The year was 1902 – the average wage in the U.S. was 22 cents per hour, the country consisted of 45 states, only 6% of Americans graduated high school, and the average life expectancy was 47 years old.
Someone forgot to tell that last fact to Margaret Kelly, who was born in Scarriff, Co. Clare in 1902 and is still going strong all these years later . . . 108 years and two months later, to be precise.
Margaret is quite likely the oldest living Irish-born person on the planet – earlier this year The Irish Times reported that a lady in Co. Cork, believed to have been the country’s most senior citizen, passed weeks before her 108th milestone – and judging from an interview she conducted with the Irish Voice, the spunky senior has every intention of sticking around for as long as she can.
Margaret currently resides at the Pines Nursing Home in Glens Falls, New York, about 50 miles north of Albany. Though she’s the oldest Pines resident by far she’s one of the most recent additions to the home – until three months ago she lived with her daughter Margie Dunn in the nearby town of Queensbury and was in robust health.
A visit to the Pines by the Irish Voice last week was a joy to behold – sitting bolt upright in her wheelchair, her thick silver hair newly styled and her nails painted bright pink, Margaret was more than ready to chat about what she remembered about the Ireland of all those years ago, and her love of her adopted country.
She left Clare when she was only 16 years old, in 1918. In those days once you left it was likely that you were gone for good, and so it was with Margaret. She has never set foot on Irish soil since departing on the boat that took her to Ellis Island, though her Irish accent is, remarkably, still as thick and rich as the day she left.
“I remember my mother, she’d hit you with anything she had in her hand! She had no mercy for you!” Margaret said. “And the church; we were always in the church. It was a great big church. I wonder if it’s still there.”
Margaret McNamara was one of seven children raised by poor farmers in Ireland. Most of the siblings left Ireland out of necessity, and none of them ever returned.
When Margaret arrived into Ellis Island she met a handsome Englishman named Frederick Kelly. They loved going to the famous dance halls in New York like the Jaeger House and the Tuxedo. “I used to love to dance. I loved going to those places,” Margaret recalled.
The two married in 1925 and settled in Queens, raising five children, one of whom, Raymond, died when he was four from pneumonia. After the marriage Margaret stopped working as a nanny to raise her family.
As Margaret’s daughter Margie tells it, her mother didn’t have an easy life. She’s been a widow for 50 years, as Frederick died suddenly in 1960 after a botched operation. The family had just moved into a new home in Woodside, and Frederick, who worked as a manager at a grocery store in Greenwich Village, didn’t have a pension or other benefits for his devastated survivors to fall back on.
Margaret was forced to go back to work. “I worked for a doctor’s wife in New York and I loved her,” she said.
Margie recalls that it was difficult for the family to maintain the Woodside home, but they pulled together and survived. Mother and daughter have been living together more or less since the day Frederick died, including after Margie married a New York City cop and had three children of her own.
“My husband was so understanding and so wonderful,” says Margie, a widow for the past year. “He was a cop and after he retired in 1983 we moved from Queens up here to Queensbury, and Mom came with us.”
Margie, 76, is her mother’s primary caretaker and best friend by far. “We are very close. I don’t know what I’d do without her,” she says, noting that her three other siblings live in Long Island and Florida and, as such, don’t get to spend much time with their mother.
Was it hard for Margaret to leave Ireland behind and never return? Margie says it was for sure, and that her mother often talked about home, but Margaret pipes up with a different reply.
“I was glad to get out of it!” she roars. “I love New York and I love this country! You can say and do anything you want here.”
Margaret is far from bed-ridden, and her physical appearance for someone her age is extraordinary. Margie reports that her mother has never had any serious illnesses, apart from a broken hip, some digestive problems and other issues that are part of the aging process, such as forgetfulness and confusion.
She spends her days receiving visitors in her wheelchair, including Margie’s three children and other cousins in the area, and watching her flat screen TV – Oprah Winfrey and the Fox News Channel are her favorites.
Reading is also a passion. “But I can’t do it anymore. I need a magnifying glass!” she shouts at Margie, who informs her mother that one is on the way.
When it comes time for a photo, Margaret is more than ready for her close-up. “Will I take off my glasses?” she asks in her soft Clare brogue that makes you want to scoop her up and run away with her – that’s how adorable she is.
There is great longevity in Margaret’s family. Her mother lived until she was 98, and a sister, Nellie, died recently at the ripe young age of 103.
Margaret has received a signed letter and commemorative coin from Irish President Mary McAleese every year since her 100th birthday, an Irish government policy of marking the milestones of its most remarkable citizens. And though no one lives forever, Margaret Kelly shows every sign of adding to her coin collection next June 2, and beyond.
“Everyone loves her, even though she can be stubborn!” laughs Margie. “She’s an inspiration for sure.”