Statia Kealy (1903-2011)
When she passed away in September
2011, aged 108 years and 80 days,
Statia had been the oldest woman in
Ireland for five days.
(Photo: James Fennell)
Statia Kealy is surely one of the only 106 year olds on this planet still competent enough to live alone. ‘Ain’t God very good to me?’, she marvels. ‘That he stayed me alive for so long and I still have my sense?’
She lives in the shadow of Castledermot’s ruined Franciscan Abbey.[i] The house, to which she moved sixteen years ago, belonged to her widowed sisters’ home but when the sister died, it became Statia’s alone. The interior is bedecked with memorabilia from her life. In one corner stands a wooden bin for coal and animal feed. The bin is known as the Magic Box after Statia’s habit of keeping goodies in there for her visitors. For men, a bottle of whiskey might levitate from within while for the children there’s always sweets. The bin was made by Statia’s grandfather, a carpenter and coffin-maker, who gazes from a nearby sepia photograph, standing beside his wife and looking entirely Victorian.
Kitchen shelves clamber up the wall, stacked with leather-bound tomes of Christian thought, old baking trays and ancient saucepans. A dresser is piled high with curiosities from times’ past – chambers, scythe sharpeners, globe lamps and bridles. Surveying the scene is the head of a wildebeest shot by a Captain Ponsonby in Africa and presented to Statia’s brother Michael. The Sacred Heart of Jesus sends a red beam up the opposite wall, radiating onto the five medals she has received from President Mary McAleese in celebration of her great age, along with the Apostolic Blessings, presented by Pope John Paul II on her 100th and Pope Benedict on her 105th.[ii]
Statia is seated in an armchair when we arrive, sporting a cream cardigan and looking at least 15 years younger than she really is. ‘She’s saying her prayers at the moment’, says Father Ian, her great-nephew, who comes to visit twice a week from his parish in Galway.[iii]
She is an astonishingly healthy lady. She arises at 9:30 every morning and keeps herself busy until evening time, reading books and talking to people. She refuses to take the flu jab and has only been in bed one day in the last 15 years. It must be genetic, deduces Father Ian. Her parents were like that. They lived an exceptionally hard life.
It is astounding to think that when Statia’s mother, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Lambert, was born, Abraham Lincoln was President of the USA and the pedal bicycle had not yet been invented. Lizzie was born on 1st November 1862 in the parish of Cullahill, Co Laois. Eighteen years later, she married 24-year-old Thomas Kealy, a farmer from neighbouring Ballinphrase, near Rathdowney, close to the Kilkenny border.
The Kealys were agricultural labourers for as far back as anyone knows. They have always lived at Ballinphrase. As well as making coffins, Tom’s father was a miller and worked with the Barton family, who owned the big house, crushing sack after sack of oats into oatmeal for the animals.[iv] ‘The Bartons weren’t Catholics but they were terrible nice neighbours’, says Statia. ‘They would do anything for you’. Old Mr Barton used to visit Statia’s mother on his pony and trap. He loathed the advent of the car, prophesying ‘God be, Mrs Kealy, these motorcars will kill more than God almighty’. [v]
Statia’s father Tom also worked with the Bartons, primarily as a ploughman, from 8 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock at night, every day, ‘until he got old and got the pension’. He went to work in a short-coat and a pair of hobnail boots. He had a blue overcoat (known as a ‘topcoat’) for rainy weather, a waistcoat and ‘a clean white shirt’ starched and ironed by his wife. On Sundays he wore ‘a dark suit with a white front and three nice buttons down the front’. Lizzie generally wore a black dress, with a hint of red and tweed, a black and white apron and a black blouse. Her hair was pinned up in a bun, and she had a black shawl on her shoulders. ‘It was a tough old life’, says Statia. ‘But Lord, I think they were marvellous, the poor people long ago, the way we lived’.
One of Tom’s labouring colleagues died in the Poorhouse in Donoughmore. ‘My father and six more volunteered and carried him home the six miles to Galmoy. When they got tired they would rest him down on the wall. The priest said they were wonderful men. Weren’t they good? Aren’t there great rewards to do a charitable act like that? Wouldn’t it make you cry?’
