Interviewed at the age of 97, Nellie was full of memories of her home village of Rathvilly during the awfulness of the Spanish Flu (or the Asian Flu, as she called it) and the War of Independence. Three of her brothers emigrated to the USA, including one who was a driver for Michael Collins during the War of Independence. This article is followed by a full account of my serendipitous meeting with Nellie, while you can hear her beautiful voice here:
‘People don’t laugh as much as they should,’ says Nellie suddenly. ‘That’s a shame – laughing is good for the heart‘.
When a ninety-seven-year-old woman says something like that, you are inclined to agree. And despite all the sadness she must have witnessed, Nellie sure has a great laugh. It has a wonderful heart-rippling domino effect on all who hear it.
Nellie came to life in 1909 within the walls of a granite house on Rathvilly’s Phelan Row. Rathvilly is a pretty village, situated by the River Slaney at the southern-most reaches of the Wicklow Mountains. Nellie’s grandfather was the village cobbler. Her father, Peter O’Toole was ‘an ordinary man – he would work at anything he got’.
They lived next door house to ‘Granny Abbey’, Nellie’s aunt who lived to be 102. Nellie remembers her as ‘always working in the garden at the back of the house‘. She adored cooking.
‘We used to go out and pick baskets of mushrooms,’ recalls Nellie. Granny Abbey would boil the mushrooms then carefully strain the juice into four ‘nice clean bottles‘. She’d cork the bottles, then dig a hole in the garden, put down a bed of straw, lay the bottles to rest and cover it all with soil. A year later, she’d dig out the bottles and ‘Oh my goodness,’ says Nellie, ‘the flavour was gorgeous.’
During Nellie’s childhood, her oldest brother, Tommy, emigrated to Chicago and another brother Willy followed suit and took the steamer from Cobh to New York. In 1923, a third brother, Jimmy, did likewise. ‘None of them ever came back,’ says Nellie. But in the 1960s, she took the courageous step of flying out to see them. She stayed with Willy’s family in California. Tommy and his wife took their first ever airplane to join her and stayed for four weeks. He hadn’t seen Nellie since she was a baby.
‘We had a great time,’ chuckles Nellie. ‘We had parties and everything. It was like they were all back in Ireland again, you know, when they started singing! Ah well, they’re all gone now. I beat them all!‘
While her brothers confronted life in the New World, red-haired young Nellie was learning how to cook and sew and make faces at the boys. At the summer fair, her sewing skills won her a pair of sandals. On Fridays, they’d follow the progress of the herring man and when he parped his horn, they would shout out his name. ‘The Herring Man! The Herring Man!’ In summer, they’d cycle to the Fraughan Hills to collect blueberries which they ate ‘in cup-loads‘. In winters, they’d hide behind walls and watch the gentry dismount after a day’s hunting. ‘We’d know the names of them all‘.
In the evenings, everyone would gather around to hear Nellie’s mother read from the day’s papers – Mr O’Callaghan, the Protestant minister, heard her reading once and said she had ‘a wonderful voice’. ‘He was a lovely man,’ says Nellie. ‘We’d be playing jackstones on the footpath, and he’d want to know what we were at. We’d show him how to play and give him five stones and say, “Now!!” and the stones would all go flying!’
It wasn’t all fun. Sometimes, after school, they had to go down to the corn mill by the river and remove all the old corn that was clogging the tiled floor. To this end, they were armed with knitting needles. But for all that, Nellie insists it was ‘a wonderful life – you couldn’t have better‘.
However, dark clouds soon descended. In the winter of 1918, the Spanish Flu epidemic engulfed the planet and killed more than 15 million people. Rathvilly did not escape. Nellie says all thirteen houses on Phelan Row were hit.
