Tribute to Liza Mulvihill

The oldest woman in the parish Liza Mulvihill will be buried tomorrow Thursday 7th May. She was born in the 19th August 1915. The following is an interview I did with her in 2010.

Laughing with Liza

“You must be the oldest person in the Parish of Glin” I said to Liza on visiting her recently. “No,” she answered. “Donie Lyons’s mother is one year older. She is 96 and I am only 95 since 19th August this year.” At ‘only 95’ Liza continues to live on her own in her comfortable warm house in Glin with her budgie “Biddy” and she also has the comfort of many visitors, including Carers, who visit a few times a day . She is quite content sitting beside her range, with her books, including a prayer book and Rosary beads, and the phone beside her. She has a glint of mischief in her eye and loves a good laugh or yarn.

Liza was born Elizabeth Mulvihill in Glenalappa, Newtownsandes as it was then. “It is called  Moyvane now of course” she says. There was no road into the house only footpaths across the mountain. You could enter from the Drumreask road or from the Moyvane side. Her parents were Patrick Mulvihill RIP, a thatcher, and Mary Ann Kiely RIP who came from Athea. The fifth child, she was delivered at home in the heart of the mountain, helped by Joanna Mulvihill, a local handywoman. She had five brothers, Mick, Willie, Martin, Paddy and Jer and four sisters Mary, Lena, Bridie and Hannie. Her father was a thatcher and was never out of work as all houses were thatched then. “There is only myself and Jer left now. He was a great dancer when he was younger; he lives in a Nursing home in New York now. We keep in touch by phone. It gets lonesome when all your own are gone,” she admits.

“What is your earliest memory, Liza” I asked, conscious that Liza was born before radio, TV, electricity, the 1916 Rising and she lived through two world wars. “I am not sure” she said, as she thought back. “I was very young when I remember being in a field and saw a big crowd of men coming down the mountain. One of the men had a gun and pointed at me as I ran towards home where my mother was waiting at the door. But someone stopped him and said ‘Don’t shoot the child’ I ran in home terrified. It was later on in life that I realised they were probably the Black and Tans.”

Liza walked to school to Ballyguiltenane which was the nearest school to her. Boys and girls were in separate rooms and were not allowed to mix in the yard either. She went barefoot except in winter when everybody wore strong nail shoes, with a tip, and black stockings.  Her first teacher, whom she liked, was a Miss Fahy who later married Dick McCoy from Ballyhahill. She then moved on to a Miss Connolly who was much harder.

“Ballyguiltenane school was much different then” she explains. “There were no toilets only horrible dry toilets out the back. And there was no such thing as toilet paper but a sop of hay or something. We would be told to wash in the river in the morning before we went to school. For lunch we would take a few slices of bread and some days we might have butter when my mother would make it.”

She got her 1st Holy Communion in Glin and wore a dress which was borrowed and she was very careful not to soil it on the ass’s car in which they travelled to the Church.  She remembers Mrs Griffin in Glin bringing all the children in for tea after the Mass. Liza, like all children then, was used to the “panny” which was an enamel mug. But on this occasion the tea was served in a cup and saucer. Liza did not know what the saucer was for and proceeded to pour the tea from the cup to the saucer until Mrs Griffin scolded her for doing so. “Sure we had no luxuries then”, said Liza. “But, we were never hungry as we had homegrown vegetables, eggs, bacon and chickens. I remember my mother selling eggs to make enough money to buy a Communion outfit for one of my brothers. She bought him a white shirt, a gansey and a navy pants to his knee as that was the fashion then.”

During play time they would play with a skipping rope or play ‘rounders’, while the boys might play with marbles or a spinning top which they might have made from the handle of an old shovel or spade. “We also played Ring-a-rosy or London Bridge which were sing-a-long games. Another game we played was “pit-a-bounce”. We had to hop a ball on the ground and then up against the wall while saying “up down bounce”. If we missed the bounce it was somebody else’s turn. We made it harder then by doing it on one leg or with one hand. We had fun.”

Christmas was a great time. Hard and all as times were each family would have a sweet cake and cook a goose with potato stuffing. “I can still remember the aroma when my mother would take the top off the oven and baste the goose with a bit of the fat bacon.” The butcher is Moyvane would pay anyone who would pluck and clean the geese before Christmas and so Liza and the family would make a bit of money that way. On Christmas Eve each child would have their own coloured candle which they would light along with the main big candle. There was also a candle lit for Bridie who had died as a very young baby. The Holy Water would be sprinkled and all the family would kneel down on the mud floor and say the Rosary while gazing on the paper Crib on the table. “I used to be so happy on that night,” Liza said. Next day Santa would have brought “something small like an orange and a few sweets but we used to be delighted with that. I remember once seeing a lovely doll in a shop window in Newtown. The price of it was six pence but it was there long after Christmas as nobody could afford to buy it, even at that price.”

