HAPPY FAMILY Mary Hughes, Derradda, Newport pictured celebrating her 100th birthday with her daughter Mary and sons Seamus, Martin, Patrick, Michael and Tommy. Pic: Conor McKeown
Having recently celebrated her 100th birthday, Mary Hughes shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. Hale and hearty with a sharp mind, she still enjoys making her homemade bread even though the new oven in her daughter’s house takes getting used to. Retirement is a word not in her vocabulary.
“I heard and read about it but I don’t know what it is,” she told The Mayo News with a laugh.
On September 2, Mary celebrated her 100th birthday with a special party and Mass in the Derradda home of her daughter, also Mary, surrounded by her six children, 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
It was followed by a celebratory drive-by as neighbours and friends lined the roads of the village to wish her well.
“I did enjoy that; I saw people who I hadn’t seen since Covid,” she said.
A daughter of John and Mary Agnes Kelly, Mary was born and reared in the village of Rockfleet on the northern shore of Clew Bay with her sister, Annie, and brother, Tom.
Her recollection of her childhood is still strong, remembering enjoyable times she had with her family and neighbours although work was hard and plentiful.
“It is lonely when you think of it at times and when you see the homestead, which is gone now, where you had good days and the best of times. It was a happy house.”
Longevity may be a family trait, as Mary’s grandfather lived to be 100 at the time of his death in 1952. He also lived with the family and was one of the last native Irish speakers in the area.
His photograph on the wall shows him along with Mary, her brother and her father making hay in the 1930s. It was taken by the artist Helen Hooker O’Malley, and her husband Ernie O’Malley often called to the family home to record what Tommy Kelly could remember from his youth just after the Famine.
“He had mighty history and wonderful Irish,” Mary said of her grandfather. “When you hear them talking Irish today, it wasn’t like the Irish he used to use. He never read a paper in his life, he wasn’t able to read or write, but I tell you he could make figures up with anyone. He had a great memory,” she recalled.
School through the fields
Mary attended Knockloughra National School, which is now closed but still standing on the Mulranny road. At the time, it was a three-teacher school, with Master Moran, Master Raftery and Ms Moran the three teachers.
Along with the neighbours, Mary would have to walk up to three miles through fields to get to school, as there was no road. She recalls on one occasion walking to school with her friends they came across a pear tree ready for picking.
“There was the most beautiful pears in this garden growing. The pears were so yellow and ripe. We thought we would get a few. We got the pears and we filled our bags.
“We were enjoying this but did not think the clock was going round. When we landed at the school, he [Master Rafferty] was standing at the door waiting for us. Where were we, he asked, so we told him. He took the bags off us, and each of us got two slaps, one on each hand and no pear for the day either. He kept the pears. I tell you there wasn’t any prayers for him that day.”
When Mary was around 16 she decided to follow some of her friends to London settling around Harrow in the north of the city.
“It was like going from home to home. There was a lot I knew around there,” she said.
She spent four happy years working as a servant for the Weinburgh family in Wembley, who, she said, were very kind and continued to keep in touch long after she left London.
A highlight of London life was the dances around Kilburn.
“I just used to love the dances; I’d go without my supper to go there. There were Gannons from Acres [near Newport] who ran it. If you wanted to meet anyone from home you’d meet them there.”
However, it was at a house dance while at home on holiday that she met ‘Mr Right’, her husband to be, Martin Hughes. He was living on the family farm in Derradda. When she returned to London, her thoughts remained in Mayo with Martin, and Mary made up her mind to return home.
Mary and Martin married on a snowy winter’s afternoon in Newport Church on January 31, 1951. They settled in his family home along the Mulranny Road in Derradda. Together they had six children – Michael, Patrick, Seamus, Tommy, Martin and Mary.
Martin died in 1981, but Mary has never been alone, as all her family have lived within a few miles of each other.
“God knows they have been good to me. I have to say that. They couldn’t be better,” she said proudly.
Mary is now the proud grandmother of 14 children, and she has five great-grandchildren too. While Covid has stopped her getting out as regularly as she used to, she still collects her pension on a Friday and visits Newport Church to say her prayers.
So to the inevitable question every 100 year old is asked: What is the secret to long life?
“Honest to God I don’t know, but I’ll tell you the truth it wasn’t from sitting down.
“I suppose we worked hard but we didn’t take any notice. If it had to be done, you did it and that was it.”