‘My mother said it was so bad my brother Jimmy was beating his head against the wall with it.‘
The pandemic seems to have arrived in Rathvilly because the rail link acted as a vector and spread the disease from Dublin.The incidence was so high locally that the village went into a virtual lockdown. Nellie says the ohe only redemption came from ‘the big house up above‘ at Lisnavagh where the Rathdonnells lived. ‘
At midday every day they sent down a big phaeton [an old-fashioned pony and trap] with two men driving and two big churns of soup. Everyone would be out with their tubes and their cans and that. Boiling hot soup! Only for that, we were all gone.’
The flu had hardly abated before Ireland was plunged into its War of Independence. Again Rathvilly was in the limelight. In November 1920, Kevin Barry, the eighteen-year-old son of one of the village’s dairy queens, was arrested. Nellie knew him.
‘He used to drive down to school in a little pony and trap every morning and leave it outside our house. Then he’d come on up to my mother at lunchtime‘.
In 1920, Kevin was ostensibly a happy, rugby-playing medical student at Belvedere College in Dublin, but he was also an active member of the IRA with several tactically brilliant ambushes under his belt. Nonetheless, his subsequent execution stunned everyone.
‘The people in Rathvilly couldn’t believe it,’ says Nellie. ‘We thought he might have been locked up – but to hang him like that!‘
For the rest of the war, Rathvilly became a focal point for the British military.
‘The Troubled times were very bad here. At night we’d see soldiers’ flashlights coming in from Baltinglass. They’d come in their big, noisy lorries and take over the schoolyard. They’d go through all the houses, demanding to know, “Who have you in bed? Have you any men here?’ Any men they found would have to get up out of bed and give answers. Sometimes they’d be taken away and given a beating. It was shocking really.”
Nellie’s brother, Jimmy, was mad about many things, but most especially cars. One wet evening, he told his mother he had to go.
‘I can’t say.‘
He was escorting Michael Collins down to Cork. In 1923, Jimmy settled in the City of Carbondale, Illinois. He joined the American army but died young. His coffin was covered in an American flag which was sent home to Nellie as his next of kin.
As for Nellie, she left Rathvilly for Dublin when she was sixteen and found work as a nurse at the Jockey Hospital on the Curragh. She subsequently moved to England to work at the Moneyhull Colony in Solihull. In 1945, she became housekeeper to a bank manager working in Sligo. When his wife died shortly afterwards, Nellie stayed on to help raise his baby daughter, Georgina. In turn, Georgina and her son now keep a close eye on Nellie in her Dublin home.
Nellie plans to stay around until she’s met the president and scooped the Centenarian’s Bounty. She puts her longevity down to the fact that she has a cup of Barry’s tea first thing every morning, two sugars and a dash of milk. Oh yes, and a good hearty laugh.
This article appeared in the first edition of ‘Vanishing Ireland‘ (Hodder Headline, 2006), the best-selling book, which featured stories on Nellie and 59 others. Photo: James Fennell
Nellie O’Toole passed away on October 18th 2010 at St. Oliver’s Nursing Home, St. Mary’s, Merrion Road. She was in her 103rd year. I attended her funeral in St. Patrick’s Church, Rathvilly, two days later. It was a lovely affair with a beautiful tribute by Georgina Kelly and fine words from Father Joe Brophy. She was buried on one of the sunniest October days we have known.
The Complete Interview
This interview took place at the Kelly’s home on Merrion Road in Dublin where Nellie frequently spends her days. We started with Nellie showing me a photograph taken in Rathvilly School of a cookery class from 1915 with herself aged 7. The two teachers, Mrs. Tracey and Mrs. Finnegan, look very Victorian.
“That’s me there at the back. At our cookery class in Rathvilly School. We were taught cooking and we were taught drill. We had drill out in the school yard with poles and big knobs on and cast nets. They don’t do anything like that now in the schools but we had all those. I don’t even know whether they cook or not. So that’s me there now … that girl should have been put at the back because she blocks my face!”
And with that Nellie let forth one of her excellent, entirely contagious laughs.
