IT started as a “diversion” and “a bit of fun” during the Covid-19 lockdown.
But now cocooning great grandmother Pauline Bonner has become a Facebook star at 90 — after her daughter recorded videos of her on her smartphone to stay in touch with her eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren. The recordings have become hugely popular outside her family circle.
Pauline a former nursery school owner who took up Italian in her eighties, loves cryptic crosswords and is a talented artist.
She now draws from her remarkable memory bank, plus an extensive repertoire of much loved nursery rhymes, fairy tales and poems, to entertain an ever-expanding online audience that reaches around the globe.
Seated at her daughter Fran’s kitchen table in Kinsale, Pauline began a lockdown routine last March, recording a short video for Facebook, in which she described fairies and goblins, adventures of lady birds, dormice and more, magic trains and forgotten nursery rhymes and classic fables, to the delight of children and parents watching online.
She received more than 800 views for one, with others regularly going into the hundreds. People are looking in from Canada, the U.S, Australia, the UK and many parts of Europe.
What began as Pauline’s modest wish for her family to remember her voice and some favourite recitations for posterity, soon took on a life of its own.
“To be honest, I was astonished by the reaction and messages from all over the globe,” she says.
“I’m delighted to do something during this difficult time for so many families, who are working remotely and home schooling, by helping to amuse children.”
Daughter Fran says: “Many parents have posted messages saying my mother’s fairy stories lull their kids to sleep. Some children won’t go to bed without hearing one of her nursery rhymes beforehand.
“I may have to set up her own Facebook page for Pauline now.”
A well-known Kinsale-based travel agent, who also specialises in developing inbound tourism itineraries and has a wide Facebook reach, Fran looks at her youthful mother and laughs.
“I guess she’s made a job for herself now and we’ll have to keep going so we don’t disappoint her fan base.”
The daily recordings kick off after Pauline, dressed in a different cardigan or blouse, teaming a scarf with them, settles herself at the kitchen table.
She comfortably starts off: “Hullo children, this is Granny, I’ve another story for you today.”
With her Scottish lilt and taste in pastel cardigans and neck scarves, Pauline reminds me of the white-haired inimitable Mrs Doubtfire (in the movie played by the late Robin Williams).
Just as the coronavirus took hold and the over 70s were urged to cocoon, Pauline happened to be staying for the weekend with her daughter in Kinsale.
Today she is still there, having decided that cocooning there was easier than at her home in Ballyvolane.
A highlight of last year was a trip back to her home to celebrate her 90th birthday last July when restrictions were eased.
“We couldn’t have a party because of the coronavirus but my lovely neighbours were out on the road, socially distanced, waving balloons and clapping,” says Pauline.
“There were champagne toasts too and it was a truly wonderful occasion.”
She misses her friends around Ballyvolane and Mayfield, especially the Gramophone Society, St Joseph’s Retirees and the dance day and quizzes, and she looks forward to a resumption of normal life and seeing everyone “hail and healthy again”.
A Glaswegian, Pauline met her Co Donegal-born husband whilst he was employed shipbuilding on the Clyde, and they later settled in Cork where he worked at the Verolme Dockyard.
Pauline qualified as a primary teacher in Scotland but couldn’t get a job teaching in Ireland because of the compulsory Irish language rule of the day.
So the mother-of-six decided to start her own nursery school, attended at first by a few local children, whose pre-school world of play and learning unfolded in her dining room.
It was an instant success, later necessitating the building of an extension to meet with demand and where generations of Cork city pre-school children spent many happy hours.
“I’ve always had a special bond with children,” Pauline explains. “I am quite a shy person myself but children have always taken me out of myself.”
She is a natural actress also, with the talent of bringing stories vividly to life, and a passion also for writing poetry and songs. One of her compositions, Jenny All Alone, was sung at the Castlebar Song Contest in 1970.
Pauline has had other brushes with celebrity too..
When the Queen of England visited Cork in 2011, Pauline dressed up in a turquoise suit with a hat shaped like the British monarch’s, and was dared by a friend of Fran’s to sit outside a bar and regally wave at passers-by. She was captured on Sky News waving regally in the style of Queen Elizabeth!
“To this day, Pat O’Connell, the famous fishmonger from the English Market who was such a hit on the royal visit, calls my mother ‘The Real Queen’,” Fran laughs.
“Two gardaí came along and one was saying why is the Queen down here on her own. My mother gave them the royal wave and pointed towards the Mall where the entourage was saying ‘she’s the decoy over there’. Pauline’s grandson in Montreal looked at the Canada TV news after somebody told him the Queen of England was in Cork and shouted ‘Oh my god, it’s my Granny!’”
As regards the ongoing pandemic, Pauline reflects: “These are the most difficult times most of us have ever seen or will again. If we get through this, we’ll get through anything.”
She recalls her evacuation from Glasgow in 1939 at the start of World War II with other children taken to the far north of Scotland to escape German bombing raids.
“We had rationing for years, I couldn’t remember what an orange or banana looked like; one of my brothers was badly wounded during the Normandy landings and another brother was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Northern Ireland’s coast.
“I have been through hard times, our freedom was taken away from us, there are a lot of similarities with now.
“But we’ll get through this crisis and the important thing is to stay healthy and hopeful.”
Pauline Bonner’s videos can be seen on Frances Bonner’s Facebook page.