WHEN Sheila Coleman, neé Kelleher, the second eldest of eight children, was born on the night of Saturday, March 15, 1919, the War of Independence was raging, with violence extending to many parts of Cork. Her father went out on the pony and trap to get the nurse.
“This was extremely dangerous,” Sheila later recalled. “He could have been shot or taken.”
Both father and daughter lived to tell the tale and Sheila, from Curra, Ballymartle, Ballinhassig, went on to live a long, fruitful, fulfilled life, until the ripe old age of 99.
“She died in her 100th year, on January 14 this year, one of the last of her generation,” says Sheila’s son, Alan, who is a county councillor for Cork South West, Bandon/Kinsale Municipal District.
As mothers all over the country are fêted and treated for Mother’s Day this Sunday, March 31, Alan will be missing the lady who loved and worked the land like he does.
“I didn’t realise how much I’d miss her,” he says.
“She pulled all the family together,” adds Alan, who is a father of five.
“Since my mother was in the great care of Kinsale Community Hospital the last few years, I mark her birthday, March 15, by bringing the staff there an edible bouquet of flowers.”
Sheila was a proud Cork woman.
“She was a great Cork supporter and she loved going to hurling and football matches with me,” says Alan.
“All-Ireland final day was her favourite occasion, especially if Cork were involved.”
Sheila liked being out and about.
“At the drop of a hat, she’d sit into the car and we’d head off to a match or for a spin to the Old Head of Kinsale,” says Alan.
The two shared the same interests.
“Hurling and the harvest; they were two big things in her life,” says Alan.
“She had a huge interest in her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and she loved family gatherings, catching up with everybody.”
Nan Coleman was well travelled.
“She went to America 23 times!” says Alan.
“Finbarr, my brother, lives in America, and Mam loved visiting him and his family.”
Sheila recorded many snap-shots of her life, writing memories in her beautiful handwriting that her family will cherish always.
“The ‘Life Story’ diary was a present from her grandchildren,” says Alan, sharing his mother’s precious memories.
“I warned Finbarr to collect me at the airport,” Sheila wrote about her first trip to the USA.
“On the first trip over, I stood by the Aer Lingus desk holding my suitcase, worried about all the people passing.”
Alan remembers his mother as a woman of the people.
“My mother was very outgoing and she had a natural interest in people, having the rare capacity to connect,” says Alan.
She looked on the bright side of life.
“Mam had a very positive disposition, always seeing the glass half-full.”
She was hale and hearty.
“She didn’t drink, she hated sweet fizzy drinks too,” says Alan. “Cidona was her drink.”
She lived in the present.
“Mam didn’t believe in dwelling on the past,” says Alan.
“She very much lived in the present, interested in what was happening now.”
Sheila, like many of her generation, worked hard in her time and she was a big part of the community where she lived. As a young girl, the bicycle was the favoured mode of transport to get around.
“She drove the jeep well up into her 90s!” says Alan.
Sheila told it like it was in her ‘Life Story’ diary.
“I used to smoke,” Sheila writes. “I cycled to Belgooly to get five woodbines that cost 2p. I remember sharing a butt with my sister, Peggy, and our friend, Jim Coughlan. I gave up the cigarettes one Lent, and I disliked them since.”
She liked other things; visiting neighbours and dancing at gatherings at home in the kitchen.
“I loved dancing and step-dancing,” she wrote.
“I went to dances in Kileady, Minane Bridge, or Kinsale now and then, when there was a Regatta on.”
Sheila was very sociable.
“We danced most nights in the kitchen. Neighbours came in to play cards, 25 and 45. The men used to play pitch and toss.”
Home was where the heart was.
“It was a three-bedroom farm-house,” wrote Sheila. “My father was a dairy-farmer. We milked the cows by hand.”
She walked to school through the fields.
“I walked to school through two fields and a strip.
“Before we finished school we had to pick sticks for the fire for the next day.”
Life was different in the 1920s and 1930s when Sheila grew up.
“After school I went working in the fields. I fed the cows and the calves. I cleaned the mangles for the horses, pulled the beet, and then took it down to Ballinhassig railway where it would be taken to Mallow.”