“Cookery was taught by Mrs. Tracey and we had to bring in our own food. If we were making rice pudding, we’d have to bring the rice and the milk. Then we’d bring it home and eat it! We could cook and we could sew. We used to do samples for the show, a little show they used to have in Rathvilly near Christmas. I won a pair of sandals which I’ve kept! So there you are. The girls were up in the top and the boys were in the bottom. We had to up the yard stairs to our part. There was a big window when we were going up and the boys were downstairs and we’d knock the window at them going up and make faces in at them they’d turn around and not look at us. Ah now, we had a great old time in that school”.
“It was only a national school but we learned a lot down there. We knew all the Royalty that we should know. We’d know who’s going down in the woods today. To Lisnavagh and beyond, with the hunt. We used to love to see the hunt coming down through the village. There at the school they’d get off and they’d go into the pub. Jimmy Fanning was the man that owned it at that time. Young boys from the village used to be holding onto the horses. “Here you go back! I’m getting this horse! You go back!” And they’d hold them until they’d come out in their redcoats and all. It was lovely. Really lovely to see them coming down. But that day is gone now. here’s none of that at all. I was only about six or seven years old. We’d know the names of all of them. Then we’d see them going to church on a Sunday for the service there.
Rathvilly & Granny Abbey
Nellie’s forbears had evidently been in Rathvilly for a long time. “My Grandmother Abbey lived next door to me in Phelan Street. My house was on Phelan Street, No. 11. That’s where we lived. The land was given by the Lord Rathdonnell. He gave out the land. The houses were all built at the one time with granite stone that was left over from building the Catholic Church. Those stones are all granite. Father Phelan was the curate there and he came along and gave out the houses to the people who needed them. Then they wanted to put a name on the street and one man said “well, we’ll call it Phelan Street” after Father Phelan”.
Nellie spoke of a banshee there, an old hunched black woman who howled beside St. Crimthan’s grave and who they could hear on Phelan Row itself. “I didn’t sleep a wink”, said Granny Abbey who lived next door. And there were other stories of ghostly girls leaping off carts and hopping around the fairy rings on Fairy Hill up by the Moat where Paddy Doyle once lived. Alas, I did not manage to record this part but it had something to do with a hole in the wall. “Fairies were the chosen people who God cast out of Heaven”, says Nellie “and I believe that”.
“Grandmother Abbey was my father’s sister and she lived to be 105. She was always out working in the garden at the back of the house. She was a great woman for vegetables and all this kind of thing. She used to sew the potatoes. She’d come in to see my father and then she’d go to dig the potatoes. My father was Peter. He was an ordinary man, would work at anything he got. I remember Grandmother Abbey’d come in with two big potatoes in her hand and she’d say “Look at them now Peter! You’ve never seen potatoes as big as them!” “No”, said he, “I never saw them, Liz! What are you going to do with them!” “What am I going to do except cook them!” But she was a great woman for cooking. She could cook anything. She was a wonderful cook. We used to go out and pick the mushrooms when the mushrooms were out. We’d bring her in baskets of mushrooms and she’d cook them all and put whatever flavour in and then she’d strain it. She had three or four bottles, whiskey bottles, any bottles, nice clean bottles, and she’d fill the bottles up with the juice of the mushrooms and cork them well. She’d go out in the garden and she’d dig a hole that depth and she’d get a little bit of straw and she’s put it down at the bottom. Then she’d come out with the four bottles and she’d put them down in the hole. Another bit of straw on top and she’d cover that all in. They wouldn’t be taken up for over a year. But when you went to take a bottle up, oh my goodness, you’d love it, oh it was beautiful and she’d come into my father with the sauce and she’d say to him “Now! What do you think of that now?!” Beautiful! And she’d leave us a little bottles. At it was beautiful! The flavour was gorgeous. The clay, she said, preserves.”
