It is written by Breda Joy, a friend and former colleague of mine at The Kerryman.
The interview with Lally Lawlor (100) is over. The casual chat is of her old home on Tralee’s Ashe Street where just two of the houses have resident families at this stage.
“He got a new roof,” Lally says, referring to one former neighbour.
“How do you know that?” her son, Tom, asks in surprise.
“And he got new windows,” she continues, adding extra details.
The morning is misting over Tralee Bay on the other side of Lally’s bedroom window in Ocean View nursing home in Camp.
Cards from her 100th birthday on March 28th last are still arranged around the door. To one side are two framed letters of congratulations, one from Áras an Uachtaráin, the other from Buckingham Palace.
On the other side, there is an Irish Times article profiling her grandson, the actor,Tom Vaughan-Lawlor alias the infamous ‘Nidge’ of the RTE gangland drama series, ‘Love/Hate’.
She gives a wry smile when I mention the series. Though she is obviously proud of her grandson, she confesses that she didn’t watch the drama, preferring ‘At Your Service’, instead.
“I like the Brennans, “ she said with enthusiasm. “I love that fellow.”
There have been many twists and turns in this life set against a backing track of the sea. The retired civil servant’s final job was as Secretary of the Fenit Harbour Board.
When she first moved to Ocean View, the Fenit pilot, Mr Moriarty, would ring her when any ship was being guided in so that she could follow the progress of the lights from the hillside home.
Born on March 28th, 1915, and christened Kathleen Duggan, Lally grew up beside the sea in Wicklow Town. She was the eldest of nine children born to Bridget (nee Butler), a Westmeath woman, and Timothy Duggan, an agent for the ship owners, Pimms, and, prior to that, an RIC policeman.
“Wicklow Bay, we all grew up looking at it,” she said. “It was described as being like the Bay of Naples.”
“In those days, before a young person could swim, a rope was put around their waist and they went out in the water,” she said. “When I got older, we used to watch the tides and we’d go in off the pier.”
Lally became a keen swimmer and won competitions as a young girl.
One of her most vivid memories of the War of Independence in Ireland is that of the shooting of a young RIC policeman near the sea in the Murrough area of her town. He was aged 21 and had been walking with a colleague.
“They were off-duty but they were in uniform,” she recalled. “Somebody came up on a bicycle and shot them. One of them died.”
“And I remember because the next day he was laid out in the barracks and my mother sent flowers,” she said. “I brought the flowers down to the barracks. I was asked if I would like to see him and I said, ‘No’.”
After she left the local Dominican Convent school, she sat an examination to enter the Civil Service.
“I got fifteenth place in Ireland at that time,” she said. “I thought it was very good.”
Her first workplace was Aldborough House, an original Georgian House in the Five Lamps area near Dublin’s Amiens Street Station. The large rooms were divided by screens and heated by turf fires.
While she was in Dublin, she filled her free time with Irish language classes and An Óige walks, which were followed by a meal costing ‘two and six’.
An avid theatre-goer, she had the privilege of seeing the legendary duo, Dramatist and Actor Micheál Mac Liammóir and Director Hilton Edwards. She described them as ‘brilliant’.
“Before I married, I had a flat in Fitzwilliam Square,” she said. “It was a lovely area, and still is.”
Lally’s heart was taken by a young Tralee medical student, Tom Lawlor, whose family owned Ballygarry House, now the hotel. She first met Tom, who was 10 years her senior, when she was 13-years-old and he was visiting relatives in Wicklow.
Did she like him from the start? “Yes, because he spoke to me like an adult,” she said.
Years passed and they became a couple. They married in Westland Row Church, Dublin, at 7am on July 7th, 1943, and had their wedding breakfast at the Mont Clare Hotel on Merrion Square.
Directly afterwards, they caught a train to Tralee because Tom was working as a locum in Castlegregory. Her abiding memory of arriving in Tralee is the smell of turf smoke.
