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Bringing it all back home for centenarian celebrations

Living

COLOURFUL LIFE Gerardine Hopkins Cusack in the pub where she was born 100 years ago. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Áine Ryan

CENTENARY celebrations have a very personal meaning for one Westport woman. She was born in the year of the First Dáil, on the night of the Milling Murder in Westport, in a pub – the Sheebeen. The latter remains a most-attractive pitstop in Rosbeg, sitting alongside the curvaceous road that snakes beyond Westport Quay and along the edges of Clew Bay.
When Gerardine Hopkins Cusack was born on March 31, 1919, Westport Quay was still a busy port where Achill hookers unloaded turf up at the Idle Wall while bigger boats, tied up along the busy pier, disgorged their cargos onto carts as horses neighed and whinnied; and customs officers, weigh-bridge men, dockers, merchants and pilots awaited the imprimatur of the harbour master before retiring to one of the five pubs for a well-earned deoch of the hard stuff.
The eldest of nine, Gerardine Hopkins Cusack’s love affair with Westport Quay and Clew Bay has never faded over her century-long life. The fact that she was sent away to a boarding school run by the Sisters of Charity of St Paul in Wimborne in the UK at the tender age of 12, and that she has lived much of her life in London and Dublin, does not dilute this deep connection.
Indeed, the centenarian, who lives in Dún Laoghaire, takes every opportunity she can to return to her home town, where she and her daughter, Linda, also have a house. And naturally, when the big birthday came along on March 31, it was to the Sheebeen that her family and friends gathered for the festivities on the previous night, Saturday, March 30.
“You should have seen the bay as we arrived for the party,” says Gerardine, who is as sprightly, both mentally and physically, as a pirouetting ballerina. “It was like somebody etched the islands into the sky.”  
A sky and a bay whose moods and whims she first watched from her cot as her native country battled with its old enemy for sovereignty.
Back then, the Sheebeen was licensed to her grandmother, Mary, since her grandfather, Patrick Hopkins, was an Admiralty Pilot for the west coast of Ireland and thus could not be the licence holder.
“The Sheebeen was thatched, twice the length it is now and not as high. We had to move out when I was eight after it was flooded. It was a bad night in 1926, and Daddy [Peter, also a pilot in the bay] always stayed up if the the tide was high until it had dropped, but on this night it was like a tsunami and it came back in and rose to four feet in the pub. We stayed with the Shanleys in Rosmalley until our new house was built,” Gerardine tells The Mayo News over tea and cakes served by her devoted daughter, Linda, last week.   
By the tender age of 12 in 1931 she was making a voyage that would become a very familiar one across the Irish Sea to the above-mentioned boarding school. Even though the nuns were kind and Gerardine loved learning – ‘there was French and Botany’ – boarding school was a lonely place for a young girl far from home.
“Most of the boarders’ fathers worked in the colonial services, and so I met girls who had been born all over the world and knew much more than me. To start with I came home once a year, but then the second year I was allowed home for Christmas too,” she says.
After studying to be a teacher for two years but finding that she loved her pupils too much to impose the strict disciplinarian regimes of that time, Gerardine did a secretarial course and moved back to Galway where she worked for the ESB for two years.
But times were tough in Ireland and, ironically, she moved back to London – arriving on the day that war was declared in 1939. Even though she was about to witness and endure all the privations and devastation inflicted by World War II – rationing, air-raids, blackouts, bombings – there was also the blossom of love and, indeed, marriage during this difficult time. A Westport native too, John Cusack had joined the Royal Navy aged 16 and sailed the seven seas in all sorts of dangerous conditions – mine-sweeping in the North Sea, rescuing civilians during the Spanish Civil War.
“I met John when I was home on holidays and, of course, he went back to sea and then war was declared. We wrote to each other and then one day out of the blue I got a telephone call to ask me to come up to Liverpool the following day and we would  try to get married. It all happened so quickly I hardly knew it myself, and then he was gone back to sea,” Gerardine recalls.
After the war and John’s retirement from the navy in 1948, the couple lived in London until 1964. They were well used to ‘spending time on the boat from Holyhead’ with their small children, Linda, David and Michael, and so by 1964 it was time to pack up and come home.
“I worked in various secretarial jobs and as secretary for the Horslips in the early ’70s – Barry Devlin was vey nice – before working for Bord Fáilte as a guide for 20 years,” Gerardine recalls. They lived in various homes around Dublin, where John worked as a glass-blower. After his death in 2004, Gerardine lived alone in Stillorgan until she was 96 when she moved in with daughter Linda after a little health scare.
Poignantly, Gerardine, the eldest of nine, along with her youngest sibling, Eithne Collins, are the only remaining members of this large brood born in the Sheebeen at a seismic time in our national and local history. Her late brother and second eldest, Paddy Hopkins – ‘I miss him a lot’ – passed away in 2013 after an equally colourful life both abroad and back in his native town.
Paddy was a founder of the Mayo Environmental Group which successfully took on the goldmining company that planned to mine holy mountain Croagh Patrick in the 1980s. Indeed, he helped to organise a major rally which was addressed by internationally renowned environmentalist, David Bellamy. Like his sister, ageing did not deter him from such adventures as heading off on the Orient Express for his 90th birthday and managing to fall off the top of a ten-foot ladder while cutting a tree branch in his 80s and walking away without a broken bone.    
So while there were many reasons for lots of chat and reminiscing at Gerardine’s big birthday party on Saturday night, March 30 last, for those with extra-sensory perception, the walls of this quirky and atmospheric old hostelry were surely talking too. And, celebrated centenarian Mary Hopkins was probably thinking too of all of the times she sneaked into this pub with her friend on holidays home and had a ‘brazen’ drink or two at a time when it female patronage was severely frowned upon.
Happy Big Birthday, Gerardine!

A Nightingale Sang

Gerardine Hopkins Cusack is also the author of several books and manuscripts, including ‘Kings and Things – As I remember Them’ (2013), a tongue-in-cheek history of Irish kings through the ages, and a novel, ‘A Nightingale Sang’, which was inspired by her own rich life experiences and released in 2013. What follows is an abridged version of John Healy’s review of the novel, which The Mayo News first published in September 2014.

It’s not often that a personalised love story can integrate itself with the great events of history without losing its thread. And it’s not often a narrator can speak so deeply from the heart, and yet manage to be so dispassionately objective about the background to her story.
Gerardine Cusack’s fascinating ‘A Nightingale Sang’ is subtitled ‘A Love Story from World War II’, and what a story that is, and how well written. The author, now in her nineties, has a way with words and a poetic flourish which makes her book compelling reading on several different levels […]
‘A Nightingale Sang’ is also a testament to the optimism of youth and to the expectation of the author and her friends that this too would end, that war would be over, and that the world would be right again.
In between the horrors, there are idyllic visits home to Rosbeg, a haven of tranquillity, so far removed from the mayhem of everyday London life. And there are delightful insights into the local social life into which the author quickly immersed herself on her visits home […]
‘A Nightingale Sang’ is what it declares itself to be, a great and enduring love story which lasted a lifetime and which surely sooner or later is worthy of a retelling on the silver screen.