Farm Ireland

Thursday 17 January 2019

'A life lived with determination, energy, joy and loads of love' - Son pays poignant tribute on death of farming mother

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

My mother died on the Wednesday of Easter Week. I was asked by the family to say a few words at the funeral mass - I hope you don't mind me sharing a version of them with you.

It is difficult to eulogise a woman who never sought praise or credit. My mother simply got on with life and lived it with determination, energy, joy and loads of love.

Easter was her time of year. More often than not her birthday fell during the season and had she lived she would have been 90 on the Saturday of Easter Week. On Easter Monday night in 1945 she met the love of her life at a dance.

She and my father courted for seven years until they married in 1952 and she came to live with him and his parents. She often spoke of the warm welcome she got from her parents-in-law and from the neighbours.

Not long after marrying they were given the land by my grandfather and worked hard to develop it. They were industrious and productive in more ways than one - they built the farm together, they brought us up together and poured their lives into us.

Between 1953 and 1973 they had 11 children. When we were young, my mother milked around eight cows by hand every morning before coming up from the yard to get us ready for school. It was a time when cash was scarce, when people bought what they could and made the rest by hand - from bread to bed-sheets, from jumpers to socks. The work never stopped.

Like all parents of that generation they were adamant their children's lives would be better than theirs. They were true to their word. They inherited a country on its knees in the 1950s and with little formal education and training to support them, they handed us an Ireland on its feet. We owe my parents and their peers a huge debt of gratitude.

While my mother loved the men in her life, she was a woman's woman. Nothing gave her greater joy than to see her daughters making their own way in the world as strong, independent women. Rumour has it that the hand that rocked 11 cradles also rocked the system when she voted for Mary Robinson.

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A person of deep faith, she was a great woman to pray. Her trips to Lourdes and the occasional stop at Knock, en route to visit my sister and her family in Sligo, were hugely important. Her well-thumbed library of prayer books is testimony to the depth of her belief and practice.

Her only relief from children and the farm were regular doses of retail therapy. A "run to town" was her delight and she would gladly foresake the smells of the farm for the scented air of Todd's cosmetic department or a rummage through the clothes in Helene Modes. "Even if it was only a handkerchief I bought I was happy with my day out," she would say.

She was everything you would want in a mother; she was warm, tender, encouraging, consoling and generous beyond the meaning of the word.

Dealing with a houseful of hormonal and testosterone-laden teenagers, a few mantras helped her to cope. These included the refrain: "If you can fool your mother, you have a fool for a mother." Any of us that tried to put one over on her was sure to rue the day.

But, most importantly, she would remind us again and again that: "As long as I'm here that old back door is open to all of you, no matter what happens." This rock solid assurance was everything we needed as children, as teenagers and as adults.

She managed her kitchen like a short-order chef with a rolling dinner running from 1pm until 6pm. At 4 o'clock a bottle of tea and a plate of scones were sent to the yard while supper happened after the cows were gone out. On the farm, she was an expert at rearing calves. Watching her feed them was like watching a wizard mixing her potions - a sup here, a drop there and a few saucepans of cold tea for the weaker misfortunes known as 'pyezawns'.

Each year she would claim one of these as her own and nurse him back from the edge of existence.

Invariably he was the cream of the bunch when it came time to send them to the mart. As soon as the cheque came in she'd call for her sister to join her on a "run to town". More than a handkerchief would be bought that day.

When we grew up and left home my mother's life changed dramatically. She often said she found the silence of the house deafening. Her salvation came in the form of the ICA. Joining the local guild opened up a whole new life where she discovered the joy of painting, a renewed love of Gaeilge, a reconnection with her neighbours and made a wide circle of new friends.

While she was everything you would want in a mother she was also everything her 34 grandchildren would want in a Nana. She was lovely and cuddly and mischievous and delightful with an endless supply of sweets, cakes, Nash's red lemonade and loose change.

Inevitably the years took their toll. Her memory became impaired, her body began to fail and she could no longer stay at home. Even though dementia darkened some parts of her consciousness she never forgot any of our names and grew even more affectionate as each day passed.

In the nursing home she developed warm and tender relationships with the staff and her fellow patients. At her core she remained the gorgeous human being she always was.

When my father came to join her they spent his last months holding hands from morning to night. If he got agitated she calmed him, if he got out of order she straightened him and when he sang her eyes lit up like a teenager. After he died she presumed he had gone "down the fields, and would be back for his dinner".

Her last few days were difficult as she hung on to life with determination and strength. But despite her difficulties, and thanks to the excellent care of the nursing home staff, we had many precious moments with her before she gently slipped away from us.

We feel privileged to have had such a woman as 'Mam' and as 'Nana'. Would that we can leave as lovely a mark on the planet as this fine woman did.

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