1920 was an eventful year in Irish history. In May,  W. B. Yeats concluded a lecture tour (begun in October 1919) in the United States. He also published “The Second Coming.” In August, La Scala Theatre and Opera House, Dublin, opened as a cinema.
In county Kerry, Castle-island’s Carnegie library  opened and was later destroyed by fire.
The All-Ireland Champions were Dublin (Hurling) and Tipperary (Football).
Ireland was immersed in the War of Independence. Civil unrest was every-where in our country.
But in Mountcollins, a little village in the extreme south west of County Limerick, barely 100 metres from the border with County Kerry and just a mile from County Cork, Mr and Mrs Lenihan celebrated the birth of their daughter Nora on July 24th, 1920, the second youngest of their family of twelve. Unrest in the country was widespread, and the Lenihan family witnessed their share. Nora’s son Michael tells of a time when the Black and Tans called to the house in Mountcollins looking for his grandfather, Michael Lenihan, Nora’s father, who was hiding up in the fields with a file of documents containing information on local Volunteers. At one point a gun was pointed at baby Nora in the pram by one of the Tans.  Michael Lenihan avoided arrest, but the Tans then proceeded to burn down the local hall.
Lenihan remains a popular name in the locality. Families are distinguished by names such as “The Daheen Davy” Lenihans, the “Jack Tom” Lenihans, and in Nora’s case, the “Harness” Lenihans, depicting the trade of the family. Two of Nora’s siblings died in childhood and of the remaining ten, there were five boys and five girls. Three of her older sisters went to America and one to London and later Canada. Of the girls, two trained as nurses abroad.  Nora had hoped to go to London and train as a nurse like her older sister Mary Ita. However, World War two intervened and Nora decided to stay at home, thus ending her nursing ambitions.  Her daughter Kathleen told me “My mother, Mam as we call her, had a very happy, rural childhood.  She was very close to her two brothers Martin and Ned who were closest in age to her and she spent many happy days climbing trees and jumping ditches with her brothers.  I think she was a bit of a tomboy!  Her school days were happy, and she had several friends from her schooldays.  Mam left school after 6th class and stayed home to work in her mother’s grocery and general provisions shop on the Lower Road.  Her father Michael was a harness maker and had his workshop in the village.
Mam was always interested in drama and the stage and was involved in many plays which were organised by the then PP Fr. Murphy.  She was also involved in the Parish Choir.  Like most young people she loved dancing and was a regular at dances in Mountcollins and further afield.  She often cycled to Abbeyfeale with some of her friends for a day out.  She also developed a lifelong love of card-playing from her life in Mountcollins. Her other hobbies were cooking, knitting, and sewing”.
Nora’s brother Bill later took over the family harness making business and I remember well visiting his workshop for straps for school bags and Bill also made accordion straps for my grandfather. Bill’s wife Mary ran the grocery shop.
In June 1951 Nora married Jim FitzGerald who hailed from ‘The Lighthouse’, Meenaheela.  She had known him for some years as their respective fathers were good friends who loved discussing politics and world affairs.  She and Jim had four children, Kathleen (a psychologist, now living in Galway), Billy (who sadly died in 2004), Michael (a retired accountant, now living in Dublin) and Richard (who sadly died suddenly in 2013).
After their marriage, Nora and Jim moved to Ballybunion where Jim had inherited a business on the Main Street.  Nora had to quickly adapt to her new role of running a Guest House and Shop, while also being a mother to a young family. Meanwhile, Jim provided home grown potatoes and vegetables and attended to the cows and pigs which provided milk and bacon to the Guest House.   He was also in demand as a musician and music teacher. Nora kept poultry so she had her own free -range eggs for the dining room.  It was a very self-sufficient business and organic before the term was known!
For many years, Nora worked hard on the family business and her regular guests returned year after year to her hospitality. She had a long and diverse list of interests, which included her lifelong love of drama and into her seventies she would accompany her daughter Kathleen to London twice a year to visit her son Michael and his wife Shirley. “Mam and I would go to two shows a day in the West End and often saw ten plays, shows or musicals during the week in London! This love of the theatre was nurtured in Mountcollins” Kathleen told me.   She also loved card playing and until she went to Beechwood House Nursing Home, Newcastle west in 2018, played cards with a group every Friday night. Her son Michael told me a story about his Mam and himself walking home at two in the morning with four bottles of whisky, her winnings after a night of cards and playoffs.  She was mortified that locals would see this 90-year-old with all this booze!
