John Arnold: Farewell, Margaret - A story of love that spans the centuries

In his weekly column John Arnold recalls the loss of a friend, Margaret O'Keeffe (nee) Smiddy, who died last Friday, the day her sister Gabrielle Heskin was being buried and their brother Dominic passed away just a few weeks earlier. 
John Arnold: Farewell, Margaret - A story of love that spans the centuries

The Smiddy Family of Beanfield as children in 1937/38. Back: William (Bill) and Anna (nee Gould). Middle, from left, Gabrielle, Veronica (Sr Baptista), Brigid (Sr Concepta), Margaret, Jennie. Front: Dominic and First Holy Communicant, Bernard.

WHERE do love stories begin? Here, there and everywhere. Some at dances, discos — often maybe in a cinema or a concert.

In the musical South Pacific, that wonderful song Some Enchanted Evening tells of a couple meting for the first time; Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger, You may see a stranger across a crowded room, And somehow you know, you know even then, That somehow you’ll see her again and again.

Back in 1952, that’s how it was for Margaret Smiddy, a girl from Beanfield, in Gortroe, near Youghal, and James O’Keeffe from Ballynattin in Ballynoe. They met at what today we’d call a ‘house party’, but it was no ordinary party.

It happened in Castle Richard, near Killeagh in East Cork, but in reality it had its source back in 1852.

Just a few years after the Famine had ended in Ireland, leaving a million people dead and as many fled from our shores, on Tuesday, March 23, 1852, down in Clonpriest, not far from Youghal, a baby girl was born into the Leahy family.

As was the custom at the time, the child was taken by her father Daniel for baptism to the local church. She grew to be a handsome girl.

Before she had reached her 21st birthday, on February 22, 1873, Mary Leahy returned to Clonpriest Church — this time for her wedding to Daniel Gould . The couple had nine children, six of whom lived to see their mother mark a very special birthday.

On Sunday, March 23, 1952, there was a fine gathering at the Gould household in Castle Richard to celebrate Mary’s 100th birthday. Friends, relations and family gathered.

In 1920, Mary and Daniel’s daughter Anna had married William (Bill) Smiddy, of Beanfield, Gortroe and their family were present for their grandmother’s special birthday. Margaret Smiddy was there and ‘across a crowded room’ she saw and met James O’Keeffe from Ballynoe — James’s cousin Kit married Daniel Gould, a son of the ‘old lady’ in 1926 — he died in 1934. So, at Castle Richard in 1952, the love story of Margaret Smiddy and James O’Keeffe began.

They had the same birthday, October 20, married a few years later, and for 67 years, until last week, Margaret O Keeffe lived in her ‘new’ home at Ballynattin in Ballynoe.

Her husband James passed away in March, 2017, in his 99th year and Margaret, in her 97th year, died on February 12 last.

It was a poignant few days for me. For my birthday on February 8, Margaret sent me a birthday card with good wishes and reminding me to call ‘when things got better’ — I attended her funeral on Saturday last.

The New Mart at Corrin in Fermoy was opened, I think, in 2008 and present that day were three men who had been at the Official Opening of the first mart in Fermoy town half a century earlier — cattle dealers Noel Murphy and Billy O’Mahony and James O’Keeffe.

James’s son Bill asked me would I call over some night to have a chat with his father. Bill knew I was interested in history and local lore and James had a wonderful memory.

So, in July, 2008, I had the first of many visits to the O’Keeffe homestead in Ballynattin. This wonderful couple made me so welcome on each occasion. 

“I can’t stay late,” I often said at 8pm but rarely if ever did I get home by midnight.

I was amazed to find out that James had worked with my mother’s father, John Twomey, in the Cow Testing (Milk Recording) scheme in the late 1930s — my grandfather had died in 1943 so to meet someone that remembered him and spoke so well of him was stunning.

Margaret was a great host and quietly, as I might be chatting to James about the Economic War, or Bartlemy Fair or Ballynoe Races, she’d slip out to the kitchen to make the tea. Her memory was equally as good as her husband’s and she regaled me with tales of her home-place Beanfield, Ballymadog, Clonpriest and Clonard.

Two of her sisters were Holy Faith nuns so I heard stories of Trinidad and convent life in Dublin. Some say the Smiddys came from Scotland whilst others claim they’re of German extraction. One way or another, Margaret was proud of her East Cork heritage and kept in touch with cousins far and wide.

James O’Keeffe would have been 100 in October, 2018, but passed away the year before. Margaret told me he had ‘lived as long as he wanted’.

I recall the night of his removal from O’Farrell’s Funeral Home in Midleton, she grasped my hand and reminded me: “Though James is dead, you must keep calling to see me.”

I’m glad I did, though the last 12 months were hard on people like Margaret, who loved visitors to her home. 

She loved Knock and Lourdes and looked forward each year to getting Holy Water from Lourdes. She was a great woman for the Holy Water.

Her mind was so active and alert. Each time I’d visit she’d ask about all my relations she knew and talk of all the — as she said herself — ‘comings and goings’. I sent her a book on our Virtual Pilgrimage to Lourdes and had a card back thanking me for the lovely reading material.

Not alone was she well able to trace her own Smiddy, Gould and Leahy families, but she was equally as good at James’s family — and the O’Keeffes are a long-tailed family going back to Clonmult in East Cork, with branches as far away as Australia.

There were always horses in Ballynattin. James told me of being sent by his father Joe to the Fair in Bartlemy during the War years to buy a working horse, which he duly did.

I loved my visits to Ballynattin because you know when a warm welcome is really genuine and it was always that way with the O’Keeffes. I never left hungry and the parting words were always the same. “God Bless, call again soon.”

They reared six children well and they will all miss Margaret and James. Their 24 grandchildren will have enjoyed the love of lovely grandparents and the great grandchildren will, in years to come, hear stories of a beautiful and special couple.

Margaret died last Friday, the day her sister Gabrielle Heskin was being buried and their brother Dominic passed away just a few weeks earlier. So the last three of Bill and Anna Smiddy’s family have gone to their eternal rest, the end of an era for that family surely.

I was sad and tearful at the ancient cemetery in Clonmult last Saturday as we laid Margaret O’Keeffe to rest. Then, as I left, I smiled thinking of the good times I enjoyed in the company of two lovely people.

Bill O’Keeffe said at her Funeral Mass that she loved prayers and had them for all occasions, and was always great to get Masses said. He recalled a favourite prayer of hers, one we should all try to emulate.

You can shed tears that she is gone Or you can smile because she has lived

You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back Or you can open your eyes and see all that she has left

Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her Or you can be full of the love that you shared

You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday

You can remember her and only that she is gone, Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on

You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back, Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

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