My grandmother Nora MacNamara (née Hickey) turned 100 on June 15, 2014. From her retirement home on the Dingle peninsula, County Kerry – snuggled in the foothills of the Slieve Mish mountains and overlooking the clear blue Atlantic ocean – family and friends gathered to celebrate the centenary of a woman known to her grandchildren as simply ‘Granny Mac.’
What was the secret to Granny Mac’s old age and good health, many wanted to know.
Well, the beautiful surrounds of this corner of North Kerry provide a clue. The local area provides ample opportunity for fresh air, swimming, and mountain walking, even for a town girl like Nora, who was born and brought up in the county town, Tralee. As a teenager, Nora would cycle everywhere and swim often. A fellow resident in her retirement home is Mary Crean, daughter of Tom Crean, the famed Antarctic explorer, who left the nearby village of Anascaul to join Ernest Shackleton’s heroic polar expeditions of the early twentieth century. It would seem, therefore, that there is something in the Kerry air, in the people’s oneness with nature, that confers a resilience that matures into hardy old age. Not to mention the dietary benefits of plentiful local fresh fish and the pride that comes from her fluency in the Irish language, a linguistic identity shared with many in this part of the world.
But the romance of this explanation overlooks some of the harsh realities of my grandmother’s life. Born just before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Nora lived through tumultuous events. As a child she remembers the cruelty of the ‘Black and Tans’ during the Irish War of Independence, a ruthless British military outfit sent to put down the nationalist Irish Republican Army. For six- year-old Nora felt the cold steel of a gun pressed against her young skull. Others were not so lucky. The young Granny Mac, who grew to be a devotee of the republican leader Eamon de Valera, was just eight years old when one of the worst atrocities of the Irish Civil War occurred on her doorstep. At Ballyseedy, just outside Tralee, a dozen republicans were shackled to a large mine, which was then detonated. Older than the Irish state (which came into being in 1922), and having seen the cruelties performed in its name, my grandmother has always possessed a certain wariness about the very state itself.
This wise skepticism – perhaps better described as quiet stoicism – was also forged by family circumstances. Nora’s grandfather was killed while a young man, trampled by a horse while laboring on a local farm.
A wayward uncle then stole off with the inheritance, emigrating to America where he drank all the family money, dying penniless and vagrant, leaving the rest of the family facing hard times. Consequently, many in her family had to emigrate. Another uncle, Canon Bryan Hickey, moved to England, where he covertly assisted the old IRA by stashing sticks of dynamite in his Manchester parochial house. Yet another uncle, John F. Healy, moved State-side, where he rose to become a renowned Fire Chief in Denver. Others in the family would die young: victims of Ireland’s poor public health record in the early twentieth century.
But the most important secret to old age, according to Granny Mac, is not diet, nor environment, nor the inner strength that comes by overcoming hardship. It is, for her, a matter of faith. On every wall of her creaking old house you are met with images of the saints, of the Virgin Mary, or of the dying Christ. Prayer is integral to her life and has guided her through much grief. It is this simple devotion to the Catholic faith (she still performs her daily decades of the rosary) that has sustained her so long. And so, if you are to ask her opinion on the secret to old age and good health, she will simply say ‘Le cúnamh Dé’ – with God’s help – all will go well.