The Slaney Mill
“Sometimes we’d go down to the Slaney Mill which is still there today. That’s where the corn and all used to be brought in and dried. After school myself and maybe 2 or 3 other pals of mine would have to go down to the mill to clean the tiles. In the big roof on top there was a floor with all big tiles on it and they used to get choked up. So when the corn would be coming in we’d have to go down with knitting needles. My uncle Pat used to cut the knitting needles in two and make two out of one and put a little cork on top so it wouldn’t fall down the holes. And we used to have to go and clean all those squares to let the air up for the corn and that. We’d be there for hours cleaning them. The mill was run by Paddy Barry, I think, and when he retired and that, it was sold and somebody bought it for a hotel, a bed and breakfast, for the people coming down from Dublin for the fishing. Not where we used to go down to, by the Rocks. The fishing was the other side of the river. They’d be all down fishing on a Sunday.
Voyage to America
Nellie’s had five brothers. The eldest, Tommy O’Toole, left for America in March 1903. Her brothers Willy and Jimmy left in 1914 and 1923 respectively. Georgina’s daughter found reference to all three brothers in the Ellis Island Records along with the name of the liner they went out on.
“My mother died and my three brothers moved to America. They had to go to Cobh and go out on the liner which took nearly two to three months going out at that time, the way they had to go so slow. Uncle James, my mother’s brother, was the man that looked after all the people going out to America on the liner. He lived in Cobh, married there, and his son was on the liner with my brothers when they went out. He (James) was putting everyone on the boat and seeing that they were okay and all that kind of thing. He did all that work. He brought myself and my cousin out on the boat to the liner one morning. Out in the bay. And we went on the liner. Well it was beautiful. It was really massive. Took nearly three months before they got to New York. ”
“Tommy was the first to go and he was on it for three months before he got there. None of my brothers ever came back. I was out there and I met my brother. I had cousins living out there in America. My brother Tommy was married and he lived in Chicago with his wife. They had no family, there was just the two of them. I was down with Sadie in California and he rang up – he knew I was over – and I was talking to him on the phone (what a great plus for emigrants the phone must have been!) and he said “why didn’t you come to me first!” and I said I couldn’t so anyway Sadie came along and she was talking to him and she said “you come on down now to us!” so he said “I don’t know about that, we’ll think about it” because neither him or her had ever been on a plane. So anyway, he rang the next day and said “we’ll be down” and they flew down, their first time in an airplane! Imagine! They flew down and stayed four weeks. That’s when I met him. I hadn’t seen him since he left Ireland when I was a baby. We had a great time over at Sadie’s. We had parties and everything. Betty Dempsey was with me. Betty was a great singer and she sang all the Irish songs! It was like they were all back in Ireland again, you know, when they start singing! But they’re all gone now. There’s only meself left! I beat them all!”
The Asian Flu
In the winter of 1918 – 1919, an influenza epidemic known variously as the Spanish or Asian Flu engulfed the planet and killed more than 15 million people. The epidemic bore startling similarities to more recent scares over Bird Flu.
“We had the Asian Flu. The whole of Rathvilly. In the thirteen houses there on Phelan Street, there was no one out. They were all laid up with it. My mother used to say it was so bad my brother Jimmy was beating his head against the wall with it. There was only my sister. The people in Lisnavagh were very good, the people who lived up at Lisnavagh where the men worked at times. They sent down every day at around 11 to 12 o’clock, a big phaeton [an old fashioned pony and trap] would come down with two men driving it and two big churns hanging out the back of it. Feting as I call it. Them would be two churns of soup and everyone would be out with their tubes and their cans and that. Boiling hot soup! Everyone got. Only for that they were all gone. They prayed and prayed for the Lisnavagh people up there, what they did and the way they sent the soup down from the big house up above. It was wonderful. So there you are”.
