Remembering Aunt May.

James Gallagher and Mary Friel with their firstborn, Mary Isabella Gallagher in 1917

James Gallagher and Mary Friel, our grandparents, with their firstborn, Mary Isabella Gallagher in 1917

On  May 17, 1917 our aunt May was born at her grandparent’s house in Pollaid, Fanad Co Donegal. At that time her father James Gallagher  was teaching in Templedouglas National School in Glenswilly. As was quite usual then, the expectant mother returned to the home of her parents to give birth. Mary Isabella (always known as ‘May’) was  christened on the same day as she was born, at St Columba’s Church in Tamney. The godparents (sponsors) were Anna Friel, Mary’s sister and her brother Francis.

Baptismal certificate

Baptismal certificate.

The birth was not registered in the civil register until July and we can see that her mother’s sister, Susan McAteer, was present when Aunt May arrived into the world.

Civil birth registration

Civil birth certificate.

Aunt May left Ireland in February 1938 to join a religious teaching order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, in the south of England. At that time, it was understood that religious sisters would not ever return to their family home, so it was knowing this that the 20-year-old bravely boarded a bus in her home village of Carrigart, Co Donegal on a cold February morning. She told me years later that she was crying as she did so, and that the local priest came on to the bus and ordered her to stop crying, but also very kindly said to her ‘If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.’  This she said, gave her great courage and it was something she repeated to herself many times a day for years afterwards. But her mother had now died and she felt compelled by the special promise she had made to her. She also told me, something that astounded her brothers and sister, that when she was only 7 years of age, her mother asked her if she would become a nun, and she promised her that she would.  She told me that this was a conversation they had as they waited for the bucket of spring  water to fill at the local ‘spout’. While this may seem astonishing to modern readers, it was considered a great honour to have a daughter enter a convent,or to have a son who became a priest.  Her first wish was to join the Sisters of Nazareth in Derry only 40 miles away and to become a nurse. However, she had a first cousin who was already in the Sisters of Notre Dame, and she was prevailed upon to join that order instead.

imageShe had an interesting, sometimes sad and often joyful life, but  in later years suffered ill-health.  More about her will be posted  in a future blog. I was fortunate to spend her last four days by her bedside. I went to see her early in the morning before I had to get a flight back to Ireland. When I arrived home that afternoon, I picked up the phone to enquire about her, to be told that she had died earlier in the day. She died on May 10 2007 and was buried on May 15 2007 in Dumbarton Scotland, just days short of her much-anticipated 90th birthday.

She continues to be sadly missed by the writer and by my aunt and cousins who knew her very well. She is especially remembered today, on what would have been her 99th birthday.

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14 Comments

Filed under Family History, Ireland, Irish Diaspora

14 responses to “Remembering Aunt May.

  1. A few days off 90, even though you haven’t written it yet I am sure she had many tales to tell.

    • She didn’t tell us a lot, but the snippets she shared were absolutely loaded with emotion. Presumably the decades of institutionalisation repressed and suppressed (through necessity) much of what she felt and experienced. To me, she is a super hero!

  2. Looking forward to hearing some of her life. She will live on in many of our memories, never met.

  3. Beautifully written as always. They we have loved remain with us always… may she Rest in Peace.

  4. Bernadette Clinton

    A wonderful tribute Angela to a very brave wonderful woman

  5. Looking forward to reading more about her..

  6. Nice post, and looking forward to hearing more. I’ve read, SV, that every Irish school leaver back in the day was presented with the choice of either serving God directly (as did your aunt) or through marriage and parenthood.

    • When I was at a convent boarding school we knew who had or would be ‘popped the question’ by the nuns. I never heard of the married state and motherhood being on a par with it, au contraire, all that s** stuff had to be treated as potentially sinful.

  7. What an amazingly touching post. Times have certainly changed.

  8. Pingback: Aunt May: A life well lived. | A SILVER VOICE FROM IRELAND

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