Sheila’s childhood memories are vivid through her writings, capturing the life and times of her day.
“I remember my father going off every Thursday, up to the Coal Quay in Cork city with five bags of potatoes. He would leave at 3am to get to the city for 6am.
“We would sometimes have to take frost nails and put them on the shoes of the horses to climb Black Hill.
“All the women loved his potatoes, and he’d be sold out of them. My father brought back sweets to us, we’d be out on the road watching and waiting for him. I was about eight years old.”
Where did Sheila meet her husband, John?
“At a hauling home party for John and Nancy Deasy in Riverstick!” says Alan.
What kind of an event was that?
“It was a party for a married couple returning home after their honeymoon,” says Alan.
“My mother was a young widow at 50. Dad died of a brain tumour.”
Sheila had another escort before meeting John.
“I was going out everywhere with my second cousin, Timmy Murphy, before John came along,” she writes.
“We cycled to matches and dances. The nearest dance-hall was seven miles away.
“On New Year’s night we used to hire a car, costing 10 pounds, between seven or eight of us, and drive to Kilumney to a dance.
“I went out with John for a few years before we got married at 23. He was seven years older than me.
“We went to Dublin on our honeymoon for a week and the first person we met was Tom Bohan, a guard from Bohan’s Cross, Ballygarvan. He took us out every evening to see the good and bad around Dublin.”
Sheila and John had four children, Finbarr, Mary, Brendan and Alan.
“Mary and Mam were like sisters,” says Alan. “They spoke every day.”
Sheila, like everyone, had good times and bad times during her long lifetime.
“She was devastated after my sister Mary died,” says Alan.
Sheila was very fond of Mary’s late husband, Michael as well.
“And it was a blow when Mam’s grandson, Kevin Downing, was involved in a serious car accident,” says Alan.
“But she was so proud when he was presented with a Person of the Year Award in 1998, for overcoming disability.”
In her writings, Sheila remembered the good times.
“My 90th birthday party was a big surprise for me,” she wrote.
“It was in the Trident Hotel in Kinsale and I nearly died when I saw everybody.”
Sheila had numerous memorable happy occasions during her lifetime.
“My 80th birthday was in Bawnleigh House; my 95th in the pub in Riverstick. The place was packed with all age groups. It was on a sunny afternoon and we had a barbecue.
“My grandchildren’s weddings were great occasions and I always enjoyed my trips away with the ICA.
“I saw the Pope John Paul II in Limerick in 1979, and I got to touch him as he drove by in the Pope-mobile.”
Sheila, a resilient woman of her generation, immersed herself into her many interests after her husband, John, passed away.
“She loved gardening, always happiest in her garden,” says Alan.
“Flower arranging and baking were other things she liked to do.
“She made great friends in the local ICA guild, Ballymartle, of which she was a founder member.
“Her religion was very important to her,” adds Alan.
She liked to look well too.
“Yes,” says Alan. “Mam was into her style!”
Sheila Coleman was proud of her achievements.
“I loved going to the Belgooly show,” she recalled in her diary. “I only ever missed one show. I was on the organising committee for a while.”
She sported and played.
“Mam played for Cork in two All Ireland Camogie finals in 1942 and 1943, defeating Dublin both times,” says Alan.
“She often spoke about those matches! GAA was one of the loves of her life.”
Farming was another.
“She was very progressive in farming, both tillage and dairy” says Alan.
He often walks through the fields where he and his mother walked together.
“Mam and I lived in the family home on the farm together for a time,” says Alan. “Bridget, my ex- wife, and I, missed her presence in the house after she got a bad flu and was then cared for in Kinsale Community Hospital; such a welcoming place. It was always great to visit her there. It would do you good.
“She always wanted up-to-date news.”
Was he the blue-eyed boy?
Alan, who served as County Mayor in 2014/15. laughs. “I suppose I was,” he admits. “My mother was always very supportive of my career.”
He knows a mother’s love is a blessing no matter where you roam. “Everyone loved her,” he says, paying tribute to his mother.
Sheila Coleman, who nearly lived to be 100, enjoyed living in the present moment.
“Mam had a great attitude going through life,” says Alan.
He’s happy to share her philosophy. “Live for the now.”