The Rathdonnells of Lisnavagh
“I remember the Rathdonnells well. Lady Rathdonnell was lovely. She was very good to the poor. Now my youngest brother Peany – he was called Peter, I don’t know why we called him Peany! He wasn’t very strong, you know. He was one that liked to back a horse when he had the money and that would be very seldom. They’d be all standing at the corner there in Rathvilly, that shop at the corner. The men always stood there at half six in the morning waiting to be called out to work with somebody. They’d be waiting there for somebody to come in and take them off to work for the day. Peany was always there and he always wanted to get into Baltinglass to back a horse. Lady Rathdonnell come along and she’d pull up at the corner and say “Toole! O’Toole! Are you going to Baltinglass today?” She knew him so well! “Yes, my lady, I am!” “Well, get in there, into the back!” And he’d get into the back and she’s leave him there at the bookie office and she’d go off and do her shopping and she’d say “now I’ll be leaving in an hour so be back here if you want a lift” and he’d be waiting for her. She was very good to Peany. She knew that he was always a horseman. They were really lovely and homely people.
“My brother Christy that died worked at Lisnavagh like a lot of them from around. “Where are you working today, Jim?” “Oh you know, Lisnavagh”, he’d say! That’s where they used to go, especially for the corn and the weeding and the vegetables and all that kind of thing. Then there was Pheasant Day. My brother and two or three of the other lads would always be up for Pheasant Day. Whatever way you work to get the pheasants up, the beaters, would go whooo whooo but of course, as soon as the poor pheasant got up, they were shot! Poor pheasants! But they used to enjoy it. I’d say to him “where were you today Christy?” and he’d say “Beating the pheasants!”
“Lady Rathdonnell would have a sale of work at Rathvilly School. Everything would come from Tullow. They’d send out shoes and blankets and all that kind of stuff for the poor, you know. We’d be all up getting to see what we were going to get! Boots and shoes and all the rest. I remember I got … my mother came back after she’d been up and she brought me back a pair of brown boots up to my knee! There were red buttons on them all the way up. They were beautiful boots. I got into them and the other pals were all at me “where did you get them button boots!” Ah they were lovely boots.
“My uncle Pat was a shoemaker at No. 1 Phelan Street. My grandfather was a shoemaker there. When he died Pat, his son, took over. He learned the trade from his father. Pat was a brother of my fathers. Pat was a wonderful shoemaker. Wonderful. Marvelous. Everyone came to him. All hand-stitched. He never used rivets or a hammer. Everything was by hand. A cousin of mine came and we were about eleven or twelve … they used to have a settle bed, like a couch but it could be a bed at night if anyone extra wanted to stay … we used to go in and make the hemp twine for Pat’s sewing, yards of them. We’d hang them all up so he wouldn’t be idle! He’d have to sew. We had to do black and brown, black for the boots. He used to do Lord Rathdonnell’s boots. They were big ones. He had a leg in a steel foot. If something had to be done, he’d send down the long boot in this steel foot. He was a wonderful cobbler.”
The Fraughan Hills
“About two miles out from Rathvilly there’s the Fraughan Hills and once a year, the Fraughan Hills are on. Now we used to go every year, cycling. An old fellow in Rathvilly had a bicycle shop and if you hadn’t a bicycle, you could hire one from him. I had my own bicycle. There’d be 5 or 6 of us and we’d cycle out to Fraughan Hills. Everyone would be gone on a Sunday, out to the Fraughan Hills. Fraughan are called blueberries now and they make jam and Marks & Spencer still sell the Fraughan Jam. Fraughan are beautiful. We used to eat them in cup-loads! I think that’s what helped us through our schooldays, eating those kind of things. That’s what build us up. We weren’t eating porridge in the morning. It was the tea and fraughans. And the little turnips that grow in the field. As long as your finger. We used to eat those raw. That’s what made people healthy. They’re eating the right thing. You could buy jam today and you wouldn’t know what you’re eating. But the Fraughan Jam is for sale in Marks now and its very good. They call it Blueberry Jam. We had a wonderful life really. You couldn’t have better. A wonderful life. And the herrings. The herring man used to come out every Friday to Rathvilly with his little donkey and cart loaded with herrings. He had a horn and he’d shout it out. “The Herring Man! The Herring Man!” And the herrings were beautiful. That’s what we ate down in Rathvilly anyway. Herrings and fraughans and turnips and Barry’s tea. Ah them were good old times. We won’t see them again.
