(Photo: James Fennell)
‘The funny thing is, I don’t feel old inside,’ says ninety-year-old Paddy Tiernan. ‘When I look in the mirror, I sometimes have no idea where this face came from. But I suppose I have seen a lot of change. If I think back to when I was a teenager, Ireland was such a different place.’
Paddy Tiernan shakes her head slowly, her youthful eyes beaming across the room. Her father John Arthurs was born in 1867 and worked as a porter at the railway station in Dungannon, County Tyrone. One of his co-workers was James McGuigan, grandfather of world-champion boxer Barry McGuigan. The station was built a few years before John Arthur’s birth on the outskirts of Dungannon as Lord Northland, landlord of the town, had staunchly objected to the concept of ‘an iron monster belching smoke, sparks and flames’ through his estate. Indeed, his lordship persuaded the railway company to dig an 800-yard tunnel through his estate to hide the train from sight, with elegant horseshoes at either end.
It is believed that the Arthurs were originally Protestant but they had certainly converted to Catholicism by the time Paddy’s grandfather, Hugh Arthurs, was born in 1836.  Hugh, who owned a farm near the village of Donaghmore, lived long enough to glimpse baby Paddy, the youngest of twelve children born to his only son John and John’s wife Mary (nee Mallon).
‘My real name is Patricia, but my father was hoping for another boy so he called me Paddy,’ she laughs. Having so many older siblings was a challenge, not least to the memory. ‘I learned their names by saying them off like a rhyme,’ she says. ‘Hugh – Belly – Gertie – Henry – Suzie - Dolly – Francis – Melly – Naisha – Nuala – Bevin – and Me!’
Although the family side-stepped the conflict, the Troubles were never far away. Tom Clarke, the first man to sign the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916, was a Dungannon man and the Black and Tans were particularly active in the area during the War of Independence. On the very night Paddy was born in January 1921, the District Inspector was shot on the street in Dungannon. ‘The doctor couldn’t come out to our house because nobody was allowed to travel after the DI was shot,’ she says. ‘But that was such a terrible time all over the country.’
Ireland was still finding its feet after the multiple traumas of the influenza and war when fifty-eight-year-old John Arthurs succumbed to heart failure in 1925.
As well as working on the railway, John had been a farmer. ‘It was a very small farm,’ says Paddy. ‘The land around there is generally poor so all you can do is have a few animals. We had cattle and pigs and chickens and a bit of grain for them. When I was a wee girl, I had loads of pet goats and rabbits. I was allowed anything provided I looked after them myself.’
The family travelled by horse and cart, although Paddy also learned to ride. ‘When I was growing up there was no such thing as a saddle,’ she says. ‘You just got up on a horse bareback. It was a lovely feeling and gave you a great rapport with the animals. Helmets weren’t even thought of! And yet now I think people who don’t wear helmets on horses or bicycles are mad.’
Paddy initially went to school in Donaghmore where the teacher was no less a soul than her oldest brother, Hugh. ‘I wouldn’t recommend being taught by your brother,’ she counsels. ‘When anything went wrong, I was blamed. Mind you, I probably deserved it.’ Being the youngest, she concedes, she was allowed to be ‘more mischievous’ than her brothers and sisters. ‘My mother had got very mellow by the time I arrived. She was an absolutely fabulous woman. She came from a lovely little village called Moy in County Tyrone. She lived for twenty years after my father died and she was a terrific influence on me. The bane of her life were bigots. She had no time for bigots.’
Paddy later went to the convent in Dungannon, a three-mile walk from the farm. ‘I loved that school. I don’t know if any of the sisters are left now, but they were wonderful women, terrific teachers.’ However, in 1936, her mother sold the farm and relocated to Swords in County Dublin. ‘All the family were working in England or in Dublin,’ she explains. ‘There was nobody working in the North and none of us wanted to run the farm.’
Paddy remained in Dungannon for a year to finish her secondary school at the convent, then she headed south to join her mother in Swords, arriving in 1937, the year the Irish Free State became officially became Éire, or Ireland. ‘I never had any connection south of the border. I hated having to leave all my friends in Tyrone. It was horrible saying goodbye. After I left, I kept in touch with some for a while, but then we drifted away. As my brother said, we’d meet up at weddings and funerals, and then it came to the stage where we only met at funerals!’
‘Swords was new territory for me but actually it was terrific. It was a small village, very much on the outskirts of the city. Dublin airport was just a little shed in a field. We might see a plane take off once in a blue moon and we would be delighted. It took ages for the Swords bus to get in and out from Dublin because the roads were so desperate. The roads! That was one of the biggest differences between the North and the South of Ireland. The roads were so much better kept in the North. The road from Swords would rattle your false teeth, if you had false teeth!’
The raven-haired girl from Ulster was not long in Swords when she headed off to the Gaeltacht in County Galway to learn Irish. ‘I learned Irish at school and I loved it. I loved the very sound of the language. And I loved the beautiful Connemara landscape. But I was astonished by the number from around there who had emigrated. There were no industries then. My mother was dead set against emigration. So many people had gone in the previous generation, on the coffin ships, and they never came back. It was like they were dead.’
