Norah's zest for life

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 2nd September, 2009 10:00am

Hitting the milestone of 90 years recently allowed hale and hearty Athlone woman Norah Kelly the opportunity to reflect on raising four sons as a young widow whilst retaining a remarkable zest for life.

Despite being in her tenth decade of life, Norah Kelly felt she was just 25-years-old at her recent party in the Shamrock Lodge Hotel for her 90th birthday party.

"I thought I was 25-years-old last week, and never thought I was 90," said Norah laughing. "Thinking I couldn't dance any more, I did a rehearsal on the kitchen floor at the house on the morning of the party."

Before the party there was a special mass for Norah in the Shamrock Lodge Hotel, officiated by Canon Patrick Murray, and Norah's long-time friend and neighbour from St Paul's Terrace, Fr. Eamon Kelly.

The birthday girl was born, Norah Bigley in Cornafulla, on July 19th, 1919, which was the year Dáil Éireann was first set up, and just a few months after the beginning of the War of Independence.

"I had a hard life and my husband, TP Kelly died of a brain haemorrhage when he wasn't quite 38 years of age, and I had four sons, and had to rear them on 46 shillings a week," said Norah. "I did the bog with the turf for 25 years, I cycled five miles up to Gorry Bog in the early morning, returning to prepare the boys' dinners, and afterwards headed back up the bog in the evening."

At this tough time in her life, Norah was not able to get Children's Allowance for her two eldest sons, Oliver and Richie. She got £1 for Joseph and a ten shilling note for Brian, who was just seven-months-old when his father died.

Norah lived in St. Paul's Terrace, The Batteries, after her marriage to TP, more than 60 years ago. TP had come from Mayo to live with his father in Athlone, who ran a saddler shop in Irishtown in the 1940's. Norah and TP met at a maypole dance in Summerhill, and the hardship that was to hit her, when she became a young widow in the 1950's, was familiar to her, due to her own tough upbringing on her family's farm in Cornafulla.

"My father, Richard and my mother, who was Catherine Durney before she married, worked the farm, and there were nine of us in the family, six girls and three boys," said Norah.

Norah and her sister, Lily (Watson) are the only members of the Bigley family still living. Two weeks after attending Norah's 90th birthday party, her brother Christy Bigley, who worked for many decades as Office Manager in the Westmeath Independent, died suddenly.

Norah went to Cornafulla National School in the 1920's, and made her Holy Communion in Drum Church, and made her Confirmation in the old Ss Peter's and Paul's Church in Chapel Street (on the present site of the Dean Crowe Theatre).

"We had to wear everything white, white sandles, white frock and white socks. The day before, the Bishop examined us all on the religious catechism," said Norah.

Norah made her confirmation with her nearby friends, Peter and Marcy Shine, who were uncle and aunt of recording star, Brendan Shine. In fact, Brendan's mother, Mary who died a number of years ago was also Norah's sister.

When she came home from school as a child, Norah took part in the household chores along with her brothers and sisters and parents.

"I put the iron on the fire to heat before ironing the clothes and then used the washboard in a bath I put up on two chairs and with Sunlight soap scrubbed the hell out of the clothes," she said. "It had to be done that way. We cooked over the fire on the crane at home, and it was great after I married, and moved to St. Paul's Terrace, because I had the range to cook on."

Also in Cornafulla, the Bigley family sowed potatoes, carrots and parsnips on their ground, and had a donkey, and a plough which was pulled by two horses.

When she left school, Norah went into work in Johnston's Drapery in Mardyke Street, Athlone. Johnston's was located between Stephen Kelly's pub and Rosie Browne's pub on the street in 1930's and 1940's. The Johnston family, who lived in Court Devenish, sold men's and women's drapery in their shop.

"When I started in Johnston's, I was paid five shillings a week, and I often left the shop at 9.30 or 10 o'clock on a Saturday night to cycle home to Cornafulla," said Norah. "There was not a sinner soul on the roads, but I had my bicycle lamp, because there were no electric lights on the country roads. It would be on a very rare occasion that you'd see a car."

Norah cycled from Cornafulla to Mardyke Street each day, in rain, hail or snow for seven years. The bicycle has been the lifeline of transport for Norah throughout her life. She was eight years old when she first learned to cycle to school, and incredibly Norah is still cycling a Raleigh bicycle more than 80 years later. At age 90, Norah can still be seen cycling through town, and attends mass daily at Ss Peter's and Paul's church.

"I walk some of the way because of the hills, but I've been cycling all of my life and it's a great way of carrying groceries, and I haven't got time to put on weight," said Norah laughing.

After Norah's husband died, she got a knitting machine from Singers in Lloyd's Lane, and paid for it by giving a half crown off it per week. She knitted clothes for many families over the years, which helped her small income that was badly needed to help bring up her four sons.

Despite the hardships, Norah loved living in St Paul's Terrace with her family, and had great neighbours in the many families in the area.

"When Fr Eamon Kelly went into the priesthood on the missions, he used to write to me, telling me he was praying for me and the children, and when he came home on holidays, he always came straight in for a chat and to catch up," said Norah proudly.

Norah herself is a great woman for a chat, and has great memories of times past, and some of those memories go back to the early 1920's. She also never got a cold in her life, and hasn't got "one bit of arthritis," as she says herself.

Norah likes to dance, and as said previously, did a rehearsal on her kitchen floor before she attended her 90th birthday party.

"I don't get to dance nowadays, where would I be going? Imagine seeing an auld one of 90 out on the floor," said Norah laughing. "But I was on the floor at the party waltzing and shooing the donkey."

More than 150 people attended the birthday party, which included her neighbours from The Batteries and friends from all over the country. She was chauffeured to her party in a Daimler by her nephew Richard Bigley.

Norah's eight grandchildren, and six great-children brought the Strawboys group as a surprise present for her at the party, and her great granddaughter, Aoife opened the dancing show with an Irish jig. The younger members of the family gave her the present, to thank her for getting up early every Sunday morning to make the buns for them.

Norah is a great inspiration to all for her dedication and commitment to her family despite what life threw at her.

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