‘Two garda up a tree - what are they looking for?’
It was the summer of 2006 and the Kelly siblings were still alive. Christy was seated on a quilted, two-seater sofa with a box accordion on his knees. His elder sister Nellie armed us with tea and currant bread. ‘Never mind about the garda’, she said ‘and pass the sugar over to the gentleman’.
Down at the Day Care Centre in Nenagh, Nellie and Christy were held in the highest esteem. ‘We called Nellie the resident singer,’ says Ann Healy, who runs the centre today. She certainly sang with considerable verve for a lady of her diminutive proportions. ‘I’m only four foot tall,’ she said, ‘but there’s good goods in small parcels and when they’re lost, they’re hard to find.’ The mantelpiece in her bedroom was awash with singing trophies and gongs. A photograph of herself and Bertie Ahern held pride of place.
While we drank our tea, Nellie treated us to some of her repertoire, delivering Foster and Allen’s finest with a confident, spine-tingling tremble. ‘Time from me passes on and I’m growing old, a lifetime nearly gone … but warm is your hand in mine, feeble with ageless time, the light of love still shines, after all these years’.
The Kellys’ father was a council worker from Thurles. Their mother worked part-time, picking potatoes on farms outside the town during the season. For sixty-four years, the family lived at St Joseph’s Park in Nenagh. In 2003, Nellie and Christy moved to a bungalow on Annbrook Heights, which suited them much better as by then they both had difficulty walking.
Nellie went to England when she was nineteen and found a job as a housemaid. The future was not particularly wide but it was at least open. Like many of her generation, Nellie never married simply because she felt obliged to look after her own family, particularly when her parents and Christy became ill. She sailed home from England in the early 1950s and remained in Nenagh for the rest of her life. ‘I never regretted it,’ she said. ‘I never grumbled and I never answered my mother or father back in my life.’
Born in 1933, Christy was the youngest of her four brothers; his twin perished in the cot. He was a well-known character in Nenagh, with his accordion and an enormous arsenal of jokes at the ready. When I prodded him for an answer as to what the garda were looking for in the tree, he replied with comic stoicism: ‘The special branch of course’. He then took up his squeezy box and performed ‘Goodbye Johnny Dear’. He maintained that whenever he played the Irish national anthem, his dog would finish the tune with a howl.
In 1938, Christy was involved in an accident that paralysed part of his brain. As he said, ‘I took a knock when I was five – it makes me feel giddy.’ His words were quiet and humble, almost apologetic.
Nellie treated her kid brother with bossy devotion. While he packed up his squeezy box, she whispered to us: ‘He’s so good to me! He always has the tea waiting for me when I come home.’