he referred to this often afterwards. It meant a lot to me.
Uli and Heike would arrive back in Ireland and would pop in to my office, just to say hello. It was always a treat to see them coming. Sometimes Uli would have a ‘find’, some obscure brand of whiskey that he could add to his formidable collection. A collection, we knew, he took more pleasure at looking at than imbibing.
Perhaps my fondest memories will be of Patricia and me, sitting with Uli and Heike in their wonderful oceanside home, quietly watching the lights on Clare Island pop on, one by one, as the summer light faded away. Those are not evenings you tend to ever forget.
We, his diverse band of friends, all liked Uli very well indeed. How could we not? He was a lovely man. A man worth knowing. We all probably liked him for many different reasons, in the same way that there were so many different facets to his own life.
I can only speak for myself. I guess some of the reasons I liked him so much were actually quite selfish ones.
I liked him because he came here to where I live and he just saw the very best in the place. While we ,who were here all of the time, might have become jaded and disillusioned with our home, he continued to revel in it. He effortlessly bore quiet witness to the wildness of the place and to the beauty of the people here.
He always saw the best in us.
And, for my part, let’s be honest here, it was not just the place. It was me. Even when I was crashing a party, or reading something foolish to a disinterested room, or twitching nervously before some little play went on. He always smiled and his eyes always seemed to betray that he thought I was all right, really.
He always seemed to see the best in me.
Perhaps that, right there, is the very definition of a good friend.
Farewell Uli and thanks.