(Photo: James Fennell)
‘I could hear my two legs breaking the same as sticks. And I never lost consciousness but, to tell you the truth, I didn’t think I could even be alive.’
Maisie Grannell was walking to Mass in Enniscorthy when the car struck on that dreadful Sunday morning in January 2001. The vehicle lost control on the icy road and slammed her into a stone ditch. She lay on the road for nearly an hour before the ambulance came. In that time a passing Traveller woman adopted the role of the Good Samaritan. ‘She had a bottle of holy water and threw it on me,’ chuckles Maisie. ‘The poor lady thought she was doing right but all it did was make me colder.’
One of Maisie’s legs was amputated which, given that she was in her 77th year, might have understandably driven her to an early grave. But Maisie is made of exceptionally sturdy stuff. She is hardwired to survive, no matter how glum things get.
It is probably a family thing. In the late 1890s, Maisie’s grandfather Gareth Sunderland was employed making farm implements for a company called Bolger’s of Milltown near Ferns, County Wexford.[i] ‘There was a grinding stone for putting edges on the sickles and scythes,’ says Maisie. ‘One morning my grandfather was cleaning the grinding stones when someone switched them on and he was killed.’
After Gareth Sunderland’s death, his widow Ellen was apparently evicted from their home in order to make way for Gareth’s replacement at Bolger’s. Maisie says Ellen was literally put out on the road, along with her three sons and daughter. As she made her way south towards Enniscorthy, she was welcomed into a house at Scarawalsh by a family called Whelan. ‘They were poor farmers,’ says Maisie. ‘But they brought them in and gave them tea and bread and butter.’ The upshot of the visit was that William, the eldest boy, stayed with the Whelans while his mother and siblings headed on for Enniscorthy. William was Maisie’s father.
Once she reached Enniscorthy, Ellen Sunderland entered her daughter Nellie into the Good Shepherd’s convent, where she learned how to make lace. She then dispatched her two remaining sons to the Artane Industrial School in Dublin. Tom, the youngest, played with the Artane Boy’s Band and was working as a tailor in Enniscorthy when stricken by a deadly bout of tuberculosis aged 27.[ii] His older brother Jim fared no better, dying on the Western Front during the First World War. As for Ellen, she found work as a dairymaid with a man named Cosgrave who supplied milk to the county home. She also did some washing and seamstress work locally although, by the time of the 1911 census, she was described as a 63-year-old cripple. Her daughter came out of the Good Shepherd to mind her as she lay in bed for nearly seventeen years with rheumatism and arthritis. ‘I remember her very well,’ says Maisie. ‘She lived up Hospital Lane, near where the library is in Enniscorthy.’
Meanwhile, William Sunderland left the Whelans after several years and went to work on a farm near Bree. He then joined the threshing gang of a farmer called Kavanagh whose clothes his mother sometimes washed. In time, he was given charge of his own steam-engine, travelling to farms all around Wexford and south Kilkenny on his bicycle. Always conscious of his father’s tragic demise, William was wary of threshing machines, particularly when someone ‘green with the drink’ was operating it.
Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, William married Mary Cahill, the daughter of a mountain farmer from Kiltealy, County Wexford.[iii] In 1916, Mary gave birth to a little girl in Enniscorthy whom they named Ellen in a tribute to her grandmother. Three sons and another daughter followed though one son perished from the hooping cough as a baby.
By the time Gareth, the oldest boy, was born in 1919, William and Mary Sunderland had moved to Clonhaston, near Vinegar Hill, where they lived for the next fifty years. It was a typical thatched, white-washed, two-room cottage with an open fire.[iv]
Maisie, the third of William and Mary’s children, was born in Clonhaston in November 1925 and christened Mary Theresa. She was educated at the Sister of Mercy Convent in Enniscorthy where she says she generally behaved although she does recall ‘at least one slap.’ She also had to be on best behaviour for her mother.
‘My mother was a very good woman,’ she says. ‘She was also a very exact woman! My father wouldn’t say boo to a fly. I never knew what it was like to get a slap from my father, but my mother would give us a slap alright. She taught me how to cook and bake and make butter and sew and everything and anything.’
Maisie was nine years old when her mother gifted her a small lidded pan and taught her how to bake bread. By the time she was a teenager, Maisie was able to make a Christmas cake on the open fire at Clonhaston. ‘You’d make the fire up with whatever bushes you got from the fields and then surround the pan with wood so it was like an oven.’ In time, she would pass these skills on to her daughters and it is certainly no coincidence that one of Maisie’s daughters now makes cakes and buns professionally in England.