In 1897, Tom and Lizzie moved into a new two-bedroom stone cottage at Ballinphrase. The rent was six and four-pence a month. Tom’s mother also lived with them. They quickly developed a garden out the back which, by the time Statia was a young girl, involved fourteen drills of potatoes, two drills of turnips and one for cabbage and onions. ‘Daddy had six drills of mangles for the pony and the pig and the fowl, and a big strum of hay for it all’. They also kept a few animals – a pig, two goats, a dozen hens, three ducks and a turkey. ‘We’d keep our house tidy and our garden clean’, says Statia.
Anastatia 'Statia' Kealy was born in 1903, the ninth of thirteen children.[vi] Infant mortality being high in those times, the Kealys lost six children in a row, several to tuberculosis. Particularly harrowing was the death of twins, born prematurely from a shock when Lizzie slashed her finger on a mower. Statia was old enough to remember seeing her father cycling away with the twins in a hat-box. She does not know where he went. At the time, the Vatican prohibited anyone who had not been baptised from being buried in a graveyard, as they were not yet free from original sin. In pursuit of sacred ground, many parents buried their babies by night in the ring forts scattered around the countryside.[vii]
‘But we were a very happy family, thank God’, she says. ‘We were satisfied with anything. If our mother only gave us a ha’penny going to school, we took it the same as if it was a shilling. She was a great mother to us, the way she kept us clean and tidy’. Lizzie ensured her children were presentable every morning, combing Statia’s long black curly hair, dressing them up in ‘nice white clothes’, and ‘in summer, she gave us canvas shoes’. They never had to go in bare feet. ‘Mother took us to school everyday’, a two-mile hike across the fields to Galmoy.[viii]
‘We’d be in for half nine for religious instructions’, she recalls. ‘And then the roll would be called and we’d start classes at half past ten’. If you missed the roll call, you’d get ‘a fine slap’. The teachers were ‘very exact’. They carried ‘a very big cane and would give you a big slap if you didn’t learn your lesson’. ‘I was very good. I only got about two slaps’. Thursday was her favourite day because that was when they learned how to cook. ‘I was the best in the class to bake a cake’, she says, sounding about 100 years younger than she is. The girls were let out for half an hour at midday ‘to play and have our lunch’. Oftentimes, she and her two sisters would munch upon ‘three ha’penny bricks [sic] of bread – one for each of us’. At 12:30 the girls went back into class and the boys came out for their lunch. They were all then kept in until 4 o’clock and ‘we’d go home at 5 o’clock for our dinner’.
After school, she would help out on the land, cleaning mangles and such like. ‘Now when the school is finished, they go on holidays and have a great time’. Sometimes, they’d take a break and play ‘Mary Around the Mulberry Bush’ or ‘Tig’ or ‘Hide n’ Go Seek’. She recalls such pastimes with unmitigated excitement. ‘One day I hid in under the bed and my sisters were looking for me for ages’, she says victoriously. But her parents maintained a disciplined household. ‘If our mother told us not to go out, we wouldn’t go out. Now they go out when they like’.
Sometimes Lizzie would send Statia and her siblings off to visit elderly women in the parish, many of whom lived through the Great Famine. One such woman was Kitty Murphy. ‘We’d get a few sticks for her, for the burning, to boil the kettle. Not like now! You don’t have to get sticks to boil a kettle now!’ Kitty rewarded them with bread and butter, with sugar on top, and told tales of the ‘real hard times, Lord save us’.
One of those winters was particularly cold and cruel, with the snow piled up against the house for three weeks. ‘We couldn’t go to school for a fortnight’, says Statia. ‘So we were delighted to be out making snowmen’. One icy cold afternoon, the police arrived at the door, looking for half a crown to pay for the family’s dog licence. ‘Sure I couldn’t go out to get a bit of grub for my poor father and mother. The dog wasn’t worrying me at all. I was more worried about my mother and father and feeding the pony. There was no money for the dog’.
It was a musical household. Her mother played the Jew’s harp and mouth organ. Her brother was great on the flute. A sister could play the melodian. And her father loved to sing. ‘And if we had enough of us, they’d play a half-set for the dancing’. Statia abruptly breaks into verse.
‘The landlord calls for the rent and I told him no money I had.
He said he’d take half, and says I with a laugh,
Do you want your old lobby washed down?'
