Death of a Clonmel woman

When Miss Annie Swift died recently in St. Luke's Hospital, she was in her 102nd year. In that extraordinarily long life, she had lived through many dramatic changes in her town and country.

Her home until middle-age had been in Dillon Street, the previous name of which Westmoreland Street - had been changed in the decade before her birth, just as the name of Johnston Street had been changed to Gladstone Street, Blind Street to Kickham Street and Bagwell Street to Parnell Street, all reflecting the dominance of Nationalism in the Corporation.

The Swift home was just opposite the western gates of Victoria Barracks, to which the family would have seen the return of the military from the Boer War, their departure again to World War 1, their final evacuation in 1921, the burning of the barracks in the Civil War, and the occupancy by the army of the new Irish Free State. That occupancy was brief, and the barracks was to lie in charred ruins until World War 11, when it was re-occupied and re-named Kickham Barracks.

From Victoria to Kickham - all in the street in which the Swift family quietly lived through all the winds of change that enveloped Clonmel. There was economic depression, the closure of Murphy's Brewery (a major employer), massive emigration, poor housing, diptheria epidemics, and ever-present tuberculosis.

But some benign winds of change were also evident in the gloom. O'Gorman's in Prior Park had obtained a contract for the building of a fleet of buses for the fledgling Irish Omnibus Company.

And in the mid 1930s, the manufacture of footwear was resumed in one of the old mills on the river. There had been a very thriving industry in footwear and leather-making in Myers' factory on Suir Island in the previous century. Burke's considerably extended their bacon curing at Old Quay and Willie Magner started to make cider in Dowd's Lane. Clonmel was on its way to the restoration of its status as one of the leading industrial towns in Ireland.

It is tragically ironic that, at a time of budding prosperity in the late 1950s, Annie Swift should lose her home in Dillon Street and following her mother's death she became ill and homeless. Modest comfort and security replaced relatively suddenly by illness and homelessness - that must have been a frightening place to be - yet through it all Annie Swift managed to retain her dignity and her sense of self.

Many people tried to come to her rescue - churches, societies and individuals, but their solutions were not Annie's solutions. She found refuge in the Friary and at the glowing turf fire in the old Post Office, where the staff was remarkably kind to her and where she would chat with the customers. The Gardai, too, kept a kindly and protective eye on her. One wonders if, in these more affluent times, she could have survived in the streets of her native town.

She was admitted to St. Luke's Hospital in the early 1960s. where her health was restored and where she was to find love and care and a home and security.

During her long years in hospital, she kept in contact with her town, and, with one of her nurses, would occasionally have lunch or afternoon tea in Hearn's Hotel. She loved to shop at Clinton's, where she bought the beige suit she wore to her Mayoral Reception in the Town Hall to mark her 90th birthday, the green suit for her 95th birthday party and the red suit for her momentous 100th birthday, at which she received the Presidential Medal She retained her small slight figure and a certain sense of style right to the end.

As the town changed and expanded, she maintained her loyalty to the old streets and the old shops, and to her the small shop which sold everything was still a haberdashery and the proprietor a haberdasher.

With the passage of the decades, Annie moved to different wards in the hospital. In St. Teresa's Ward she took responsibility for making the toast for tea and she had a lovely bedroom decorated in pink, at her request. She remained ambulent until the last few weeks of her life, but when she required more intensive nursing she moved to St. Clare's Ward. It was in the adjoining visiting room that her wake was held, and there she was surrounded with flowers, covered in her favourite embroidered quilt ( a present from her nurses for one of her birthdays), and on a table nearby where the small things that were special to her - her handbag, a sherry glass - because she always enjoyed a mid- afternoon glass of sherry - and a china cup because Annie liked to take her tea in a china cup.

She died very peacefully, having received Holy Communion from Brother Isidore OFM in the morning and just before midnight, responding to a call from her nurse, Father Jude OFM gave her the Last Sacraments. She was still conscious and able to make the responses. In the days leading up to her death, an old and faithful friend, Mrs. Ellen Burns, sat with her.

Annie enjoyed extraordinarily good health right to the last. “It was just that her body said it was time to go”; said one of her nurses. That good health was due in no small way to the loving care which she had received in the hospital, from medical and nursing and catering staffs and from the devoted chaplaincy of the Franciscans.

On the day of her waking, nurses long retired, came back to take their leave of her, and all spoke lovingly of her. They had nursed her back from that troubling and lost period of her life into the later decades of tranquility and contentment.

Much of the town through which Miss Annie Swift's funeral travelled to the family plot had changed utterly in the century since her birth. Scarcely 20 years before that birth, Clonmel got its first public piped water supply, and at about the same time, farmland on the eastern hinterland of the town was acquired for municipal burial grounds - now St. Patrick's Cemetery.

Those burial grounds were well outside the town boundaries - now the town has expanded to enclose them. Yet, despite all of that century of changes and expansion and development, as Annie Swift was laid to rest in her own place on a bright, sunny but very cold day, it was reassuring to recall the unchanging endurance of kindness and love and care and of ordinary human goodness.


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