On leaving school at 14 years of age she went to work for a farmer by the name of McEniry. She milked cows, fed calves, went to Crock creamery with an ass and car as this was the nearest creamery to them. She would be up at 4.45 am and would work all day. The wages then were £10 per annum which she used to hand up to her parents. The money was never my own, she says. She worked for various farmers around the area over the years.

When she was about 16 and working at Hanrahans in Kilbaha she had a very traumatic experience. She had worked all day as usual and that night while in bed got a very bad pain in her stomach and was very sick but did not tell any of the household. She was so sick that she was vomiting blood but when morning came she still got up and tried to do her work. But she had to lie down in the yard with the pain. The family managed to get a car to alert her family and take her to the hospital in Tralee where she discovered she had a tumour in the stomach. She was anointed and there seemed to be no hope of recovery. There was some mention of going to a hospital in Dublin but it was too late for that as the tumour had burst and Dr Shanahan had to operate in Tralee. She remembers the nuns around her bed praying for her and little by little, after about a month, she got better enough to be able to go home again. She spent a year at home before she was able to go working again. The problem never recurred since and Liza remembers the great care that was taken of her, both in the hospital and at home.

Liza was a bit of a tomboy and liked to play tricks on people sometimes. While working at McEnirys she remembers tying the strings of Mrs McEniry’s apron to the cow’s tail while Mrs McEniry was milking the cow. Another time Liza stole out the bedroom window to go to a dance at Buddeen Feury’s in Drumreask. “It was hardly worth it” she laughs now “ because trying to get back in without a light and without disturbing my father took the fun out of it.” She loved walking along the roads at night in the dark “having fun with friends and no light of course”. One night her parents sent herself and a sister to visit a neighbour. They had to cross the mountain and on the way they called in to another neighbour who gave them a “storm lamp” to help them see their way. They sat down to take a rest and started flashing the lamp in all directions. They were then aware of some men in the distance who had seen the light and who got afraid as they could not reason where it was coming from. This led Liza and her sister to frighten them further and they started darting the light around in all directions. In the finish they did not finish out their journey at all but came on home returning the lamp on the way. Next day they had a great laugh when they heard the men talk about the strange light in the mountain the night before. They never revealed where the light came from. That is how many a ghost story was born, I am sure.

On another occasion, when she was working in O’Sullivans in Lacca she got the loan of the horse and trap to visit home for a day. On her way back to O’Sullivans her brothers persuaded her to go to a dance that night in Behane’s Hall, Knockdown. So they all set off in the trap. She tied up her pony outside but when she came out after the dance the Guards were waiting for her as she had no light. She did not want the O’Sullivans to know that she had gone to the dance so she gave her home address. Next day, when the summons was delivered to her home, her mother said it must be a mistake as Liza had gone back early the evening before and would not be out at that hour of the night.  Her brothers never told on her so she got away with it.

Then there was the time when she was working in Finucanes; she and her friend Kit Walsh wanted to go to the regatta in Tarbert and got a young lad by the name of Dick Mahony to take them in the ass and car. They were just after tarring the road and Liza and Kit felt like royalty being driven to Tarbert on the smooth road. That evening then they wanted to go to the dance but had barely the price for just the two of themselves. Not knowing what to do with their young driver who was little more than a child they tied the ass and car outside the village and went to the Hall and asked if their driver could get in for free or otherwise they would not go in at all. “You can imagine the face of the man at the door” when he saw the ‘driver’. He assumed it was a motorcar we had,” said Liza, laughing. They enjoyed their night and when it was over they walked back to the ass and car and she remembers clearly the drive home under a clear moonlit sky with not a care in the world. “Oh, we had great fun.”

The saddest time in her life was when her older sister Mary died. It was the first death in the family that she remembers as she was not yet born when Bridie died. Mary died aged 24 of TB. It was heart-breaking, she said. They waked her for a night at home. That time, hard and all as times were, there would be drink and tobacco for the men, snuff for the ladies and tea and brack for all. The coffin would be brought to the Church in a horse-drawn hearse with one of the family sitting up front with the driver and the mourners would follow, mostly walking or maybe pony and trap.