Lally often accompanied her husband in his Ford car on calls in the district stretching back to Clahane and Brandon. Petrol was rationed during the war years.
“You got eight gallons a month,” she said. “You had to go into Tralee for it. Tea was rationed as well. People would give you a bit of tea. If they were giving you a gift, they might have saved up their tea ration or something else that was rationed.”
She often cycled in to Tralee and out again for shopping.
One of the most dramatic calls Lally attended with Tom was the scene of a plane crash on Mount Brandon.
“It came from South Africa,” she said. “It was a civilian plane. It crashed and everyone was killed. We climbed Brandon. They were laid out there.”
“They were bringing money from South Africa to England to help the war effort. One man – he was a Jew – was buried in Killiney outside Castlegregory. He was exhumed later to be buried in his own graveyard.”
As with other plane crashes in Kerry, some people who were first on the scene removed valuables but there was a macabre twist to this particular accident. A finger was cut from one corpse to get a ring.
“The parish priest condemned it at Mass,” Lally said.
She sets the story in the context of the extreme poverty that existed in the area at the time.
After the medical vacancy in Castlegregory was filled by a Dr Healy, whose brother was a TD, Tom and Lally bought the Ashe Street house, formerly owned by a vet.
“The vet got a lift in a hearse on one of his calls,” Lally related. “He got into the back and fell asleep.”
In Ashe Street, Tom set up his medical practice and the couple’s four children, Tom, Fr Paul, John and Mary, were born there. The young family was out on Banna Strand ‘every chance we got’.
One golden summer in the 1950s, Lally and Tom drove through France, Switzerland and Italy .
Life altered totally for the young mother in January, 1965, when her husband died and she became the sole provider for their four children who were aged from 18 years down to eight years.
Because female civil servants could not continue to work after marriage in that era, Lally had given up her job when she married. As a widow, she returned to work with the Land Commission in Tralee.
“It was on my file that consideration should be given to look after the children and that time off would be given if I had to look after them,” she said.
Was this a difficult time? “Everybody was helpful,” she replied simply.
Later again, she returned to work in the civil service in Dublin. She also found time to take a degree in Social Science from UCC. At the age of 65, retirement was compulsory but Lally was not ready to give up work.
A golden opportunity opened up through a vacancy for the post of Fenit Harbour Secretary. By then, she had been living in a cottage in Ballyroe for some years, having sold the Ashe Street house to Tralee Credit Union giving them, she pointed out, six months ‘grace’ on the purchase because they didn’t have the money.
“My little office was at the sea end of the pier,” she said. “I would drive down the pier in between the waves crossing it.”
Here, she was literally in her element with the ocean outside her office window and new challenges beckoning, among them the task of restoring a RNLI Lifeboat to Fenit.
“I wrote to Mr Clayton Love of the RNLI Committee in Cork and, the next thing, we got the lifeboat,” she said with relish. “It was a wonderful day when the lifeboat came back.”
To record the wonder of that day, Lally painted the scene – the painting was ultimately used as the RNLI Christmas Card. And when she celebrated her 100th birthday last March, her cake arrived in the shape of a lifeboat.
Lally gets the Irish Times delivered to her bedroom daily – it arrived just before I left her last Friday. She keeps up with current affairs and does crosswords. She is partial to a glass of the Italian liqueur, Limoncello.
And she knits. A tea cosy she recently finished is a gift destined for Iran where her son, Fr Paul, is a Dominican priest. They drink a lot of tea in Iran because of the alcohol ban, she explained.
Lally likes to keep up with the happenings in the lives of her children, her seven grandchildren and her seven great grandchildren.
In turn, the family members need to keep tabs on the matriarch who retains the ability to surprise. Just last year, she made her tv debut on a UTV special with Pat Kenny.
Finally, how does she account for her longevity. Lally shrugs her shoulders. If she has a theory, she is not divulging it. Hard work, enthusiam for life, the spell of the sea maybe? Limoncello, even. Who knows. Whatever the elixir, it has worked handsomely for Lally Lawlor.