She also recites a few nursery rhymes. What is curious about Statia’s rendition of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ is that when she gets to the bit about the lamb following Mary to school and being booted out by the teacher, you get the impression Mary was actually at school with her.[ix]
One of Statia’s first moves when she left school at the age of 14 was to get her ears pierced. ‘I got these little sleepers for five and six pence’, she says, pointing at her hoops. ‘My father only had seventy shillings a week so I had to get my own money. Mammy would give me an egg every morning. So I went without my egg for twelve days and I sold a dozen eggs in town for five and sixpence and I got the sleepers. Mrs Wilde took off the sixpence and gave them to me for five shillings. She put the sleepers in my ears and they’ve been in Statia’s ears ever since’, says she with a merry shake of the lobes. Surely these are amongst the longest continuously worn pair of ear-rings on Earth?
In 1919, the Spanish Flu arrived in Ireland. ‘Lord it was a hard time’, says Statia. One of her first cousins was having a baby at the time, when her husband caught the flu ‘and died in the next room. She was never let see him and he never seen his child’. Statia’s eyes briefly cloud. ‘People don’t realise what the poor craturs had to go through long ago’.
This was also the time of the Troubles and Statia has too many memories of ‘the Black and Tans flying in their big vans’. ‘You’d be afraid for your life with them. They’d cut down trees and everything near it. We couldn’t cross the road. Lord, wasn’t it hard! Wasn’t it terrible? The way they killed the poor people and put them out of their houses and burnt their places. That was awful. Sometimes they’d be up in a big van watching us go to school. That was my life’.
In 1923, 18-year-old Statia walked 3 miles to the village of Cullahill and began working as a seamstress. ‘It may as well have been Galway it was so far away’, she says. Her employer was ‘a poor invalid on crutches’. ‘She was delighted to get me. I did all I could for her, the poor creature. God told us to be charitable and do things right’. When the woman went on holiday, Statia looked after the place. ‘I was very good as a dressmaker’, she says, ‘making button-holes and all like that’. She was paid half a crown a week ‘and I was glad to get it going home to me poor mother. You wouldn’t go up the town for half a crown now’.
Statia was the only one of the seven children who did not marry. She says she hasn’t given up looking yet. ‘Oh there was a man’, she laughs. And then, rather more seriously, ‘but he was a little fond of the glass’. Instead she devoted her life to looking after her parents. Her brothers often came with welcome money and continued to visit after they were married. [x]
Lizzie Kealy passed away on 3rd June 1951. That afternoon, Statia returned home from town in the pony and trap to find ‘Daddy – God be good to him – sitting with my mother’ beside a roaring fire. Statia presented her mother with a bag of sweets. ‘She liked to have a few sweets so that if a child came in she would give them one’. Her parents retired to bed soon afterwards and Statia began to clean up the kitchen ‘to have it tidied for the morning’. She heard her mother calling and went to see her. ‘Lord, are you not well Mammy?’ No, said her mother, she wasn’t. Statia propped her up with pillows and brought her some lemonade. ‘She kept drinking it, back and forth, and I wondered at her because she never normally asked for a drink’. ‘How is it you’re so dry?’ asked Statia. ‘Call up your Daddy’, her mother replied. Tom did not wish to be awoken. ‘Sure, she’ll be alright’, he muttered. But he got up and went into her. Statia sensed that all was not right and decided to call upon the neighbours. ‘It was one o’clock in the night but they knew me and they weren’t afraid’. Statia returned with the neighbour and went up to check on her mother. ‘Lord, Mammy, are you alright now?’ Lizzie looked at her and replied: ‘Oh Stacey you’ll have plenty in this life – you’ve been so good to me’. And with that she lay back and died ‘as quick as that’. ‘I got an awful fright’, says Statia. Her father, who was ‘going on 88, the poor man’, went out to the field, caught a pony and rode off to get help from Statia’s sister Margaret who lived two miles away.[xi] Tom Kealy passed away just over a year later, having ‘worked up to the last’.
Statia continued to live at Ballinphase after the death of her parents. When she was 90 she accepted an invitation from her younger sister Lizzie to move in to her present home in Castledermot. Lizzie died suddenly in 1994 and Statia has lived there ever since. She has home help every day from 9 – 12 and from 4 to 4.30 and from 9 – 9.30, and Father Ian looks after her on Friday and Saturday mornings.
On the eve of Statia’s 100th birthday, she received a visit from an old woman from Wexford. The woman explained that she had been born in Rathdowney 75 years earlier but that her father died of pneumonia soon after her birth. Her mother remarried and moved to Wexford. As was the common practice back then, there was no further mention of her real father. All she remembered was his big hands. Might Statia know who he was? Statia not only knew but had attended this woman’s christening. She was able to tell the lady what her father looked like, how he drove a pony and trap, who her godparents were and even that she had been given a cup-rack as a gift. The woman, who passed away soon afterwards, was wholly elated by these happy revelations.
