FINDING Nancy Murray’s house is like finding a needle in a haystack — but when you do, it is like discovering a magical gem hidden in the Kingdom of Muskerry.
“You are welcome as the flowers of May,” says 90-year-old Nancy Murray, shaking my hand.
The talented lady is better known in these parts as ‘Queen of the Shows,’ after winning thousands of prizes for her home-made wares and her garden produce.
She has a mighty pair of hands.
“They still work very well,” says Nancy, as she puts on the kettle and offers me one of her prize-winning scones, made with homemade raspberry jam.
Nancy’s abode in the valley of Coolea is filled with thousands of trophies, rosettes, and plaques that she amassed over the years for her knitting and crochet crafts, her garden produce and cookery, including home-made preserves.
Her prize-winning hens were cock-of-the-walk until the mink put paid to their future ambitions.
“My hens won loads of prizes,” says Nancy, lamenting their demise. “The Mink got them and they were wiped out. You can avoid the fox, but the mink can climb up walls.
“I miss my hens. They were great layers.”
The fowl often provided the extra ingredient for Nancy’s prize-winning cakes and tarts.
“I used the eggs to make light, fluffy sponges and I added an egg in the pastry for the apple and rhubarb tarts. The crust of the tart is firm, never hard, the middle nice and juicy. At the show, all three judges, who vary all the time, had to agree that my cakes or tarts were the best. And they did.”
Nancy gives me a grand tour of her house where many hours of dedicated labour yielded great things.
“There is 60 years’ worth of hard work in here,” she says, opening the door to her parlour which is a treasure trove of magnificent trophies mirroring Nancy’s many talents.
“I worked very hard to win each one of them,” she says. “There’s another load of trophies up in the loft.”
Nancy is justifiably proud of her achievements.
“The judges didn’t award first prize willy-nilly,” she says.
“A lot of hard work and long hours went in to each entry and I take great pride in all my work.”
Other entrants must have been deterred when they saw Nancy arriving on site with her wares for the show?
“Oh yes. You’d often hear; that’s Nancy Murray’s, that’s hers and that’s hers, when people took stock of the competition. They wondered what they were doing entering the show.”
So no contest then?
“Ah, yes. There was. But I usually won!”
The perpetual cup from the Kilgarvan Agricultural Show has pride of place in the parlour.
“I won that big cup as Best Winner eight times,” says Nancy.
“The ninth year, the committee decided to give me the cup to keep. They reckoned I had earned it.”
The spectacle of trophies is amazing to behold.
“They are something wonderful,” Nancy agrees, admiring her impressive collection.
“I got great satisfaction from winning them all.”
She is enthused with her God-given talents.
“Come and see my knitting and crochet,” she says.
“My prize-winning knitting and sewing is a gift I got from God.”
The Aran jumpers and intricate crochet cardigans that Nancy made are miraculously intricate, each detail crafted with love.
“Yes, a labour of love!” declares Nancy. “That’s what they were.”
I tell her that where I come from in Galway, an Aran cable stitch will determine your clan.
“The stitch is always unique,” she says, obviously having perfecting it.
“Some of my favourite jumpers are the Aran knits.”
She made the jumpers for her favourite people.
“My brother, Fr John Dunne, was a priest in the Missionaries in Korea,” she says.
“I made him eight Aran jumpers, he shared them among the other priests. So everyone benefited!”
Nancy’s clan came from Kilkenny. She grew up not far from another Queen of baking, Darina Allen.
“Galboy is on the border of Laois,” she says.
How did Nancy Dunne come to live in the Coolea valley near Ballyvourney, where she reigns supreme?
“My husband, Jer Murray, and I, were a match,” says Nancy.
It was a match made in heaven.
“We were perfect for each other, and we worked well on the farm together, side by side.”
Who introduced them?
“I was working in the Grand Hotel in Malahide, Dublin,” says Nancy.
“A man used to come regularly to the hotel delivering vegetables. He told me I was wasting my time there. He had a friend down the country who would make a fine match for me. One Sunday I came down to meet Jer and we were ideally suited. I was 47 when we got married, Jer was 52.”
The pair were well met.
“We had a good marriage, neither of us drank or smoked,” says Nancy.
“Jer and I worked hard, doing everything together.”
The couple created a productive vegetable garden and reared calves and piglets.
“We had all kinds of wonderful,” says Nancy. “One year we reared 22 bonives.”
Jer appreciated his wife’s home-making skills as well as her home-baking skills.
What was his favourite treat?
“Stewed apples ripe from our garden with hot custard,” says Nancy.
“That was his favourite dessert after his dinner. He loved my baking.”
Jer was well looked after.
“We were very happy,” says Nancy, reminiscing about her late husband.
“He died tragically in a farm accident 20 years ago now. We were putting five bullocks through the gate to the field. The last bullock going through butted Jer in the ribs. He was treated in hospitals in Dublin and Cork, but he couldn’t be saved.”
Jer was the ideal partner.
“He was a great help to me when I entered the agricultural shows. Nothing was too much trouble,” says Nancy.
“He was the kindest man. Jer transported all my stuff to the field and he was very proud of me when I won every time.”
Jer entered competitions of his own.
“He loved tug-of-war,” says Nancy. “Jer was always the anchor for the team at the end of the rope, holding his ground.”
Nancy missed her beloved husband after he died, but she was never lonely.
“I have loads of visitors coming to the house and my neighbours are great,” she says.
Apart from Nancy’s great company, her hospitality is always welcome.
“People enjoy a chat, a cup of tea and a slice of cake. I still have my 90th birthday cake if you’d like a slice,” she offers.
Still savouring the delicious scone, I ask her how she transports her entries to the local agricultural shows that she concentrates on, in Kilgarvan and Ballyvourney?
“In the boot of my car of course!”
Nancy’s eyesight is better than ever since she got her cataracts removed.
“I went to Belfast for the procedure,” she says.
“It was a long journey, but it was the best thing I ever did.”
She is now gearing up, sharpening her needles, and perfecting her recipes for the summer show season.
“I’ll be bringing home more trophies,” she promises, smiling.
She is a true champion.
“I was lucky in life,” she says.
What does she put her good spirits and her good health down to?
“I get up every day, I get out and about. I don’t sit for long. Keep on working. That’s the secret.”
Nancy, who never hid her talents under a bushel, has no intention of retiring from competition.
“I’ll keep going for a bit longer before I stop entering the shows,” she says.
“I still enjoy winning.”
And she enjoys the prestige, of course, that comes with being Queen of the Shows?
“That’s good too,” says Nancy. “Definitely!”
Even though she has hoards of trophies, a testament to her gifted hands, she has three souvenirs that she treasures dearly.
“I have my wedding ring, the key to my own door and my gold pioneer pin,” she says.
“What more could I ask for?”