I was not sure what to expect when I went to meet the oldest lady in Athenry. I know I was not expecting to see her with a cigarette but this was how it turned out. We are reminded daily of the dangers to our health caused by smoking. Yet here was a woman who has enjoyed her cigarette for three-quarters of a century and still managed to outlive everyone else. It is quite extraordinary, but then, there is little about Delia which isn’t extraordinary.
Delia Ryan (nee Carr) lives in Park with her three sons Michael, ‘Lol’ and Tony. She displays (apart from a slight deafness) remarkably good health and humour, clearly the result of a lot of love and care from her family.
Despite her years, she is very agile and lively. Although a quiet, shy, retiring individual who likes to keep to herself as much as possible, she has an interesting tale to tell.
Born in 1901 in the parish of Gurteen, Delia is a woman that has seen Athenry, Ireland, and indeed the world, change in ways she could never have imagined as a girl. She has lived through two world wars, the arrival of the motor-car, the introduction of electricity, the invention of television and the computer. When she was born the airplane had not yet been invented, now men walk on the moon. Yet such fanciful things do not take a prominent place in her memories.
Instead she likes to remember fondly her childhood, her life on the farm where she grew up and her schooldays. She recalls working with her father and mother on the land where they lived. “The work” she tells me ” ‘twas very hard that time”. She smiles at me, suggesting that our generation could not understand the meaning of hard work. For this was the age of “squitching”, churning, tramping hay, and fair days. The arrival of the tractor, the combine harvester, the baler, the creamery and the mart lay in the future. Work was done by hand, farmers were almost self-sufficient and the horse was every bit as valuable as a tractor is today. The work was hard, but rewarding.
Her schooldays were among her happiest. “Oh I remember going to school alright” she enthuses. Delia attended Temple school, which is situated just off the Athenry – Gurteen road at Temple cross. It was a two teacher school at that time, being reduced to one in later years. The school has been closed down for a number of years now, but the building remains behind, as do the memories. Her teacher was Ms. Duffy. “We loved going to school, loved it”.
Delia was a young woman when Ireland sought its independence. She remembers clearly the events of this time. The tension and patriotism of the Rising, the War of Independence and later the Civil war must have been exciting, but the danger of the situation was always understood. She remembers lorries of Irish soldiers going around the roads near where she lived. “We’d hide from them for fear they’d see us” she said.
The stark realities of war were experienced firsthand by Delia through the murder of Gurteen priest Fr. Griffin by the Black and Tans during the rising. The Carr family lived down the road from the priest’s house and Delia knew him well. The church in Gurteen parish is named after him today.
Shortly after her marriage in 1923 to Martin Ryan, she came to live in Athenry where she raised seven children. Delia has always been a deeply religious lady. She remembers coming to Athenry on Lady Day every year during her childhood and right through her life. She never missed a year. She recalls large crowds, much larger than today, going to the well. She met people there from all over the county, from Connemara to Gurteen.
Of course, Gurteen has its own holy well – St. Kerrill’s Well. She always went on the pilgrimage there on the l3th June, which is Kerrill’s day. She remembers large crowds attending that also, assuring me that at that time it was every bit as big as Athenry on Lady Day. “The church was very good that time. Everyone went to their Mass” she reminds me. “It’s different now. The religion was very strong then.” Delia is saddened by the decline she sees happening in the church. It is just one of the things she doesn’t like about the way our society has changed.
Times may have been hard then but Delia is not so sure that we are better off today. The increase in serious crime which has plagued our country over the last while leads her to think that things were better then. “Twas quieter that time, anyhow” she said, “you could go where you like any time at night and you wouldn’t be afraid. There was none of that work (crime) goin’ on at all.” We may have advanced hugely in technological terms and maybe our economy is stronger now than it has ever been, but modernity has brought with it new dangers and fears.
Delia can remember a time when “you could travel anywhere”. She remembers a much stronger sense of community and friendship. This was a time before television, and before electricity. She recalls a strong custom of house visiting where people would regularly visit relations and friends. They would gather to play cards of an evening under the dim light of paraffin oil lamps. The difficulty in reading the cards under the poor light was compensated for by the atmosphere of fun and friendship which prevailed.
She remembers the arrival of the wireless and the excitement and change it brought about. These radios operated on wet and dry batteries which had to be charged. The wireless added a new dimension to the house visits and, where once large crowds would come together for a céilí or to play cards, they now gathered round the radio to listen to the immortal voice of Micheál O’Hehir commentating on hurling or football matches.
Delia loved sport. She played camogie for Gurteen at one time. She recalls travelling “all over the country” to play and remembers playing a match for Gurteen against Athenry in Kenny Park, then the Back Lawn. “Handball too” she tells me “was very popular”. She often watched matches being played in the outdoor courts which are now to be found unused scattered throughout the countryside.
It is probably the healthy lifestyle of her early years which leaves Delia looking so fresh and healthy, today. Being the eldest lady in the parish is not something that she gives much thought to. She may be old in years but she is young and full of life in spirit. I thank her for a pleasant chat. Then I leave her where she is happiest — sitting at home beside the fireplace with her sons and another cigarette.
Written by Vincent Murphy
Published here 08 Feb 2021 and originally published December 1996
Memories of my early years in Cahercrin, Craughwell: Bridget Morrissey (Mrs B Ruane)
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