Maisie left school in 1939, aged fourteen, to help her parents out. ‘My sister got married young and moved to England so someone had to feed the pigs and look after the fowl and the cows and the calves and that sort of thing. We were caretaking a farm for a man who lived a long way away in Gorey. He allowed us to keep a couple of cows in return for minding his cattle.’
Her brother Gareth also kept a pair of workhorses on some nearby land, which he used to draw stones from the quarry.[v] At certain times of year, Gareth would bring the horse and cart to the Sunderland’s small farm. ‘There was no manure spreaders like they have now,’ says Maisie. ‘The horse and cart would be brought to the field and we’d get the sprongs in and spread the manure all over the drills, for the potatoes or turnips or cabbage. I was a very young girl, about ten, but it never bothered me. I had to do it and that was that.’
But nothing was easy, not even getting water. ‘I had to go to the well for water. It was a good distance away. And maybe with the cold you’d have two big white enamel buckets and you’d slip and fall over. But you had to go back and start again.’
Her mother taught her how to sew. She duly spent twenty-four years working part-time for the Springs of Ballynadara House, Bree, ‘making horse-rugs and suits and racing caps for all the fellows who were riding.’ Janet Spring, her employer, was a noted breeder and horsewoman whose husband, a Master of Foxhounds, hunted the Bree Hounds for nineteen seasons. ‘If you really want to do it, you will find time to do it,’ was Mrs. Spring’s motto and this evidently found resonance with Maisie.
In 1955, Maisie married Jack Grannell, a farm labourer who was twenty-five years her senior.[vi] They had a son, Dennis, and two daughters, Maureen and Betty.[vii] Maisie was determined her daughters would go into adulthood with as many domestic skills as possible. ‘I taught my girls how to bake, how to cook, how to sow and knit, and everything like that. I used to say, “if you’re out in the world and you don’t want to do these things, you don’t have to … but it’s nice to be able to do them if you do want to.”’
‘I had to work very hard to educate the children,’ she says. ‘I got no free school books!’ As well as making horserugs for the Springs, she became one of the most prized housecleaners and childminders in Enniscorthy. She spent thirty-one years with the Church of Ireland rector and simultaneously looked after the children of the Hasslacher family.[viii]
At the same time, she was looking after her aged parents. Tragically, her father became crippled with arthritis in the early 1950s and Maisie spent ‘sixteen long years’ putting him to bed and helping him get up.[ix] Although she is a lifelong pioneer, she gave him a cup of whiskey with sugar to boost him along every morning and night.[x] William Sunderland had spent the last decades of his working life employed as a ganger, building and maintaining roads for Wexford County Council. Maisie recalls how he teamed up with ‘a strict engineer’ to ensure ‘the roads were properly trimmed into the ditches, not like they are now.’ There was a quarry in Clonhaston from where they would collect big stones to lay down on the desired path. As a teenager, Maisie often brought tea out to the men as they were laying the finer stones on top or ‘boiling up the tar and rolling over it all with a steamroller.’
Ironically the Sunderlands’ own house at Clonhaston was located on a poor stretch of road which was prone to flooding. Maisie recalls one dark, wet November night in 1966 when she was minding her parents. Awoken at 4am by the sound of gushing water, she rushed to her parents bedroom and found them still fast asleep with ‘the water nearly up to the mattress.’ Her father was bedridden and blind by that stage, so she had to run up the road to a neighbour’s house and throw pebbles at his window to get help. The neighbour carried William out on his back and brought them to his house. Maisie took all the water out herself, with a bucket and sponge, but she was unable to save the dressers or the mattresses.
Mary Sunderland died shortly before Christmas 1969 and William passed away the following August. If Maisie thought that her days looking after debilitated souls had ended with the passing of her father, she was to be sorely disappointed when Jack was blinded during a botched eye operation in the late 1970s. Maisie was back to making the same whiskey punch again, morning and night. The Grannell’s daughters were still in their teens when Jack passed away shortly before Christmas 1985. ‘He was a good father,’ she says quietly.[xi]
Not everything has been bleak. ‘There was always dancing and music in my home,’ she says. ‘The night of the threshing, we’d have a dance that was the greatest fun. We’d go until maybe one o’clock in the morning.’ She also taught set-dancing down in Ballyedmond on Friday evenings for over twenty years, until she ‘met the accident.’ ‘But I sent my daughters to be taught by someone else because maybe they wouldn’t do what I told them! And they are both All-Ireland champions.’