Troubled Times & Kevin Barry
“Rathvilly was a lovely place to grow up. We grew up very well, I must say. There were an awful lot of people there but, you know, you’d be looking forward to them coming back on holidays because the train would be going up to Dublin. They used to send the milk up to Dublin, you know. There was a lady, I think it was Kevin Barry’s mother, who had her own dairy outside Rathvilly, a private dairy, and she used to send milk to Dublin in churns. Two churns would go up to Dublin every day because they couldn’t get milk up in Dublin at the time. The milk used to go up to the Coombe and those poor places where they’d be short of milk. She used to get it up there for them and there’d be people up there who’d sell it for her. It was interesting and everything like that”.
“The Troubled times were very bad, I must say. The British military used to come in big lorries and they’d take over the school yard. They’d go in and take over. We used to see – if we were up near the chapel in Rathvilly, we could see the flashlights coming in from Baltinglass. A big light would shine on us from Baltinglass! So they’d come up and they’d take over the school and they’d go through all the houses and all that kind of thing. To know who was there and who have you in bed – this would be late in the evening. “Is there anyone here?”, they’d say. “Have you any men here?” but anyway if there were men there – and there were men at the time – maybe at 10 o’clock at night of a wet winter’s night – they’d be taken out! A fellow would go: “Out! Out! Out you get!” and he’d have to get out and get dressed and come down. “Out you get!” All the men that would be in the house, all the cottages there. They’d have to get out and saw up the trees to let them pass wherever the trees be after falling. The men of Rathvilly had to get out and saw them big trees up to let them pass. It was shocking really, at that time. Of course the IRA then were in it and they were all in it at that time. It was a bit of a mess really. It was a difficult time. We all had to put black curtains on the windows, you know, so they wouldn’t see the light and that. It was a tough time.
“Of course Kevin Barry was only 18. He was a medical student in Belvedere College. That’s where he was educated. He only lived about a mile outside Rathvilly and he went to school with some of my brothers. He used to drive down in a little pony and trap to school every morning and he’d leave it in a house just in Rathvilly there. He used to come up to my mother at lunchtime and have his lunch there. That’s how we knew him so well. He was a very nice boy. He got into trouble of course. They picked him up at Boland’s Bakery and brought to Mountjoy and I don’t know how long they kept him before he was hanged. It was very sad. The people in Rathvilly couldn’t believe it, you know, that they would have done that. They might have kept him in but to hang him like that! It was shocking. And he had a brother Michael – I don’t know whether Michael is alive or not? There were only the two brothers, Michael and Kevin, as far as I know. They have a monument and a song about him. “Just a lad of eighteen summers, yet no one can deny, as he marched to death that morning, Kevin Barry proudly held his head up high…”.
Nellie’s brother Jimmy was an enthusiastic car driver even in these early days of motoring. One evening his skill earned him the driving seat for a particularly important personage.
“My brother Jimmy was a car driver. It was a very wintry night, lashing rain and everything, and he came up to mother and said: “I have to go up to Cork”. “No”, she said, “you’re not going out in that kind of weather to Cork. It’s lashing rain”. “I have to”, he said, “I have to go”. He was going with Michael Collins and two other men. My mother said “who are you driving?” and he said “oh I can’t say who I am driving, I can’t say anything” so anyway he didn’t tell her till he came back. “Don’t drive back!” she said. “When you leave the men in Cork or wherever you’re going, don’t drive back. Go up and stay with uncle James”.
In 1923, Jimmy emigrated to the USA and settled in the City of Carbondale, Illinois where he found lodgings with an older woman. His brother Willy was by then working at a big hospital in Pennsylvania.
“Jimmy was the last to go and what happened with Jimmy was he had signed up to be a Guard when the Guards was formed. He went for an interview up in Dublin and had to be examined by a doctor before they would take him in. He passed it all and came home and of course the mother was delighted he had passed. Next morning there was a letter from America for Jimmy and the letter that he had passed his test from the doctor. So when he had read the two letters, he said to my mother “what will I do – will I go to the Guards or will I go to America”. My mother said: “You make up your own mind and decide what you want to do yourself. I’m not making your mind up for ya”. So he decided to go to America because my mothers’ relations were there and they had sent him the ticket for to go, you see. So he went off.
