SHE’S 100 but Bridie Byrne appears way younger than her years – in her looks and with her positive outlook on life.
Bridie Sweeney, who joined the centenarian club yesterday, was born on March 2, 1922 in Gortnasillah, outside Glenties, before the family settled in Mullantiboyle.
As a young adult she worked in popular local shops like Johnny Boyle’s and McDevitts factory as a book keeper. She also worked in the post office in Carrigans and the Bayview Hotel, Killybegs during the war years.
After getting married to Hugh Byrne, a blacksmith and taxi-driver, she moved over the road to Ardara which has been home for more than 60 years.
She spent much of her later working life with Kennedy of Ardara, a general drapery and boots store on Front Street. She retired at 70 but continued to do books locally, including the parish accounts, into her nineties.
So you’re really an Ardara woman?
“Absolutely not. I was born and reared in Glenties. There was a great rivalry between Ardara and Glenties and huge crowds used to go to GAA matches between the two. They would fight like hell but then, at the dances afterwards, there would be no word of it. Great times,” she smiled.
Her older sister Molly McCracken, who was married and lived in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, died two years ago at the age of 99 while younger brother Danny is 96.
Indeed, Danny a retired Garda, who now lives in Dublin, was visiting his older sister when the Donegal News called in for a chat on Monday afternoon.
“I always knew my husband Hugh and when we got married in 1967 I moved to Ardara. Sadly, he died seven years later. I was working in Kennedy’s at the time so I decided to stay in Ardara and I’ve been here ever since,” she explained.
“I rented a couple of houses in the town over the years before eventually saving up and buying this one ten to twelve years ago. It’s near the chapel and beside the shops and I’ve some very good neighbours.
“That said, I couldn’t stay here without the Home Help. They’re in with me four times a day. They get me up, dressed and fed.
“They come again at lunch-time, dinner-time and at night to get me ready for bed. It’s just as well as they don’t stay ‘til I’m in bed though as it’s one in the morning before I go down to the room some nights,” she laughed.
Seven years ago, Bridie broke her hip during a visit to Killybegs. That injury severely hampered her mobility while age-related macular degeneration means that she can no longer watch her favourite programme on television or read the local newspapers.
“I haven’t had too much luck since I moved into this house and I’m no longer that mobile but, thankfully, the mind is still working okay,” she smiles.
Growing up in Ireland in the 1920s was tough. There was no electricity, running water or toilets in most family homes.
“My father made an outside toilet but Storm Debbie came one night and we were left with nothing but the toilet seat,” she laughed.
Electricity arrived in 1958, via the Gweebarra, while they were later hooked up to the water mains.
“It was terrible before that but I suppose we knew no better and everyone was in the same boat,” she said.
Bridie’s gaze is drawn to an old First Communion photograph. She notes that she’s the last one alive, but having contracted tuberculosis as a young woman it hasn’t always been plain sailing.
“I had TB when I was 24 and was in a sanatorium in Belfast. At that time, there was a new drug out called streptomycin. I was given two injections of it every day and thank God it worked for me and I got home five months later.
“The unfortunate part was that mum died when I was in there so my homecoming was not as good as I would liked it to have been,” she recalled.
The local dancehalls, including St Dominic’s in Glenties, and many other ‘pop-up’ venues were all thriving at that time.
“They were great places to go. We used to be on the floor by nine and dance to twelve and it cost 4d,” she said.
“An aunt used to give Molly and me money to hand in to meetings but instead would head away to the dances in Ardara on our bicycles but we had to leave early to be before dad would reach for the rosary beads,” she added.
Bridie was 17 when the Second World War broke out.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in St Martha’s College, Navan at the time when the news came on the radio. The nuns turned it up but none of us was listening and look what’s happening now (Ukraine),” she said.
Those years were spent working in Carrigans and Killybegs before she settled in Ardara.
“You might not have had much money in your pocket but they were happy times,” she said.
Bridie celebrated her birthday with a Mass in the Church of the Holy Family yesterday before attending a function in the Parish Centre.
“It’s Ash Wednesday. It couldn’t have fell on a worse day. There will be no booze or cake but sure, what odds, it won’t bother me,” she laughed.
Bridie admitted to being ‘worse for wear’ one afternoon in Fintra, Killybegs in 1941 – an incident which put her off the drink for life.
“It was a very warm day and we went into the hotel for a mineral but the man gave us a bottle of cider – which we drank. I could see two of everything and got such a fright that I asked God if he would cure me I would never touch the drink again.
“I did smoke until I was about eighty but I’m glad I stopped. Sure the price of a packet is about a week’s pay now,” she quipped.
Bridie enjoys nothing better than to sit outside the front door of her home and chat to neighbours and strangers alike as they make their way along the town’s main street.
“It’s lovely to be able to chat to people. It helps to keep you young but the last two years haven’t been great with Covid. We’ve been locked up in our own houses,” she said.
“I used to go on the bus to Letterkenny and Donegal Town every week with my sister before she passed away so I miss that too.
“Looking back, I spent most of my working life saving to buy a house of my own. I was seventeen years on the waiting list but the Council never gave me a house,” she added.
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