Statia is pretty sure that times are better today than they were in her childhood but she is puzzled that people seem so dissatisfied. ‘They have a great time in a way now but are they happier?’ She’s full of jovial and slightly racy jokes and loves telling a good yarn.[xii] One of her favourites concerns a gymnast of her acquaintance who went into confession. The priest told the man he admired sporty people. ‘Go out and show me how your game works’, he requested. The young man duly left his box and stood on his head. Two women awaiting confession looked at each other in shock. ‘Oh the curse of God,’ said one. ‘Look at the penance he’s giving today. And I not wearing any knickers’.[xiii]
Statia is an exceptionally calm individual, completely content on her own or in company. She is always game on for a new challenge. After the death of her sister in 1994, her wicked great-nephew, Father Ian, made her a brandy with milk and a spoon of sugar to help her sleep. She had earned a golden pin for 50 years service to the Pioneers before he led her astray. Now she has a Baileys or an Irish Mist or a hot milk with brandy every night. She says that if she knew what liquor tasted like, she’d have been drinking all her life.
Statia Kealy wishes to be waked in the old cottage at Ballinphase, renovated in 1999, to which Father Ian brings her back at least twice a year.
When she passed away in September 2011, aged 108 years and 80 days, Statia had been the oldest woman in Ireland for five days.
[i] The Abbeylands estate was built by Kildare County Council in the 1940s. It is sited in the meadows of the ruined Franciscan Abbey, just off the old Carlow Road, and near to the old ‘Luggers Hill’ Black & Tans depot. Remnants of the original town gate stand close by.
[ii] One of the medals quotes a line from the Patrick Kavanagh poem, After Forty Years. It reads ‘Tell Us What Life Has Taught You’.
[iii] Father Ian worked as a casualty nurse for 9 years before entering Maynooth and becoming a priest. He lives in Galway and works as an administrative priest in the Bishop’s office and assisting with the parish. He visits Statia every Friday. He knows a Gwaelgor in Galway, who speaks no English and who smokes his pigs up the chimney. His dresser has a flap upon which a clucking hen sits on. It is not unlike our late friend Mick Lalor of Borris who had four rooms for his horse and two for himself.
[iv] Tom’s mother Statia Stapleton came from near Urlingford. They were a small family. Tom’s brother Michael was a brick-maker in England. His sister Anne married a gravedigger from Preston and settled in Lancashire; their son died on active service with the RAF in the war.
[v] Statia was an exact contemporary of Isaac Barton who became a bank manager in Cork. Isaac’s older brothers were Harry, who succeeded to the farm, and Willy, who was also a bank manager. There were also two sisters – Lottie and Moira, both married. In 2008, one of the Mrs Barton’s was in Crosspatrick Nursing Home. Her niece is Heather Lawlor who owns the farm where the ploughing championships took place.
[vi] Father Ian keeps a record of all the family with their blessing cards carefully bound in a photo album. The four sisters and three brothers who survived childhood were Mikey, Tommy, Mary Anne, Maggie (Ninnie), Statia, Willy [died as a child] and Lizzie. ‘They’re all dead now but meself!’, says she. Her brother Tom worked with horses, lived at Woodsgift and died in 1975 at the age of 87. The next brother Michael was land steward for 18 years to the Ponsonbys at Kilcooley Abbey and lived in one of ten houses built for employees on the estate. When he passed away from leukaemia in 1968 aged 72, Mr Ponsonby came to the funeral in Galmoy and told Statia that Mikey had been like a ‘true brother’ to him. Her sister Mary Anne (d. 1981, aged 88) married William Grace and lived in Kilkenny where their son was a postman. Her younger sister Lizzie was born in 1906, married Brian O’Neill, settled in Castledermot and died in 1994. Their grandson, Father Ian, is the first priest in the family. Many of her nieces and great-nieces became teachers, nurses and nuns.
[vii] The Limbo of Infants doctrine change after Vatican Council II met in the 1960s. The same unhappy situation faced those who committed suicide. In the early 20th century, two students at Maynooth committed suicide in what is known today as the Ghost Room, a waiting room, with the blood stains still on the floor. It is said they killed each other 20 years apart after each man observed the face of the Devil staring at them in a mirror. How this information leaked out is not yet clear. Both men were buried in unnumbered graves outside the church wall. While the Limbo policy was undoubtedly harsh, the church was at least trying to stop people taking their own lives.
