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Christine and her million to one leap year twins

A mother tells Anita Guidera how she made history with babies' births

Christine McDonnell pauses and savours the memory of making world headlines. She says simply: "I remember it like it was yesterday." The pictures were taken at the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, on the morning of February 29, 1960, and now, even after 52 long years, the passage of time has done little to dim her recollections.

Now 86, she remembers the fuss -- pictures of her lying in bed, looking tired but pleased, and pictures of a nurse holding her new babies Robert and Patricia.

Another picture, the one featured on the cover of Irish Lives, shows her babies alongside her second set of 'leap year twins' -- Jimmy and Ann.

The probability of giving birth to twins on a leap year day is greater than one in a million but Christine managed to defy all the odds by doing it twice, casting an international spotlight on this inner-city family. From that day, every four years, Christine and Michael McDonnell's small home was turned upside down in preparation for the birthday parties of their two sets of twins.

The occasion also brought an avalanche of press photographers to the terraced house near Dublin's Four Courts to picture the twins blowing out their birthday candles.

Now a great-grandmother, and still living in the house where she reared her six children, Christine recalls the events of over half a century ago. "I'd expected to have one or two children but I was shocked when they started arriving in pairs," she laughed.

A native of Clondra, Co Longford, she moved to Dublin to work as a dressmaker and married her boss, Michael McDonnell, in 1951. The couple moved into Michael's family home and had two sons, David and Brendan, before Christine discovered she was pregnant with twins.

The birth of Jimmy and Ann on February 29, 1956, made newspaper headlines and a Dublin company donated 50 guineas to buy a double buggy, cot and high chair.

When Christine found out she was pregnant with twins for a second time, her initial reaction was to burst into tears.

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"It came as a shock at first. There were three sets of twins on my husband's side but they were a few generations back," she told the Irish Independent.

The birth of the second set of twins on February 29, 1960, defied all odds and made world headlines. "It was hard to believe that it could happen again. People asked me if I had planned it but it was a total accident."

Weighing 6lbs each, Robert and Patricia were born at 5.20am in the Rotunda Hospital, exactly four years after the birth of James and Ann.

"I remember it very, very well. There was a great bit of excitement the second time around. It was the talk of the hospital. I remember the Master of the Rotunda coming into the room to congratulate me. They said the odds were one in a million."

The story and pictures of the proud mum with the newborn twins and their four-year-old twin siblings went all over the world. Christine even got a call from a cousin in America who had seen it on NBC News.

But when all the excitement died down, Christine had to get used to the new, overwhelming reality of having six children under the age of seven.

"It was hard but, you know, I didn't realise it at the time. My mother came and helped me out and so also did my sister.

"I really needed help but they helped out and I took it in my stride really. I just took it like that. I didn't get all hot and bothered," she said.

Every leap year, the twins' birthdays were celebrated in style with two iced birthday cakes and a special party.

Patricia (52) recalls that the parties were the first clue for her that they were different to other children.

"When the photographers would show up, we began to realise that this didn't happen to everyone. Every four years we would get our photograph taken. When Robert and I were 12 and Jimmy and Ann were 16, we were on the 'Late, Late Show'.

"Of course, we had birthdays every year. In fact, we used to have a birthday on February 28 and on March 1 but the 29th was always the special one," she said.

As they grew older, the date became a time they would all get together for a family celebration, but the family has also suffered loss.

Ten years ago, Christine's husband Michael passed away. Months earlier, Jimmy lost his life in a tragic accident.

"It was very hard. I still think of him. I don't think you ever forget something like that really," said Christine softly.

Reunions are treasured as Robert, Patricia's twin, now lives in Australia -- but Patricia and Christine visited him last March.

Christine is kept busy with 12 grandchildren and was thrilled to become a great-grandmother to little Leo McDonnell.

To date, twins have not appeared in the younger generation -- but even if they do, what are the odds of them being born on leap year day? Christine knows better than to rule anything out.


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