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Centenarian comes home

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One-hundred-year-old Mary Ann Walsh and her 94-year-old brother Jim Campbell pictured at a re-union in Bohola recently
FAMILY GATHERING One-hundred-year-old Mary Ann Walsh and her 94-year-old brother Jim Campbell pictured at a re-union in Bohola recently. Front, from left: Cara Walsh, Fr Padraig Costello, PP, Bohola; Mary Ann Walsh, Jim Campbell, and Ann Campbell (Niece). Back, from left: Rose Walsh, Nora Campbell, John Walsh, Kathleen Gill, Fred Walsh, Vera Walsh, Margaret Walsh, Doreen Walsh and Dan Walsh.  Pic: Michael Donnelly

Home to Mayo for 100-year-old Mary Ann

Michael Commins

To celebrate reaching the century milestone, Charlestown native Mary Ann Walsh returned home after 20 years

IT was ‘top o’ the morning’ as usual for sprightly centenarian Mary Ann Walsh (nee Campbell) on her first visit to her native Mayo in 20 years. The 100-year-old, who walks more than a mile every day, was born in Lurga, Charlestown, a few hundred yards from where Knock Airport is today, back in 1908.
In the words of the old song, she ‘sailed away from Queenstown, that is the Cobh of Cork’ back in 1926, the year that 2RN, later to become Raidió Éireann, made its first broadcast. She took the train from Charlestown to Cork, saying farewell to her father and mother and the other members of the family.
“I never saw my father again. My two youngest sisters were just three-and-a-half months and a year-and-a-half at the time. I did not meet them or my mother again for 33 years and that was in 1959 when I made my first trip home to Ireland,” she recalled on a visit to the homeplace of her late husband, Dan Walsh, in Ardacarra, Bohola, last week.
“I was the oldest girl of a family of 13. A lot of my young years were taken up helping my mother at home. My mother’s maiden name was Ann Marie Higgins and my father was Thomas Campbell. My father rocked my mother in the cradle and 18 years later he married her. He was 38 and she was 18 so there was 20 years between them.
“Looking back now, it was sad that I never got to see my father again after leaving Ireland. My mother would never come to America and she was afraid to go on the plane. I left home when I was 18 and I first saw her again when she was 74.”
Philadelphia was where Mary Ann Campbell spent her first few years in America. She worked as a governess for some families during that time.
And it was at an Irish dance in the city that she first met her husband-to-be, Dan Walsh from Bohola. “He had a girlfriend at the dance the same night and he met me and asked me for a dance. He said ‘you’re a good dancer, I’ll have another dance with you’. Then he made a date with me and it all started after that.”
They were married in Philadelphia in 1933 (“Hoover was our President at the time,” she recalls) and then moved to New York where they spent the next eight years in the Bronx and Manhattan before eventually setting into their home in Queens in 1941. Dan and Mary Ann raised a family of five, four daughters and a son, Dan, who accompanied her on her visit home to Mayo last week.
Old times in the homeland were often recalled when the family was growing up in Queens. And Dan Walsh, the man from Bohola, used to sing a lot of the Irish songs. “If he went into the bathroom and you didn’t hear him singing, you’d have to find out what was wrong! He was always singing. ‘The Garden Where The Praties Grow’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’, ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘Where The River Shannon Flows’ are some of the ones I remember. He loved those old Irish song,” says Mary Ann, her broad smile evoking happy memories from down memory lane.
Her son Dan interjects: “I grew up with John McCormack records. He was such a favourite in our home. We got to know all his songs.”
After making it home to Ireland in 1959, Mary Ann and her husband Dan did so at ten-year intervals over the next few decades, always enjoying their journeys from America to Shannon and up to Mayo. Dan died in 2001 at the age of 94.
During the 1950s, as travel by air began to grow, the Walsh family home in Queens had plenty of cousins visiting from the ‘old sod’ as it was located so close to Idlewild Airport, renamed John F Kennedy Airport in 1963. “We often had people staying in our house, especially during the summer. The relationships were well-maintained with Mayo in those times.”
Renowned for the quality and style of her letter writing, Mary Ann crafted many beautiful letters from Queens to Ireland over the years. “Some people have some of my letters going back 40 years. My sister Annie has nearly all the letters I ever wrote to her. My mother was a great writer. My father wasn’t a great writer but he did write me a few letters.”
Six of the family of 13 born in Lurga are alive today, ranging in age from 82 to 100. And while some were present for her big party held in her son Dan’s home in America, she decided she wanted to visit Mayo to meet the ones who could not make it across the Atlantic.
Her sisters Annie O’Grady and Josie O’Sullivan reside in Roscommon and Glengarriff, Co Cork while her brother Jim is in Dublin and Martin and Michael are in Leeds. All were in Mayo for the big celebration party in the Downhill Hotel in Ballina where members of the Campbell and Walsh families raised a toast to Mary Ann, the belle of the ball. And she loved every minute of it.
“I’ve been having a wonderful time, meeting so many family and friends. I even called to Tavneena where I went to school. It has changed a lot since my time there. There are huge changes everywhere. I remember walking to Mass in Charlestown and home again. We all did. I also remember going out to the bog but I didn’t foot any of the turf. I was sent to the bog with the lunch.
“I still love to walk and that has kept me feeling young and fit. I have lived with my daughter Kay in Charlottesville, Virginia for the last four years. I walk about a mile a day at least and maybe two or three miles a day sometimes.”
For Mary Ann, it was the perfect end to her centenary celebrations. “I made my mind up that I wanted to make this trip home to Mayo. It’s heaven to get back and see everybody again.”