When Enniscorthy Cathedral was refurbished in 1994, Maisie was commissioned to make a patchwork quilt, along with all the bunting for the church railings. She continues to keep busy with her sewing machine, making wedding dresses and christening robes. She also took an active role at the Caim Vintage Day in 2010, supervising the butter and bread-making displays.
Maisie has endured considerable hardship in her life between her accident and the time she devoted to looking after her parents and husband. But by dint of her amazing determination and sheer work ethic, she has survived with her sense of humour intact. But politician, be warned. Maisie has a catapult and a bag of road chippings set aside for door-to-door canvassers. And she knows how to use them.
With thanks to David Hasslacher.
[i] ‘I used to meet a man down in Ballyedmond when I was teaching dancing and told me there was Sunderlands still at Milltown.’
in April 2015, Trevor Rynhart alerted me via Facebook that a couple from Ferns named Bolger emigrated to New Zealand and became farmers. One of their sons was James Bolger, Prime Minister of NZ.
[ii] Tom Sunderland settled on Hospital Lane in Enniscorthy and worked for a tailor in Enniscorthy but got TB and died aged 27 which would have been circa 1915.
[iii] Mary Cahil was born in 1884. ‘I didn’t know her parents,’ says Maisie. ‘But she was always telling me about them. They were mountainy people with a little farm and she had four brothers and three sisters.’
[iv] ‘Oh, there was no fancy painting in those days!’ sighs Maisie. Her father added a third room in later years, but the house was knocked down a few years ago when the family sold it.
[v] Gareth Sunderland worked at Dowdstown stud farm at Maynooth, County Kildare, for many years. In his latter days he lived outside Ballymore Eustace where he died in 2007, the day before his 88th birthday. ‘He was a big noise with the bees,’ says Maisie. ‘He was going to make his billions from bees, supplying all the hotels with money. “I’ll make my fortune from them,” he would say. “Oh, will you now?”, says I, “with everyone in the world looking for compo for the stings they’ll be getting?” But he did very well. He started with a small stock and he had about thirty hives at the end.’ When I suggest that her busy demeanour is not unlike her brother’s bees, David Hasslacher jests, ‘she has a sting as well.’
‘Gareth left school aged 13 ½ but was highly skilled with his hands. He worked with broodmares at Dowdstown which is now owned by Janette and Ferdinand Schwestermann-Lawless. When he retired he went into bees and became ‘a big noise in the bees’ for over 50 years, living in Ballymore Eustace where he was a widower. He was active with the bees until the very last minute. I knew nothing about bees. He was secretary of the North Kildare Bees Association.’ He died on 17th January 2007.
Her youngest brother Thomas left school aged fourteen and went to England two years later to move in with their sister and her husband. Thomas was a small man, like their father, but very mechanical minded. He worked as a welder for Babcock & Wilcox making coal-fired boiler and parts for nuclear submarines during the 1960s. A lifelong bachelor, he studied at night school, passed his exams and worked ‘all over the world,’ primarily in New Zealand and Holland. He died in 2000. ‘He was the greatest welder of all times, with brains to burn, but he was no size,’ says his sister.
[vi] Jack lived with an uncle. He was a cousin of Aidan Granell of Dublin who was involved with pantomime.
[vii] Their son Dennis was born at home and is now a computer engineer in Germany. There was a 10 year gap before Jack and Maisie’s next child Maureen was born. She manages Supervalu in Bunclody and is married to Paul. The younger daughter Betty is married and lives in England.
[viii] There was also a woman whom she describes as being ‘ like a bag of pepper – she would fly to the ceiling for nothing’.
[ix] ‘And I never got one ha’penny from no health board or anything’.
[x] That said, Maisie has been a defiant pioneer all her life. ‘Jack liked his pint alright but there was no such thing as going to town. They didn’t have any money to go to pubs in those days. And I’ve been in hotels all over Ireland but I don’t know the taste of alcohol. All the times I made punch for my father and Jack, I never even put the spoon to me mouth to know what it tasted of.’
[xi] At the age of fifty, Maisie ‘took this notion’ to learn how to drive and got herself a motorcar. Jack, who never drove, was appalled. ‘Now you’re going out on the road and you’re going to kill yourself and everybody else!’ he would exclaim. But she was professionally instructed and passed her test and had just got her new car when she was knocked down and lost her leg. One young man from the town recalls how the legendary 'Mrs G' was nicknamed "Maizie Go Eazy" - 'she belted around town in her bright yellow Mini Cooper, never taking it out of 2nd gear!'