“Jimmy that lived with the old lady was called up in the American army. I don’t know who the other armies were at that time. But he was called up anyway. He never was in an army before. But he was called up and he had to go. So the old lady was in tears because, she said “he’ll never come back”, she said, “and I’ll die before I ever see him again”. So anyway, she was writing every day to his head officer asking would he let Jimmy home to her. “I can’t live without him”, she’d say. “He looked after me so well”. So anyway, he came home and lived there. She died in the meantime and he was left there in the big house on his own. He was happy enough. He had a job and he could go fishing and all that kind of thing. He was a real fisherman. I used to buy the flies and send them out to him. The next thing anyway … he had great friends and the men used to go in and sit with him and look at television and chat about fishing and all. But anyway this evening a great friend of his went in and found poor Jimmy dead in the chair. He had a heart attack and died in the chair looking at television. Next thing was he had a military funeral. His coffin was covered with the American flag which I have. They sent it to me, sent it home. I have the American flag here.
Jackstones & the Daily News
“Times were poor but we had great fun. We were able to enjoy things. My mother was a wonderful reader. My sister Kitty could read books until her eyes went. She was always reading. My mother was a great reader. In the summer evenings she would always be up reading the papers. When they had their dinner over in the evening and everything tidied up, all the people in those four or five houses would come out in their little chairs and sit outside on the footpath neat the windows. And my mother would be in her chair by the door and she’d read the paper for them all. And she’s have to explain what it was about to them. But anyway the Protestant Minister, Mr. O’Callaghan, was passing down one evening and he heard her. He used to come down in the evenings. We’d be playing jackstones on the footpath and he’d want to know what we were doing and how we played it. He was a lovely man. But we used to hate seeing him coming because he’d stand there and say “now show me what you have to do” and you have to get five little round stones and you had to have them there and turn your hand quickly and then have the five of them on the back of your hand without one of them falling! We’d give him five and we’d say “Now! But you must go quickly!” and he’d go and they’d all go flying. Ah but it was great fun!
“But Mr. O’Callaghan was going down one evening and he said he never heard anyone could read like my mother. A great reader. He even said to her: “You’re a wonderful reader, Mary!” She’s read for them all. She’d have to explain everything to the other women, what happened and this and the other. Them were great old times really. Wonderful times. And they were very happy that lived there in those houses. They had to put up with a lot but they were happy.
“Mr. O’Callaghan was lovely man. He had a daughter that got married. I always remember it was a wonderful day. We were all only seven or eight and we went up to his house at the rectory on the Coole Road there to see could we see the bride. “Oh no”, we said, “we’d better not go in, we’ll wait at the gate now” so we chanced going in a bit on the lawn but they must have saw us, someone saw us and they came out with bottles of lemonade and biscuits and everything for us. And the bride came out to see us! We were thrilled! But one of Mr. O’Callaghan’s daughters died tragically young and was buried at the little church and the grave was covered in primroses. The whole sides, each side. Beautiful. We couldn’t believe it. Primroses! They were a lovely family.”
Nellie puts her longevity down to the fact that she has a cup of Barry’s tea first thing every morning, two sugars and a dash of milk. She hopes to share a mug with the President soon.
“During the Troubles we were rationed with tea and sugar. We got an ounce of tea for each one in the family. If there were six, you’d get six ounces of tea. That’s have to do a week. The same with sugar. My father was a real tea drinker like me. I could drink tea every minute. There was a woman lower down in one of the cottages and she had five girls. She said to my mother don’t you worry, I’ll send you up the tea. So my mother used to buy the tea from her on account of my father being a real tea drinker. She had to have the teapot there every minute, making tea for him! That’s where I got it. I only drink the one tea and that’s Barry’s Tea in Cork. That’s the best tea you can drink because whatever is in it – I saw it on the piece of paper – when its left in the pot, the grain that’s in the bag comes out and no one sees it. There you have a good cup of tea. Mr. Barry! But at that time there was no such thing as Barry’s tea. We had Lyons’s and different brands but they’re not the same.