She sadly lost her husband Jim in 1991. Kathleen explained “Mam nursed him at home in the time before his death. He died peacefully at home.  Following his death, she continued running the business with the help of her son Richard who had stayed in Ballybunion and  had his own TV and Radio repairs business.  Over the years Mam  had developed a strong rapport with many of her regular guests  and found it difficult to refuse them when they would phone to come and stay.  She continued to cater for her regulars for the Listowel Races until she finally called time in 2010.  Mam loved her business life and meeting people and says those years were the happiest of her life. During her later years when she lived alone in Ballybunion, her two great companions were her cat Muff and dog Jessie.” This didn’t surprise me in the least as I have never known a Lenihan who wasn’t an avid animal lover.  She was also making her own bread until she went into the Nursing Home. She is now the sole survivor of her Lenihan family of siblings and their spouses.  She had always kept in touch with her siblings and their families in America and Canada and had a close bond with them. She visited them in San Francisco in 1979 along with her brothers Bill and Martin for a family reunion.  She continues to keep in touch with her nieces and nephews both at home and abroad. She would certainly be considered the Matriarch of the clan. Nora enjoys a very close relationship with her two grandchildren Nicholas and Niamh, both now in their 20s and living in Dublin (Michael and Shirley’s children).  How wonderful it must be to have a Gran like Nora!
She continues to be an incredibly positive and resilient person. Despite losing two of her children and her husband, and having lived through much sadness, she never succumbed to self-pity.  She has great wisdom and always keeps up to date with current events and loves television.  Her favourite programme is Winning Streak.  She always maintained a strong link with Mountcollins and her roots, is close to her nieces and nephews and Kathleen believes her solid childhood upbringing contributed greatly to her balanced outlook on life.  Nora’s life in Beechwood is a happy one. She’s healthy and strong, well versed on local and global issues, and is very content. Covid-19 restrictions rightly forbid visits curren-tly. She will celebrate her one hundredth birthday with her new friends and immediate family.
Personally, I feel very privileged and honoured to know her. She and my late mother, God rest her, were childhood friends. In fact, she was my mother’s bridesmaid on her wedding day, almost seventy -five years ago. I remember well as a child visiting Nora in Ballybunion, which was the holiday destination for our rare days out. Later, I visited her in Beechwood, the last time in 2019 with my cousin Noreen. My mother and Nora were childhood friends from school and the same parish. They both celebrated their birthdays in July. They were both Lenihans, my mother being a “Daheen Davy”. They both lost husbands in 1991. They remained friends all through their lives. My niece some years before my mother died, sat with her, and wrote an account of her life in a journal called “A grandparent’s Life”. Nora’s name is mentioned several times in that book. But perhaps the truest measure of their friendship came the morning my mother passed to her eternal reward.
I was fortunate enough to be by her side when she drew her last breath. Several hours later, my friend Catherine Lenihan, Nora’s niece rang me to tell me that she had just heard about Mom’s passing. But the strange thing was that earlier that morning, before learning of my mother’s death, she spoke to her Aunt Nora at her home in Ballybunion. Nora told her that she had dreamt early that morning of my mother and father, both standing together at the top of her stairs. She greeted them and they answered. Mom told her “We’re just passing Nora, we’re not staying, just wanted to say Goodbye”. Nora had no idea at the time that my mother had just passed. It was a great comfort to us to know that she was happily reunited with our father, and we were not in the least surprised to learn of the visit in a dream state. Mom valued her friends, and Nora was one of the dearest. On Wednesday last, I paid a visit to Catherine and Marian at their home in the Lower Road, Mountcollins. We spoke again of Nora, and the remarkable dream she had on the morning of my mother’s passing. The esteem in which Nora is held by her nieces is evident in the way they speak of her. I was glad to be in the place that Nora was born and raised and had such a great upbringing.
I hope to visit Nora again. A woman of great cheer, incredible recall, and great company, it is a pleasure to visit the friend who my mother felt compelled to visit one last time on her final journey. In the meantime, we at the Weekly Observer, and all who know and love her, congratulate her, and wish her all of the very best of what life can bring.
Happy 100th Birthday Nora.