[viii] Her teachers were Mr and Mrs Burke and Miss Daly. ‘You had to be tidy going to school, so we had to clean and wipe our boots off before we went in’.
[ix] Another favourite is ‘Lazy Mary, will you get up, will you get up today?’ And there was something about the Merry Month of May and the Grace of God about you and the old shawl and ‘…if I am forsaken it’s all for the good. If I’ve forsaken her break my heart, here’s to you and your sweetheart …’
[x] Statia has never left Ireland. ‘They’re all a different times now. Getting married and everything. I asked this woman who got married where she went on her honeymoon. ‘I tell you Statia’, says she, ‘with the money we had I was out by the side of my husband next morning milking the cows’. Says I, you couldn’t do better. Now they go real far for the honeymoon, don’t they?
[xi] Margaret McCormack, Johnstown, died 1980 aged 72.
[xii] She tells the story of Greta 'Gizzie' Gannon, daughter of Ritchie and a childhood neighbour. Gizzie came home to Rathdowney having moved to London. She went to the butcher to get ‘buy a belly of a pig’ for the puddings. It seems another man was also ‘craving’ this belly but Gizzie held her own and the butcher, John Ryan, gave it to her. When the Gannons drove home later, they passed a crowd of men at work in a field, including the man who did not get the belly. Ritchie, a funny kind of a man when he had a bit of drink in him, slowed the car down and said loudly: ‘Greta, I admire you that you didn’t give your belly to anyone’. Not knowing anything about the pig, the men inevitably thought a lad was ‘after looking after her’. The Gannons brought the pig home and boiled it.
On another occasion, Statia was escorting Sister Kay, an Australian-based nun, around the area in a pony and trap. ‘I had the pony to go to mass and to go shopping and things. This nun was over from England to see her poor mother and father were dead and her poor brother who was dying and him not long married. Sarah Key was her name. I volunteered to take her around to see her friends. I was delighted I was able to do this.’ However, one host kept them too long and darkness fell. Sergeant Sullivan pulled her up in Johnstown. ‘He was out standing on the middle of the street. So I drew up to explain my case to him, that the nun was delayed talking to her friends ‘its so long since she was home’. ‘It’s alright Statia’, he says. ‘I won’t summons you’. He let us go and told us to go another road to Galmoy because, he said, ‘the rest of the police are down the road and they’d summons ya’. Poor Sergeant Sullivan died in Lourdes sometime later.
[xiii] Another of her tales ran thus: ‘This fellow didn’t want to get married but the mother got him married and done up the house and all for him. There was no going away on honeymoon then. You came home and you were married and that was it. So the mother had a new room done up and when they come home, she said to him: ‘Now here’s your room Jack, for yourself and your missuz’. ‘Oh no Mother’, says he. ‘I won’t sleep in it. Let her sleep in it’. ‘Oh no’, she says, ‘you have to sleep with your wife’. ‘O Lord’, says he, ‘I won’t’. Anyway he said no and she said yes and it went on. His father was alive and he was an old man and sitting in the corner listening to the whole gallery. In the wind up, he lit up and he said ‘I’ll go with her in the name of God because’, says he, ‘I always got the hardest job in the house’.
[xiv] ‘And I hope you live as long and me and longer’, she says as we say adieu. ‘I wish you love, luck and happiness. God keep you safe’.
A LETTER FROM FATHER IAN O'NEILL, STATIA'S GRAND-NEPHEW
November 1st 2011
Congratulations to you and James on Vanishing Ireland, it is wonderful. I am deeply moved by your lovely tribute to statia, may she rest in peace. She died on September 23rd last. Statia was in good health right up to the end, as she said herself "thank God i have my senses to the last". A couple of days before she died, she told me that she had asked God to take her, as the "burden of the years were now too heavy to carry". She was ready and happy to go to the "next world", as she said herself. I was with Statia when died in her home, as her favourite prayer, the rosary was been recited, on the feast day of her favourite saint, Padre Pio.Statia was granted all she asked for, but we miss her greatly.
Turtle, Statia was very proud of vanishing Ireland, thank you.Every blessing with your new book, it is a treasure to have.
WIth thanks to Father Ian O'Neill, Finbarr Connolly and Hazel Dickinson.