Denis Delaney was a free spirit an entertained and storyteller whose vivid imagination and homespun poetry celebrated the long since vanished Irish slum neighbourhood of Griffintown. A impish character in his own right, Delaney died Sunday, a week after his 81st birthday. “He was wonderful. He was Griffintown’s leading cheerleader,” said author Patricia Burns, who profiled Delaney in her book, The Shamrock and The Sheild. “He was such a loving, giving person, whose enthusiasm for the community was infectious. He used to write such wonderful stories, but Denis being Denis, you never knew where the truth began or ended.”
Denis Christopher Delaney the fifth of six children in a labourer’s family was born in Griffintown Nov. 28, 1933. His immigrant father from Cork was an illiterate drunk, and Delaney grew up in impoverished circumstances. “We often went hungry because my father didn’t bring any money home, and there was no social assistance like they have today. Either you had it or you didn’t, and we didn’t,” Delaney told Burns.
A Christian brother, Brother Norbert whom Delaney considered as his “pseudo father,” took an interest in Delaney’s welfare and put him in the St, Ann’s choir. It was in the church that Delaney learned to appreciate both the beauty of music and of language. Although he attended Mass regularly he always considered himself a humanist rather than a dogmatic Roman Catholic. “I don’t believe in the one size fits all kind of God,” he explained. “My life experience tells me God speaks to us in many ways through every human being we meet.”
By the time Delaney was 20 he too, like his father, was an alcoholic. He worked as a jack of all trades, as a groundskeeper at McGill University, as a gravedigger, and as a delivery man. “I’d get a job Tuesday or Wednesday, work all week, get my pay, then go out drinking and the following Monday I wouldn’t remember where I worked or anything else.” He joined the Royal Canadian Navy, but his self- destructive behavior continued. Then, one day after a frightening binge in 1968, “through God’s grace,” he stopped drinking cold turkey and as he put it, “took up writing to stop drinking.” He mentored delinquents at Shawbridge, worked as an orderly at the Douglas Hospital where he managed the hospital’s radio station. “I discovered helping people kept me sober,” he said.
He had an wide ranging memory and was often called upon to lecture on his expertise. He was not above embellishing some of his tales. For instance, he was able to state with a straight face that he had encountered Mary Gallagher, ( the legendary Ghost of Griffintown, a prostitute who had been beheaded by a rival in 1879), not once, but three times, in 1937, when she took a blanket off his bed, in 1956, when the ghost directed him under a tree to an amber necklace she had once worn, and again in 1998, when the headless spirit recruited Delaney to help her look for her head. He had been increasingly ill, but his spirit remained undaunted. “Death,” he once wrote, “moves us down or up to new levels of consciousness to live our next understandings….”
He leaves his wife of 40 years, Donna Gunnell and two of his sisters. His funeral will held Saturday at noon at Collins Clarke MacGillvray White Funeral Home. 5610 Sherbrooke W. The visitation will start an hour before the service.