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End of an Era | Print |  Email
Monday, 29 March 2004
"Annie was our granddame, our last link to another generation's ways of living and thinking about the world": Mary McNulty on the end of an era.

By Mary McNulty <cmasskier@yahoo.com>

See more articles by Mary McNulty

The news from home was that Great Aunt Annie, in her nineties, and in a nursing home, had broken a femur. Getting into hospital in Northern Ireland, these days, is like pushing a camel through the eye of a needle, but Annie was admitted to the Royal Victoria. Only a day later, she gained admittance to the ultimate gated community.

Annie was our granddame, our last link to another generation's ways of living and thinking about the world. Until her late sixties, she did without indoor plumbing or electricity. A huge black coal stove warmed her kitchen. She lavished great care on it and complained about it ceaselessly.

Portraits of the Holy Family and Pius XII (John XXIII was too progressive) graced a wall above a basin that served as her sink. A rectangle of fresh wallpaper marked the spot where the photograph of John Kennedy and his family had hung before the young widow started lying around half-naked on Onassis yachts. Annie took a dim view of sunbathing, holidays, and general slacking off. (Hadn't she gotten her face brown working around the farm all summer?)

Annie's father, Felix Monaghan, hailed from the Horseshoe, a hairpin bend on the road between Banbridge and Castlewellan. He married Betty O'Prey of Tullaree, and bought a nearby farm, abandoned by an emigrant to America. Felix joined the merchant navy to pay for the farm, regularly walking thirty miles to Belfast to join his ship.

According to Annie, her father sailed the Seven Seas, saw wonders of the world, and built some small part of the Titanic. He certainly worked on the house, for Annie had warm memories of handing slates to her father when he put on the new roof. The maintenance skills she learned at his side were put to good use, for what with the departure of her brothers and sisters for marriage and work, Annie became primary caretaker of the house and farm.

There's a poignant story, told to me by my mother, who, being a youngest daughter and having tasted similar responsibilities, had empathy for Annie. The story centers on an aunt of Annie's, one Biddy O'Prey. Biddy was born on the night of the Big Wind, when thatch roofs blew away and trees toppled. She lived on top of Tullaree Hill, where wind blew constantly; down from the dark mountains and up from the grey sea, and never wore less than three head coverings: a woolen cap, a warm brimmed hat, and a tightly knotted scarf to keep the other two on. The ruins of Biddy's tiny house still stand among fields of rocks and waving bog cotton, full of magpies, weasels, cavorting rabbits and contented-looking foxes. It's a place that, even today, makes one think that the fairies might maintain one last outpost. Biddy's imaginings were rich. In particular, she imagined she was dying every Saturday night, just as Annie readied herself for an evening in Newcastle.

Perhaps Annie intended to stay single, but her early history of attending dances and playing the harmonica suggests that she enjoyed lively companions. The Annie I first knew was a fit and capable middle-aged farm woman. But even as a child I noticed she complained endlessly about her stomach, flared up at people for little reason, and barged about the house in the time-honored manner of women who feel ill done by.

As she got older, and her siblings died off, she complained to visitors about her arthritic wrists or the bout of Cat Scratch Fever that landed her in hospital. Those visitors might later be astounded to come upon her vaulting out of a drainage ditch or climbing a ladder to mend a roof.

Despite her curmudgeon ways, Annie had a softness about her. I recall when I was about eight years old, Annie warming my nightdress in front of her stove and putting a hot water bottle-not one of those smelly rubber ones, mind, but an old stoneware one--in my bed. I recall the indulgence of Jill the spaniel and the seventeen cats.

There were winter nights when I stayed at her house, playing cards under the Tilley lamp with her brother Felix while she made us cups of tea. She and I spent many nights cleaning free range eggs with sandpaper pads to fulfill her contract with the packer. Imagine the caulky dust we threw up. Imagine the delicacy of stroke required to clean each egg without breaking the shell. Imagine with what hypnotic intent those cats gathered to watch us: swing, scrape; swing, scrape; swing, smash.

Several of Annie's more colorful outbursts have passed into family lore. My favorite concerns my sister's return from a particularly wet, miserable camping holiday. Eileen knocked on Annie's door to say she was back, only to be jumped on by Jill, the exuberant spaniel.

"Get down, Jill! Get down!" Annie cried. "You're just like all the young people today. Nothing in your head but outings and excitement."

This last story comes from a Tullaree schoolmate of mine, Vincent Devlin. While he and my father waited in the graveyard for Annie's cortege, Vincy recalled a Saturday years before when he and his brother Christie were passing Annie's loanan, on their way to confessions at Kilcoo chapel. Annie came running with an empty bottle. Would they fill it with Holy Water for her, down at the chapel?

I have written before about how the Tullaree ones were abused by the Ballymoney ones, and vice -versa, so you won't be surprised that Vincy and Christie were set upon near the chapel. As a result, Vincy was halfway home before he felt the empty bottle in his jacket pocket and remembered his promise. As luck would have it, the boys passed an old well at Dromena Crossroads. It was there that they filled Annie's bottle. She thanked them profusely, then solemnly blessed her future gravedigger with Dromena well water.




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