Nora Greene’s old sewing machine, which is now in use in Malawi.

The Athlone sewing machine that’s started a new life in Malawi

"My mam was Nora Greene. She lived all her life in Athlone and reared her family there. She passed away on December 13, 2019, not long after her 92nd birthday.

By the middle of the 1950s, Athlone boasted a thriving textile industry, ‘The General Textile Company’, better known as Gentex, that employed nearly one thousand people, working round the clock, three eight-hour shifts a day.

My godfather worked in Gentex and regularly dropped off parcels of material off-cuts from the factory for mam and she used the sewing machine and her seamstress skills to clothe us all. My holy communion dress was made from a curtain.

There were eight of us Greene children in her family, and later on, 25 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. Mam knew all of their names. She was always interested in everything we did. She encouraged us to do the things she had never had the opportunity to do. Education was her God, and homework was a must. She knew education was the route to a better life and she and my father got involved in all our school activities. Mam did all the school play outfits and my dad did the sets! A good way to keep us top of the class.

She always had a great interest in helping others who were less fortunate. She lived at a time where there was still high infant mortality and where people died young, their life expectancy being shortened by poor living conditions and disease. Doctor Noel Browne TD, lived across the street from her in Gahens Lane, Irishtown, in Athlone. His family were almost wiped out by tuberculosis in the 1930s. Mam was his biggest fan because of the ‘Mother and Child Act he tried to bring into law here in 1947. She also supported his campaign to eradicate Tuberculosis in the 1950s, as mam too had lost a sibling to TB.

She really thought the world of Donough O Malley, TD and Minister for Education for introducing ‘Free Education’ in 1967, She knew full well how hard it was with eight children to educate.

Mam passed away a month before Covid broke out in Italy. We were devastated, but in retrospect, we were blessed, as it would have been so difficult had she been ill during the Covid lockdown. At least we all got to spend time with her.

Mam had a long working life supplementing her family's income in very poor times. She made all of our clothing on this machine, from underwear to holy communion dresses. She made our Debs dresses and even some of our wedding dresses. My father kept the sewing machine in pristine working order. There was nothing she didn't attempt. We had maxi dresses, minis etc before they hit the shops. The only help she needed was threading the needle!

Mam’s sewing machine was only a little older than herself, dating from the early 1920s. It is a Singer 66K full-sized Treadle Sewing Machine, a popular model, (maybe two million of them were made in total), that the Singer company manufactured at the main Singer plant in Scotland. Her machine featured the "Egyptian Lotus" decal decoration which was used by Singer on the model 66 from 1904 - 1924.

Now her treasured sewing machine is heading to Malawi. Two of her grandchildren worked in the community there, and they thought the old sewing machine would fit right in. It will start a new working life in a sewing centre in Malawi and hopefully help create some employment. Coincidentally I worked in a centre in Botswana in the late 1970s using a singer trestle machine. Just like this one. It would seem that life has come full circle."

Interview with Judy Greene, remembering her mam, Nora Greene.

Judy, an Athlone native, went to Galway after studying ceramics and having worked for a while in Africa. She opened her iconic pottery shop in 1982 and the pottery and Irish gift business continues to thrive today at her lovely shop on Kirwan’s Lane, Galway. Although her shop is closed owing to the pandemic, her website continues to trade.

Interview by Brian Nolan, Galway Walks – Walking Tours of Galway. Phone: 086 3273560

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