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  • News

Recalling nine fine decades of island life

Saturday, 7th October, 2017 7:10am
Recalling nine fine decades of island life

Mary Mac on Cape Clear: ‘We ate pollock and piper, which was a pinky fish, and we had crabs and lobsters too, caught from the boat.’

Cape Clear’s Mary Mac (91) tells Simon Cocking about growing up on West Cork’s islands – eating homegrown vegetables, roaming free, and swapping stories of close links with a US president.

BORN in the 1920s, on the Calf islands, to a family of four brothers and four sisters, Mary ‘Mac’ O’Donoghue is now 91, and a longtime resident of Cape Clear. 

She has seen many things come and go, and has an impressive recall of many of the people and events that have taken place in Roaring Water Bay. With pride, Mary also recalls how the Reagans – as in the 40th president of the United States – had an ancestry that can be traced back to the Western Calf island, the neighbouring island to the one she grew up on. 

Mary grew up on Middle Calf island, in a relatively large house for the time, with two rooms upstairs and two downstairs. 

‘My mother died young, but we had a wonderful father and a wonderful auntie,’ she explained. 

Calf Island is now uninhabited and Mary was one of the last to leave, but she has great memories of being a child in that special place. 

‘There were five other families on the island too – one had 12 children, and one had eight,’ she recalled. ‘My grandmother came from West Calf, and she was an O’Reagan.’ 

Mary left the Calf islands in 1939 to attend convent school in Schull, coming home at the weekend whenever possible. 

When her family, the Crowleys, left the island, they were the last ones to go. She would never describe her childhood as being hard. ‘No, we had a lovely time living there. We were self-sufficient, we had everything we needed. We ate plenty of fish, plenty of vegetables, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, even cabbage, beetroot and onions.’

The family used to kill pigs and put them into barrels for keeping. ‘We also had plenty of chickens and they were laying, and we had brown turkeys, and our own geese and ducks. We had plenty of birds and plenty to eat. We ate pollock and piper, which was a pinky fish, and we had crabs and lobsters too, caught from the boat.’

Oftentimes, in Winter, the islanders would have to stay put as trips to nearby Schull were seen as too treacherous. 

‘Sometimes you couldn’t get off the Calfs, and it was very tough. Thank goodness we always had enough potatoes to eat, but if we ran out of flour, we had brown flour, our own wheat.’

Mary wasn’t too happy when she had to move to the mainland. ‘It was horrible,’ she said, adding that there wasn’t as much freedom for them to play, as there had been on the islands.

Explaining the ‘presidential’ link, Mary said that one branch of the family moved to Schull from the Calf islands and from there to Tipperary, and from there onto America. ‘My grandmother would be Ronald’s grand-aunt. I saw Ronald Reagan many times on the television and I said to my husband – he looks just like my cousin Charlie Reagan from Schull!’

As the Star spoke to Mary, she was planning ‘a singsong and a few drinks in Cotters’ to celebrate her 91st birthday. 

Mary doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and you need to work hard to keep up when taking notes. 

She described having to leave Cork to work in the UK, but was happy to return to West Cork to live with her childhood sweetheart on Cape Clear island, and to raise her own children, both of whom still live on the island. You’ll often meet Mary down in North Harbour having a cup of tea – or the odd glass of wine sometimes – and is happy to share her stories and experiences of life on Cape and the Calf islands.