As she enters her 92nd year, Nana McKennie is entitled to sit back and exhale deeply.[i] It has been a long, long time since she delivered her first newborn cries in the old farmhouse at Callystown by Clogherhead.[ii] The thatched farmstead had been in the McEvoy family for several generations, a fine single-storey dwelling, with a loft, and a parlour and stables out the back. The house lay down a long wooded avenue and was surrounded by lush green fields in which her grandfather kept horses and cattle. ‘There was only two fields between us and the sea’, says Nana, and many childhood days were spent upon the beach. There was not much time for leisure though and, after school, Nana and her two brothers would return home to help on the farm, picking potatoes, cleaning turnips and such like.[iii] Nana refused to help with the dairy. ‘I was afraid of cows’, she says. ‘They were wicked looking with their crooked horns and I wouldn’t touch them’.
Nana’s four-year-old sister died in the early 1920s, ‘choked by the croup’ in the days before there was a cure. The event seems to have sparked a downward spiral in her father’s life. An only son, he had by then inherited the Callystown farm. But he now turned to drink with a vengeance and slowly but assuredly, ‘he drank the farm’. His children would not see him from dawn until dusk. When he finally stumbled home, he would take out his shotgun and start shooting up the night sky, shouting nonsense and obscenities. ‘I could never talk to anyone about it ‘, says Nana quietly. ‘It was so horrid. But we never knew him. We never really knew him as a father’.
Mrs McEvoy tried to keep the farm going, employing another man to attend to the cattle. But as the debts mounted, so the family were obliged to sell everything – the timber, the plough, the carts, the horses. Nana’s most overpowering memory of this era is watching ‘the little ass being taken away’. ‘There was great heartbreak for us at that time’.
A brief respite came on Sundays when the people of the parish gathered along Clogherhead pier for the weekly dance. The band would play on long after the sun’s shadows had darkened the mountains of Mourne to the north.
In 1938, Nana began an eight-year-long career as a nurse at St Bridget’s Hospital on the Kells Road outside Ardee. She cycled to work from the farm every Monday morning, a 26km (16m) journey, and stayed in the hospital for the next five nights, earning £2.25 a week. ‘I didn’t like it but I stayed in it’, she says. ‘It was very hard work and we had to do night duty and all that, but we got a free uniform and free board and lodging’. Psychiatric help was still of a most rudimentary nature in 1940s Ireland. In the absence of tranquilizers, many of the more unruly patients were kept in cells. Alcohol, she observes, was to blame for ruining many of those she looked after. It was during this time that her father finally found peace when he passed away after a short battle with cancer. Nana’s older brother John duly took on the farm and ‘made a great job of restoring it’.[iv]
In 1946, Nana met and married her late husband, Paddy McKennie, then a young man following in his father’s footsteps to become one of the best known plumbers in Co Louth. The following year the newly-weds moved into the house on Ardee’s Main Street where Nana lives today, just beside the old Wesleyan chapel. The street changed a good deal over the ensuing sixty years. When Paddy and Nana moved in, most of the buildings were private houses with a few shops scattered in between. Today, Nana and her sister-in-law across the road are the only two residents left on a street dominated by commercial premises.[v]
While Paddy earned a paltry £2 a week, Nana focused on rearing their three children. She brought in some extra money assisting a local dressmaker. [vi] The couple worked hard and rarely holidayed. ‘The farthest we travelled was Lough Derg’, she says. ‘Myself and Paddy went on pilgrimage there twice’. Very occasionally she visited Dublin – ‘it was a great treat to get on the bus to Dublin for the day’ - but she never really took to the city. She has never been to the west coast of Ireland or seen the Atlantic. ‘Sure how would you do it?’, she asks. ‘We never had a car of our own and there were no tours at that time’.
Nana says that she ‘hadn’t a lot to smile about’ in her life but it is clear from the photographs that abound throughout her house that the younger generations – her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other children she has looked after – mean a great deal to her. [vii] Her son Damien and his wife Trisha regularly call by to share a Supervalu lunch with her and that ‘keeps me in the chat and the crack’.[viii] Trisha also chauffeurs her to church every Saturday night. Nana has wise counsel for anyone of senior vintage. ‘You must make your bed in the morning, whatever you do. And you must never take to the chair or the bed. You have to keep on doing things’.
[i] Nana was recovering from a dizzying fall when we called by and consequently she was inclined to be gloomier than she would normally be. ‘I’m up and down, down more than up, but sure am I good to be here’. She was recuperating from a dizzy fall the previous Friday gave her a serious shock – blinded, she fell on her front but awoke on her back, how so? She was out for the count for 30 minutes, all by herself. She lay there because she didn’t have any way of getting up. Eventually she turned and put her hand up and grabbed the top of an electric breakfast cooker that was broken and within reach… got her other hand onto the other side and got up. And I said thank god it wasn’t a stroke. But I did nothing wrong to make it happen.
[ii] ‘I’m not bad for 91, am I?’, she says in an outburst of rare positivity. She has a lot of bitterness in her and seems to have been largely estranged from Paddy’s family. Perhaps there was a stigma attached to being the daughter of a drunkard? ‘I was born and reared in the country. I know the way country people live. I was born a long time ago, 91 years ago’. She was born on17th April 1918. Her older brother was born 17th March 1916 (before Easter Rising). Her mother was also from Clogherhead.
At the time of Nana’s birth, Ireland was deep into the Conscription Crisis, arising from an ill-advised British Government proposal to impose compulsory military service for all men of a suitably soldierly age who were then resident in Ireland. Heading to the Western Front was not something Nana’s father was likely to contemplate. At any rate, the chances are that he would have been too drunk to stand straight.
[iii] She was at school in Clogherhead. ‘I was good at school’, she says proudly. ‘I took part in everything.
[iv] John’s son now runs the farm and has built a new dwelling by the old farmhouse. Nana occasionally visits but says she has no wish to be a nuisance to them.
[v] They later rearranged the rooms and added on an extension. They took a house in Annegassan while they restored and changed the house.
[vi] Their firstborn child Damien was born in September 1947, to be followed by a second son, Gabriel, and a daughter, ___. Today, Damien works in St Bridget’s Hospital while his younger brother Gabriel continues the family tradition as a plumber, specialising in central heating, and working with the Health Board in St Bridget’s and other hospitals.
[vii] But Nana did such a good job raising her children that, in the mid 1970s, she was recruited by Anita Caruthers who live at the castle on Main Street to look after her two small granddaughters. The younger baby grew up to be Joanna Fennell, wife of a photographer called James Fennell whose works you might be familiar with. ‘I was christened Margaret but those girls always called me Nana’, says Nana, ‘and I’m still Nana now’. Nana is devoted to the Connolly girls, Nicky Connolly and Jo Fennell. There are photos of Bella, Mimi and Ted in equal measure to those of her own children and grandchildren. She has two grandchildren in Northern Ireland who call her Granny (and three great-grandchildren). Damien’s children in Dublin also call her Granny. But Lisa and Alan, children of her son Gabriel, call her Nana.
[viii] But rather gloomily she adds ‘you get all the news, who’s dead and sick and dying and all’!