Tuesday 18 June 2019

Late Nan Ward was a truly remarkable Travelling lady

Aged 87, she had 134 grand-children, 263 great grand-children and two great great grand-children

The late Nan Ward, RIP, with her great-grandson Charlie.
The late Nan Ward, RIP, with her great-grandson Charlie.

THE DEATH took place recently in St. John's Hospital, Sligo, of Nan Ward. She was 87, a remarkable age for a lady of the Travelling Community. She had 134 grandchildren, 263 great grandchildren and two great great grandchildren.

At noon on Monday the 23rd of January, Sligo's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was packed to capacity by Travellers from all over Ireland and England for the funeral. The principal celebrant was Bishop Christy Jones, a friend of Nan's for almost fifty years, with concelebrants Canon Tom Hever, Frs. Pat Lombard, Dominick Gillooly, Stephen Walshe and John Carroll.

In his homily, Bishop Jones gave an insight into the life of Nan who, he said, struggled with poverty and tragedy throughout her life.

Relations of Nan participated in the Readings and in the Prayers of the Faithful. Relations sang traditional hymns.

At the end of the Mass, Patsy Ward, son of Nan, came to the sanctuary and thanked everyone.

Burial took place in Ballymote, the traditional burial place of Travellers. When the hearse arrived at the outskirts of Ballymote, a carriage drawn by two magnificent black horses carried Nan's coffin to the cemetery.

Bishop Jones and Fr. Steven Walsh conducted the graveside ceremony. Young Traveller ladies brought the ceremony to an end with a magnificent rendering of "Our Lady of Knock."

In his homily during the funeral Mass, Bishop Jones said Nan was now at home and at peace with her husband, Pat, and her son, John Joe, who died suddenly so long ago.

"Today, our hearts go out in sympathy to Nan's daughters: Anne, Mary, Winnie, Rosaleen Bridget, Margaret Ella and Kate and to her sons: Charlie, Patsy, Bernie, Martin and Michael, her sisters Ellen and Maggie and brother Tom," said Bishop Jones.

He continued: "Your mother was eighty seven years of age, so her life was lived through great years of change from the days when they travelled the country in beautiful horse drawn caravans and then arriving at a favourite crossroads in the country they would use their smaller horse drawn traps or carts to visit every house in the neighbourhood. And neighbours loved to see them come because they would fix leaks in pots and pans, buy horsehair and sell brushes. The Travellers had a great sense of pride in their skills which were so much in demand and which gave them such a sense of self-esteem and pride.

"Then plastics came and not only undermined the pots and pans industry but undermined also in the process the pride and self-esteem of travellers. They became poor overnight and drifted towards the towns where they could collect social welfare and children could collect a few bob on the streets. Suddenly in the 1960's you began to see many families living in poverty on the suburbs of towns and cities."

Bishop Jones said that when he returned to Sligo in 1965, there had been a fire in one of these gatherings and some died from burning while others were disfigured for life. In 1968 he was invited one night to a meeting in the Café Cairo on Wine Street to discuss what could be done to improve the quality of life for travellers. Bishop Jones said he was teaching in Summerhill at the time so was asked to do something about education.

"Next day I decided I could not do anything until I went to the Travellers and could see where they were at in terms of their education. I drove out to Rathbraughan to meet with travellers who were living under canvas on the side of the road. The first tent I called to was that of Nan Ward," he said.

He continued: "Nan gave me a very warm welcome. Although I was already a priest for six years I had never visited a Travelling family before. The tent was thick with smoke and I could see nothing at first. Then Nan invited me go sit low on a log of wood. I did and now I was under the level of the smoke and could see everything. The floor of the tent was the side of the road and in the centre of the floor there was a fire. Five or six children sat on their hunkers around the fire eating hot potatoes from their hands.

"That was a major moment of conversion in my heart. I came out of that tent with a great sense of guilt, guilt for how I and indeed the rest of society had neglected and rejected our brothers and sisters in Christ. It was so typical of what others had done to us during famine times. I was totally amazed at the warmth of Nan's welcome. There was no anger, no complaints and no bitterness. A relationship was formed between us that day that lasted to her final breath.

"Galvanized huts were built on the side of that road, on concrete floors with cookers, tables and chairs inside. The Sligo County Council built the small little houses called tigins. The intentions were good. The Travellers would live in the tigins and cook outside which they always did but the tigins were too small.

"Bishop Conway gave sites for two bungalows on College property and Nan moved in with her family. She loved that house and walked to 10.30a.m. Mass here in the Cathedral every morning with Michael who was very little at the time. Then the family grew up and moved on. Nan went to live on her own in a little house in Cranmore. She loved that little house but missed the company that had been so much part of her life years ago.

"Before she moved from Rathbraughan, her husband Pat died a very young man and her son John Joe died tragically down at the docks. Nan had one great gift, in that she would never forget any kindness that she experienced.

"I remember celebrating Confirmation in St. Joseph's Church one Saturday. The Church was packed. As I was preaching the main door opened and in came Nan. One of her grand children was being confirmed. As she walked up the isle there was literally no empty seat on either side. I stopped and welcomed Nan. I introduced her to the congregation as someone who had suffered much in life but had a great love for the Eucharist. I said 'Nan come up here, there is an empty seat right in the front'. She came up, sat down and smiled up at me.

"The following Tuesday at lunch time I was told a lady was waiting for me in the sitting room. I went out and there was Nan. She said she was sorry for interrupting me but she wanted to give me something. She handed me those crocheted flowers and said, ' thank you for Saturday.' I treasure those flowers. They represent not only Nan's magnificent skills but her heart that was so full of love for God, for family and for all of us."

He concluded: "Let us pray that the Good Lord will one day forgive us for the way we have neglected and rejected Travelling people in the past. Let us pray that sooner rather than later, the Travellers will have their day in the sun."