Such was Mary Arthurs abhorrence of emigration, that none of her twelve children left Ireland until after her death in 1945. Thereafter, a few made their way to England. One of Paddy’s sisters raised eight children in London. ‘She told me you couldn’t send a child out on its own. You had to send three. One to keep the other company and a third to keep an eye on them in case anything happened.’
A relation of her mother from Dungannon came to stay during the ‘Emergency’ years. It was her first trip outside of her home parish and Paddy took her into Dublin to see her first ever movie, Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Her guest was utterly astonished by the concept of a flip down cinema seat. When she finally got the seat down ‘she got very involved in the film’, chuckles Paddy. ‘She talked all the way through it, “Ah, God help him” and clapped her hands and tapped her feet and sang-a-long. When anyone told her to shush she’d say shush back.’ 
Paddy left school aged seventeen and went to study at a commercial college near Parnell Square in Dublin. In 1943, she ‘fell into Dublin Corporation’ where she spent the next five years working as a clerk, ‘short-hand typing and things’, finishing up as secretary to the head of the Department of Public Health.  During this time she met Kevin Tiernan, a young man from County Louth who had been transferred to the same department. One of their first dates was to watch Marlene Dietrich perform at The Royal in Dublin. ‘She didn’t have a great voice,’ says Paddy. ‘It was low and husky, but not great. But all she had to do was walk across the stage and she could entertain. She was absolutely amazing.’
Paddy and Kevin were married in 1948. ‘And I had to stop working. That was the law with the corporation at that time. They would not employ married women. It was ridiculous because I loved my work and I didn’t want to stop but I had to.’
Two girls and a boy followed. The Tiernan family were great adventurers and would frequently ‘pile into the car and go off some place’. They became particularly fond of County Kerry where one of Kevin’s brothers lived.
Kevin and his son John were particularly close, sharing a tremendous passion for horse racing. ‘They used to go everywhere together,’ she recalls. ‘Cheltenham, Galway, you name it! My son had racehorses for a while, but he said he had to give them up because they ate him out of house and home. And they never won anything!’
John was one of the earliest enthusiasts for the computer age and Paddy recalls seeing a computer prototype in about 1975. ‘I didn’t know what it was. It was a huge thing with flashing lights, like a Dalek, and I thought it was going to chase after me.’ Tragically, John died of a massive heart attack aged fifty-three. ‘Burying a child is the saddest thing you can do,’ says Paddy.
Return trips to the North were rare. ‘My father was an only child so we had no first cousins on his side, and we only had a few on my mother’s side.’ In February 1983, she drove home in a van that carried the coffin of one of her sisters. This was just days after the kidnap of Shergar, the record-breaking Derby winner. Their van was stopped at the border where a polite young British soldier poked his head through the window and said, ‘Allo ma’am, got an ‘orse in the boot?’
In 1975, Paddy and Kevin moved to the house in Goatstown, south of Dublin, where she lives today. They celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary in January 2008 and Kevin passed away less than two weeks later.
In some ways, she is relieved that the Celtic Tiger has come to a halt. ‘The recession has brought a lot of people back to their senses. Young people have been burdened with far too much. When I was growing up we didn’t have too much materially but, my goodness, we had great fun.’
‘I don’t feel strongly from Tyrone any more,’ she says. ‘I don’t really feel strongly about anything any more, but I think I must have mellowed with age and become much more accepting. I am a Catholic and I am still a believer. If everyone actually kept the Ten Commandments, this would be Utopia. But I couldn’t get terribly steamed up about the Church as an institution. I think there is more harm done by organised religion than by anything else in this world.’
‘I love people and I find everyone interesting. I have always enjoyed listening to other people. You wouldn’t think that because I talk so much! But there was a time when I could walk and talk and see and hear. Now I wear a hearing aid and I’m blind in one eye and the only thing I can do is talk. Mind you, one of my grandchildren asked me did I used to wear a crinoline, you know, one of those hooped skirts Queen Victoria wore. And I said, “Oh, yeah, me and Brian Ború!” I don’t go back that far!’
Although her sight has waned in recent years, Paddy remains exceptionally sharp-witted and enthusiastic for all things new. Her daughter Angela recently gave her an iPod onto which she has downloaded huge numbers of books from a website called Audible, and Paddy now listens to them at leisure.
 Her grandfather Hugh Arthurs was born in 1836, just seven years after Emancipation. Her father John Arthurs was born in 1867 and married in 1900 to Mary Arthurs, twelve years his junior. At the time of the 1901 Census, he was described in as a railway porter and was living with his 64-year-old father Hugh Arthurs and 66-year-old mother Isabella. His father was still alive, aged 75, for the 1911 Census.
 Paddy is sympathetic: ‘I particularly remember coming out of my first movie. I was totally mesmerised. Blinking, you don’t know where you’ve been!’ And as to her relation, ‘She wanted to buy some mugs. You weren’t allowed to buy anything like that in those times. But she bought six mugs and put them on a belt around her waist, underneath her clothes, and carried them back on the double decker.’
 She took the bus in from Swords every day. ‘If you missed the morning bus, you were in trouble because there were only three buses a day.’