I was at a birthday party during the week which I enjoyed immensely. My enjoyment owed much to the sense of immortality felt when I realised that the party girl was 90 years of age. She was born in the year the old age pension was first awarded. Then you had to be over 70 years of age to get the princely sum of five shillings a week. Hannah Spellman, after a lifetime spent amongst the rugged beauty of Connemara is now a city dweller. Her proud boast is that she was baptised by Canon Sheehan of Doneraile the priests whose novels were the staple diet of Irish readers during the first half of this century. ‘Geoffrey Austin Student’, ‘The Triumph of Failure’, ‘Luke Delmege’ and ‘My New Curate’ were some of the titles which came from the pen of Canon Sheehan between 1897 and 1912. I would imagine that there was not an Irish home without one of Canon Sheehan’s books up to 40 years ago despite or perhaps because he gave his readers an insight into the quaint peasantry habits which were never far removed from our own lives.
Ninety years ago Ernest Shackleton was still on one of his Antarctic expeditions and was to come within one hundred miles of the South Pole, and the English Channel was being crossed by aeroplane for the first time. The Great War was still five years away and the ten million or so men and women who were killed in that War were still part of the largely rural communities into which they had been born.
Take a step back ninety years from the year in which the future Hannah Spellman was born and you are in 1819, twenty six years before the Irish famine broke on the Irish scene with such devastating effects. That was also the year the future Queen Victoria was born and the same year English soldiers shot and killed eleven men who were among a crowd gathered for a reform meeting at St. Peter’s field, Manchester. The Peterloo Massacre caused widespread indignation and ultimately advanced the cause of parliamentary reform.
Ninety years is a somewhat comforting length of time in which to view one’s own age and so it was that I took heart and encouragement from my mother in law’s good fortune in maintaining her health and cheerfulness for so long. Maybe there was something in the water used by Canon Sheehan in his small church in Doneraile so many years ago that encouraged longevity.
When you get to such a great age there is more than ample opportunity to look back and remember people you have met. Hannah Spellman is no different in that regard than anyone else except that she has a veritable legion of memories relating to persons who figured prominently in history. She met Bruce Ismay, the owner of The Titanic and the man who was said to have survived the sinking of that ship by dressing up as a woman and entering one of the lifeboats. That at least was the story which Connemara folk told of Ismay long after the immense liner had sunk on her maiden voyage in 1912 with the loss of nearly sixteen hundred persons. Many of the steerage passengers on that fateful voyage were from the West of Ireland and it is no wonder the people from the Connemara countryside held fast to their belief that Ismay had cheated death in this way.
Inevitably the War of Independence must hold memories for someone of ninety years of age. Hannah Spellman recalled the ambush set up outside her parents house at Kilbrack, County Cork when men of the Cork flying column positioned themselves behind the rails of the gate lodge leading to Kilbrack House. The inevitable casualties on the English side resulted in a rampage of terror for days afterwards and may have been the cause of her uncle’s subsequent killing. Tom Hannon was her mother’s brother and he died a young man of a wound sustained in a shoot out with English soldiers.
Being a Cork woman with the name Nagle the future Hannah Spellman can claim a family connection with Nano Nagle foundress of the Presentation Sisters. Indeed the Nagle family tree which was carefully compiled over the years is drawn out with justifiable pride to show that the 90 year old is the great grand niece of Nano Nagle.
“Did you ever meet Michael Collins” ? I asked, ever hopeful that perhaps even a fleeting glance as he passeed through Doneraile could be turned into a prolonged meeting with one of the great figures of twentieth century Ireland. The answer is no, for the woman had and still has no interest in politics or the people who once populated the shady environments of militarism before they succumbed to the politics of the Irish Free State.
My mother in law travelled from Galway to Athy not realising that when she set out on the long journey that she was doing so to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. She had about her on the day her extended family, many of whom travelled from abroad as well as from the extremities of the island of Ireland. The grand lady had a great day.
In the same week as her ninetieth birthday was celebrated, two local men passed away before they had reached the biblical three score and ten. Frank Foley was a class mate of mine in the Christian Brothers Primary School. “Yah” was his nickname, derived, I understand, from his great fondness of cowboy films and his habit of using the cowboys “yah” in his everyday conversation. Like so many of his contemporaries in the Athy of the 1950’s, Frank left school once the compulsory school age of fourteen years was reached. He left to join the local L&N Stores in Emily Square as a messenger boy later joining the asbestos factory. He subsequently spent some time in England as almost every working man in Athy has done before returning to work in Minch Nortons. He retired from there some years ago and was in poor health in recent years. I knew Frank quite well and remember with fondness our time together in the classrooms of St. John’s. I didn’t know “Wexford” Foley as well but nevertheless recognised him as did everyone in Athy as a congenial man who was an intrinsic part of life in the town. How the extraordinary nickname “Wexford” came to be bestowed on him I cannot say but to those who knew him he was never called anything else. Both “Yah” and “Wexford” lived in the same terrace in Dooley’s Terrace and neither had married. I presume, perhaps wrongly, that they were related to each other, being members of the extended Foley family which must be one of the oldest families in the town.
In response to those who contacted me about last week’s article on the Luggacurran evictions, I will return to that subject again in the very near future. This week, as you can see, is my opportunity to pay a small tribute to a lady who was the very opposite of the music hall version of the mother in law. The Cork woman who moved to Connemara where she lived for over fifty years before moving into Galway city is almost as good as her daughter who keeps me in line. Could I say anymore.