Monday 10 December 2018

Radio documentary to tell story of 'Aunty Ethel'

Documentary will be aired on east coast FM on St Patrick's Day

Ethel Heath, captured by photographer Dave O’Connor for the Bray People in 1983, with some of her pet birds.
Ethel Heath, captured by photographer Dave O’Connor for the Bray People in 1983, with some of her pet birds.

Mary Fogarty

'The Bird Lady of Bray - The True Story of Aunty Ethel and her sister Maura' will air on East Coast FM this Saturday morning, St Patrick's Day, at 9 a.m.

In the 1980s, photographer Liam Blake took a photograph of a smiling red-headed woman with her large pet seagull - named Maureen - perched on top of her head.

The photograph would become an iconic Real Ireland postcard which would be sent by visitors to addresses all round the world. The woman in the photo became known as the 'Bird Lady of Bray' but to thousands of locals she was also known as Aunty Ethel. Ethel's voice also became familiar to the people of Wicklow through her many impromptu appearances on the breakfast shows on East Coast FM.

Previous attempts to get Ethel to open up came to nothing. However, when Ethel's brother died in 1999, her only sister Maura returned to Bray for the first time since leaving for America in 1953. Producer Pat Hannon managed to sit the two of them down together during that visit to record their family history and to get the true story about Aunty Ethel - the Bird Lady of Bray.

Ethel's father was Commandant Ignatius O'Neill in the Irish Army and Ethel and Maura were born in Kent House, a large 17-bedroom house in the Curragh. They then moved to No 6 Fontenoy Terrace beside the Bray Head Hotel. Although Ethel had no children of her own, she loved children and was know to all as 'Aunty Ethel'.

Ethel died in 2015 and her ashes were scattered at sea to join those of her late-husband Harry.

The programme celebrates one of Bray's best known characters known for here catch phrase 'Give us a gonker (kiss)' and a loud 'Woo Hoo!' shout to locals from her rusty old push bike.

The documentary features DJs from East Coast FM, where Ethel was the early morning tea lady and would often be heard on the air during the many breakfast shows over the year.

'Would you like a sandwich there honey bunch,' she would say to the radio crew as well as the bus drivers at the nearby 45a terminus.

Ethel was in her '50s when she married painter-decorator Harry Heath. When the car forgot to come and get the bride on the wedding day, the Dublin Bus lads sprang into action and got Ethel to the church on time.

Pat Hannon has been a lecturer in radio in DIT for the past 20 years and this programme has been a labour of love. With the massive outpouring of fondness when much-loved Ethel died, Pat wanted to memorialise her with the interview he had done back in the late-1990s.

Those who knew Ethel will recall her getting around on her trusty bicycle, followed by a dog or two, or out sweeping the path outside her cottage.

No child would pass her gate without getting a token for the amusements and she is remembered as a kind and loving person, who was friendly and cheerful towards everyone.

Ethel lived on the seafront and was well known for her love of birds and animals. On one occasion she took in a dog whose throat had been cut and nursed him back to health and, of course, she had two pet seagulls, Maureen and Charlie (she was a big Charlie Haughey supporter).

In the years prior to her death, Ethel resided at San Remo nursing home in Bray. She died in July 2015 at Blackrock Hospice.

Bray People