“I was about 13 or 14 and my sister had gone to Dublin and got a job in the Vice-Regal Lodge. She worked there for a good while. All the young girls like myself, we were dying to get away to Dublin, you know, to a job. When one would be gone, you’d get very lonely. “They’re all gone and I’m not gone yet”.
The inspector of Rathvilly School was a Mr. Dardis. “He used to come and examine us and that kind of thing. Mrs. Tracy, the head teacher, came to me one day and she said “Nellie, would you ever do a job for Mr. Dardis?” And I said “I will, of course”. And she said: “Would you ever go down to the house in Tramore with him for a couple of weeks. His wife was after having triplets, two boys and a girl, and she had two little children just before that. She had a trained nurse for them but she need ed me for a help for the nurse as well. She put the two boys in the big pram and I’d have the little girl in the small pram. And we used to wheel all down around The Metal Man, out in the middle of the Ocean. The little girl, we used to call her Frosty-Face because she was … a little frosty! But the boys were lovely. And when the parents were out, we used to put the three of them in the drawing room. They’d be crawling, you know, so you’d go in every now and then to look at them and one would be there and another over there and the other over there. You had to keep an eye on them because they were able to get around, you know!”
“But my sister was up there in Dublin and I knew then that I could get a job. So I got a job there, she got me it, and I had cousins I could stay with on the North Circular Road. I think I was about 18 or so when I went to the Jockey Hospital on the Curragh and got a job. That was run by all the ladies and gentlemen. I worked there for nearly 9 years in the Jockey Hospital. Dr. Cannon was the doctor from Kildare who used to operate there. There were so many hunting people there. They had meetings there every month. Tommy Burns lived next door. The jockey. He lived next door. I used to go in there every Christmas for my dinner because the Matron was very great with Tommy Burns’ wife and that. There’d be two girls working there, one cooking, one the housemaid, so I’d have my dinner with him there”.
She would also accompany the Matron in her ambulance to Punchestown in case any of the jockeys got injured. “We’d say to the young jockeys, “Don’t you break your leg now or anything! I don’t want to bring you back!” because we’d have to bandage them on our own until we got them to the hospital!
She then went to Monyhull Colony in Solihull in the 1930s, a psychiatric hospital for the homeless. “We were all Irish nurses. The patients did all the work in the hospital, cleaning and everything. There were no servants. The patients did all the work. The women kept the whole place clean, the kitchens, the bedrooms, everything. The men did all the work outside. They would have a meal and bring it back down to their rooms in the evening. Makes sure they were in and locked. You had to be careful because the mood changed”. In 1935, there was accommodation for 1,243 “sane epileptics and feebleminded persons” at the Colony.
In 1945 Nellie went to Sligo where Georgina Kelly’s father was manager of the Ulsterbank.
Throughout the years, Nellie has retained her link with Rathvilly, only parting with the family home on Phelan Row in 2005. For over eighty years she has made it her business to try and get home for Christmas and Easters and Bank Holidays.
“Rathvilly!”, she exclaims. “You want to have seen it when they won the Tidy Towns! God, they came from all over the world! It was the first time the Tidy Towns was ever on and Rathvilly won. The minister came down and Lord Rathdonnell was given the award and there was such a crowd that I don’t know how he ever got out! Girls that had gone away from school came over, married and all with their families. Husbands and all came. A committee had organized it all. We had our own little band with Billy Kavanagh. He was a great musician. When you go down the hill past the Green, he lived up the back of the hill. He taught music and he started teaching the boys how to play the flute and the pipes and all. He got them all, about five or six, and they had their kilts and drums and they had a band. They used to play to the people coming out of mass on a Sunday. They used to go to places like Carlow and around Tullow and all, if there was anything on.”