How Mary (14) ran away to the circus to be with her Valentine (48)
It was a forbidden love that scandalised Ireland in 1960, but as she looks back on her life, Mary Corkery has no regrets except the heartbreak of hurting her parents, writes Aine Fitzgerald
He put his arm around her. No words were spoken. Almost immediately, something stirred in the soul of 14-year-old Mary Corkery.
The girl who sold milk and bread from behind the counter of Creeds, a rural County Limerick store, had been swept off her feet. What followed - an irresistible tale of romance, secrets, love and mystery would see the teenage girl become the talk of her village and then the talk of the nation, the focus of front-page news and the main witness in a circuit court case which heard a fascinating account of forbidden love.
Mary Corkery of Knocktoran, Knocklong, Co Limerick, the second youngest of 10 children, had left school at the age of 12. She secured a job in Creeds in Elton - a place, like many, where everyone knows everyone's business and the arrival of any new face excites comment.
The first time Mary Corkery laid eyes on Valentine Cecil McCormick was at a travelling picture show in Elton in March 1959. She was 14. He was 48.
The tall man with blue eyes and brown hair swept to one side "just put his arm around me".
Almost immediately, she was overtaken by a feeling she had never felt before. It was new, thrilling and all-consuming.
"There was something then," recalls Mary, now 71 as she sits in the Millennium Centre in Caherconlish, Co Limerick where Corvenieo Circus are presenting their latest production, Cirque de Lumiere.
"I don't know, just something clicked and that was it."
After two weeks the McCormicks, who ran mobile cinemas and circus shows, moved on to their next pitch but Mary and Valentine made it their business to keep in contact. It was done privately for a long time with letters of affection criss-crossing the country.
"I didn't have any money. I was very young but he would send me the fare to go to see him."
Mary was falling for Valentine. And he for her.
But she didn't confide in anyone. She couldn't.
At 14, Valentine was Mary's first boyfriend. She had admirers "but that was all".
Her parents Margaret and Timothy became suspicious when Mary started getting new clothes "and nice bits and pieces".
"I don't know how but it did come out and they made it impossible for me," she says.
Mary left home one day with only the clothes on her back.
"Mom was upset and I have to admit today, I was bold. I was very bold. She was upset and then dad was totally against it, naturally. I was following my heart but I was heartbroken for my mother as well."
The couple stayed away for a week.
What they didn't know was the gardai had been alerted and so began a nationwide hunt for the couple which had the press reporters from all over England and Ireland searching for their whereabouts.
When he found out that he was wanted by the gardai, Valentine went into Drimnagh garda station in Dublin and gave himself up.
Nothing, however, would stand in the way of their love. Mary had turned 15 on July 4, 1959. She became Mrs McCormick in Westland Row Catholic Church in Dublin on September 16, that same year. Her mother, Margaret, attended.
Valentine had previously been married for six years but his wife had been killed in a road accident.
But there was still the criminal charge outstanding. In a case that sparked huge media interest, Valentine McCormick was charged with unlawfully taking Mary McCormick, who was living with her parents, out of their possession on July 4, 1959. The case was heard in Limerick circuit court.
Mary gave evidence. She was a full day in the box.
The court heard that the couple slept in separate bedrooms in the hotels they stayed in. Mary stands by that evidence today.
"At the time I was young but, I mean to say, he protected me that way. It was company, friendship and affection that brought us together."
She said that when she came back home after being away with Valentine, she was brought to the doctor for a check-up and it was accepted that he had "respected her completely".
"He was so, so good that way," she says. "Especially with an older man, it looked like he was taking advantage of me which never, never happened."
Valentine McCormick was found guilty by a jury before Justice Barra O Briain SC of abduction of the 15-year-old.
The judge, in his address, said that it was to the credit of the accused that he treated her with respect: "You were swept off your feet," he said to Valentine, "by her charm and her considerable beauty, and by her obvious affection for you".
The law, at the same time, added Justice O Briain, had been "flagrantly broken". The accused was discharged and bound to the peace for two years.
Valentine (49) left the court with the hand of his young bride, aged 15, in his. The next morning, Mary recalls, they had porridge and a fry for breakfast. She cooked it herself.
So what attracted Mary to this man who was 34 years her senior?
"His personality," she says, without a second thought.
A physical attraction, she says, didn't really come into it - it was something deeper.
"He had a fabulous, strong-willed personality."
Within 12 months Mary was taking part in circus shows with Valentine - "the king of the high stilts" - and then it was one baby after another.
During their 26 "great years together" - Mary and Valentine travelled the country with their circus while raising 12 children - six boys and six girls.
"I had 13 but one died very young," Mary says, tenderly.
Mary and Valentine didn't have time for rows. They were too busy working in the circus performances and raising their young family.
They used one-and-a-half gallons of milk at the lunch every day, and nine loaves of bread.
Sadly, Mary lost her Valentine 30 years ago when he died, aged 75, after succumbing to cancer.
After travelling the country for years, Mary bought a house in Delvin, Co Westmeath where she lives today.
Would she do it all again?
"I would - the only thing I regret is hurting mom and dad. I had a wonderful mom and dad - they were only looking out for my interests.
"It's a story that probably shouldn't have come up but it's a story that had a fairytale ending. And I'm proud of it," she told the Sunday Independent.