Tragedy hit the family again years later when Liza’s sister Hannie Shanahan died leaving two young children Sheila and Patrick without a mother so Liza and her mother moved back to Shanahans and reared them both and she loves them as much as if they were her own. She spent many years there and then moved over to Scairt to help her sister Lena care for her daughter Mary Ann who had developed Multiple Schlerosis disease. Between all the working and caring, the opportunity to get married and have her own family never arose but she has no regrets at all as she was very happy doing what she was doing. Liza confessed that if she had been living in a different time and had the chance of education she might have been a nurse as she always loved the caring that she did for family members.

But her family members appreciated all that Liza had done for them all over the years and to thank her and show appreciation, her brother Mick took her to New York to see the St. Patrick’s Day parade. This was about thirty years ago. While she was there Mick’s two grandsons Desmond (who is now a priest) and Brendan (who has since died) were looking for summer work which they found in Gavin’s Irish Country Inn about three hours drive north of New York in the Catskills mountains. After a long battle they cajoled Liza to go with them, as the owners, Jim and Nellie Gavin, needed help getting rooms ready and working in the kitchen. Though reluctant to go working there, Liza ended up going up to this place in East Durham cleaning and cooking for the whole summer. Along with her two grand-nephews, she almost became part of the family and continued to do this for three or four summers and had a great time. Jim, Nellie and Liza would be up early – around 5am – preparing breakfast. Then they would go to daily Mass a few miles away and say the Rosary in the car as they went. She was treated very well and would always be told to take a rest after breakfast so that she would be refreshed and ready to prepare the lunch. Though she worked by day she danced by night as there was always music there, it being an Irish pub. On Sundays, if there was a priest visiting, Mass would be celebrated in the dining room after which she would go off touring to the Niagara Fall’s or some such place with any of the visitors that might ask her to join them. It was mostly Irish people she met there. She loved her American experience and to see lots of places.

Some years ago Liza moved to Glin to retire and is very happy now surrounded by good friends and neighbours who always keep an eye on her. In the past year she has started to go to St Ita’s Hospital for respite. “We get great care there” she said. “It is very different being an old person now to what it was when I was young. Back then we had small houses and big families and now it is big houses and small families. We were always used to seeing an old person in the corner in every house and they might be asked to hold the baby while the mother was trying to get some work done. It was considered a disgrace then if an older person was sent away to a home. There were no Respite Centres then of course, only “The Home” in Newcastle which was very different to now. It is a Hospital for the Elderly now and has a great reputation.”

When asked if she would like to live her life again she said “I would love to go back to the old days when I was a teenager and having fun. We never had much money or anything but seemed to have much more fun than there is now. Our house was always full of music and dance. I used to do the “puss music” for the dancers. I never played an instrument but have a great ear for music and would know if there was a wrong note played. I used to sing a bit alright. Remember this was in the days of no television or internet or anything like that. I knew a fellow from Athea, Patteen Fitz who could play the “tongs”. Whatever way he had of holding the two legs of the tongs he could play it – like the spoons. People had time then to be developing these talents.”

When comparing times now to then, she said there is no comparison. When Liza was young they would not be left out alone at night til they were twenty years unless to a card game or a raffle and then they would have to be accompanied by an older sister or brother. They would not have the money to go anywhere anyhow and found it very hard to get a few pence together to go to a dance at Behane’s or Mary Walshe’s in Newtown. There was no drink at the dances either.

“What advice would you give to the young people now” I asked her. “Well, if they would listen to me, I would tell them to enjoy themselves while they are free. Stay away from the fags and the drugs, go easy on the drink and have respect for yourselves and for others.” But she admits that youngsters these times are living in a much more dangerous world than she lived in. There was no need to lock doors when she was young and she always felt safe. It is not like that now, she says.

Liza’s faith is very important to her and she admits she always loved to pray and still does. Her sister Mary taught her lovely prayers when she was young such as:

Oh Angel of God, my Guardian dear, To whom God’s love commits me here

Ever this night be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen

 Another one was:

There are four corners on my bed, There are four angels at them spread,

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John  Guard this bed that I lie on.

 Each night before she goes to bed she blesses the house with Holy Water and would not feel safe til she has that done. She likes the light of the street shining in on her and trusts that God will keep her safe.

It was a pleasure talking to Liza and listening to her many stories and I hope she continues to have the comfort that she does now. “Have you any last ambitions in this life” I ask her before I go. “What I’d love is to get my Respite in St. Ita’s Hospital on the same week as Paddy Faley gets his and preferably the same room!” she says with that twinkle in her eyes again. “We’d have great fun reliving old times!” – Peg Prendeville 2010.

PS. I am happy to say she got her wish as she and Paddy did share respite weeks in St Ita’s before Paddy died in October 2011.

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