On today, Nollaig na mBan (Womens’ Christmas) I want to pay tribute to a very special woman who passed away this week, my mother-in-law Alice O’Neill.
I ended my last post late on New Year’s Eve with an Irish prayer – go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís – may we all be alive this time next year. Just after midnight, with our millennium candle lighting to remember those we love and those we have lost since the year 2000, we phoned our family at home and abroad.
First on the list was my mother-in-law. My own Mum, who was with us for the night, spoke to her. Both were looking forward to a year in which they expect the arrival of a great-grandchild, Shane and Shan’s baby and the Irish celebration of their marriage towards the end of the year. In her inimitable style, my mother-in-law suggested the date for the wedding – Saturday 28th December – which she had worked out made most sense all round, giving us all a few days to recover from Christmas, ahead of the new year and convenient for overseas visitors. She told my Mum that as the two elders of the family they should get to call these things, a sentiment with which my Mother heartily agreed. We all spoke to her and she gave some timely advice to Shane on parenting.
Just three days later, at 2.30 pm on the 3rd of January, she passed away in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda surrounded by her 5 daughters and 5 sons, daughters-in-law and sons-in-law, grandchildren including her youngest grandchild aged just over 2 and two close friends. While her health had been failing for some time, her death was sudden and unexpected and has left the family shattered. Her unquenchable spirit and zest for life lulled us into a false sense of security that, shortly after any health crisis, she would be sitting up having one of her many daily cups of tea.
I first met Alice O’Neill when I started dating her eldest son Derry at the tender age of 19. When I visited the family for the first time in Ardee, Co. Louth, where Derry’s Dad was a local bank manager, I’m not sure if I was more daunted by her sharp intellect and keen intelligence, the organisational skills required to manage her lively, noisy household or the almost telepathic connection in this fiercely loyal and united family.
Here was a woman who had a BSc in Maths from UCC in 1950, was heading the Maths Department of a school in England in her early 20s and had turned her back on that life to marry Sean and raise 10 children in economically difficult times in the early years. She had to move her growing family every four years as Sean was transferred from town to town across three provinces.
Here was a woman who could debate on any subject sometimes just for the fun of it, who had a knitting machine and sewing machine on the go, who could batch cook enormous quantities of mince pies and Christmas puddings and still had time for solitaire, logic puzzles, crosswords, reading and conversation.
Parties in those early days were legendary as First Communions and Confirmations gave way to 21st birthdays and weddings in rapid succession. My mother-in-law to be introduced me to home-grown alpine strawberries dipped in Tia Maria in an early “bonding” session at one of those 21st parties.
When Derry’s Dad died suddenly nearly 33 years ago, she held the family together, providing the love and affection of both parents rolled into one. She was asked once who was her favourite child and she replied “the one on my knee or the one who needs me most right now.” She was the archivist of the family who recorded every major occasion in the lives of all her children and grandchildren in carefully documented photo albums.
Over the years our relationship changed and developed as more and more “out-laws” entered the family and the number of grandchildren grew into the 30s but to me she was always “Mrs. O’Neill” or “Mum” – never Alice.
Derry gave a beautiful eulogy at her funeral yesterday on behalf of his brothers and sisters but here I will remember her in the words of my own two children.
Shane was with her the night before she died and he had to return to Beijing the next day. He says:
“Gran has always been a huge part of my life. For me she epitomised pride and the importance of family.
I will miss her deeply and try to do her proud every day.”
Claire was her eldest grandchild and was very sad not to be able to get back to the funeral from Australia. She says:
“On the night Granny passed away I was asked to describe her by friends … I said formidable, intelligent and strong but also in equal measure loving, fiercely loyal and with a wicked sense of adventure.
I’ve so many memories, the earliest being Ali’s (her youngest daughter) birthday and granny in the middle of the sing-along surrounded by family.
Granny, I’ll miss you sharing titbits of your past, never shrinking from a debate, setting the world to rights and going through the many photo albums over pots of tea!”
The words of one of my mother-in-law’s favourite poems sum up her own outlook on life:
Warning by Jenny Joseph
“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.”
Just a week or two ago she mentioned to one of her daughters that she was considering wearing red and purple but had decided she wasn’t old enough yet.
Ní bheidh a lethéidí arís ann ach ní imithe uainn ach imithe romhainn.
There will not be her like again but she is not gone from us but gone before us.
Ar dheis Dé a hanam uasail.
May her soul be at the right hand of God.
Mrs O’Neill, Mum, Gran, Granny, Alice – we miss you and we salute you for a life well lived.