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Saturday 21 September 2019

101 reasons to be cheerful

Stella Kelly from Wexford at her 101st birthday in Cherry Grove Nursing home in Horeswood with her daughters from left; Mary Dunn, Hilda Kenny and Margaret Hanifan.
Stella Kelly from Wexford at her 101st birthday in Cherry Grove Nursing home in Horeswood with her daughters from left; Mary Dunn, Hilda Kenny and Margaret Hanifan.
Stella Kelly.

WHEN Stella Kelly was born 101 years ago the world was a very different place.

World War I was in full flight and the Irish State was yet to be born.

Stella was one of six children born into the well-known Wexford bakers' family, the Kelly's, who lived at 18 North Main Street, on November 27, 1915.

From childhood all of the Kelly's bar one, Sean, displayed a rare talent for music.

Stella shone on the violin. She played in the Wexford Orchestra as a precocious 12-year-old.

'That was at a time before the Italian singers got involved. Everyone in Wexford was involved in it,' she says.

She went on to qualify from the London College of Music as a violin teacher. Eventually a practical job at the civil service beckoned and she moved to Dublin working in the Department of Justice.

Sitting bolt upright in an armchair at Cherry Grove Nursing Home in Campile, Stella recalled missing her family and friends in Wexford and her time in Dublin.

'I got married there eventually. I met two young brothers, one was studying to be a doctor and the other was studying Veterinary. I must have been talking about games as they invited me to join the tennis club and that is where I met my future husband. It was my first time there and I knew nobody. I saw this man with two or three girls hanging off him. I said: "I don't know who he is but I'm going to take him down a peg or two."'

The man being sized up was Michael Kelly, who asked Stella on a date while she was on her way to a bus stop.

'The next morning he was ringing my office. We were just friends for a long time. We walked all around Dublin. After that the romance took off.'

The happy couple married in Dublin in 1942.

When housing loans came on stream, Stella and Michael jumped at the chance as they were sick of paying rent.

'We moved to Clontarf. He was a civil servant too and money was getting very short with us. I knew how to make buns and cakes and I said why don't I give that a go. I had a friend who was a lawyer and he knew someone who was selling a bakery and I took that on. I employed a confectioner as I didn't know the exact details. She was great and showed me how to ice the cakes and we ended up doing three-tier cakes.'

Business was booming during World War II as the local bakery was the only place housewives could get a sugar hit.

'During the war housewives didn't get sugar due to the rationing in place so anyone who was a baker got a good ration of sugar so they had to buy their cakes to get their sugar hit.'

Stella and Michael went on to have children and when rationing was lifted and business slowed down she decided to sell it on.

'I loved being around my children who were full of funny stories and so very witty.'

Stella never lost her longing for Wexford and every Christmas she would bring the family down to the home place.

When Michael died 30 years ago Stella became a professional granny, returning to County Wexford more regularly.

Tragedy struck on March 24, 1968, when Stella's daughter Ann was one of 61 passengers (and crew) who were killed on Aer Lingus Flight 712 which crashed en route from Cork to London.

The aircraft, a Vickers Viscount 803 named St. Phelim, crashed into the sea off Tuskar Rock in County Wexford.

'After the terrible publicity about the funeral of my daughter I struggled for a time.'

In her retirement Stella developed a love of flower arranging and joined a club in Clontarf.

'We made a lot of money for charity,' she says, adding that she also loves knitting and knitted a blue scarf which a child in Africa will get to wear this Christmas through the Shoebox Appeal.

Over the past two decades Stella has been on the move, staying with family across the country.

Stella suffered a health setback when she had a stroke, but rallied and is now in great shape.

'I went into St John's Hospital in Enniscorthy where they deal with strokes. I had a stroke on my left hand side and when I woke up I thought "Great, I have nothing to do now but sit back and enjoy myself", but then a nurse told me I had to go up and down corridors. It was like being in a gym.'

When asked what she attributes her longevity to, Stella replied: 'I'm stubborn and I won't give in. I eat everything on my plate as I can still hear my mother Margaret telling me as a girl that she was ashamed of me because I was so thin. She told me to eat everything on my plate.'

On November 26, Stella's daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends gathered at Cherry Grove Nursing Home to mark her 101st birthday.

'They gave me a very nice birthday party. It's like a home away from home here,' Stella says before diving into a rhyme: 'It's a splendid nursing home with food fit for a king and a busy nurse stops to wipe droll from your chin.'

Stella still knits, 'It's like smoking for someone else,' she says. 'When I was six I told my mother that I needed a new jersey. She came back into the house with a ball of material and threw into onto my lap and said "there is your new jersey", she recalled with a smile and a little beautiful laugh.

Wexford People

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