09 Dec 2021

GALLERY| Ballinalee native celebrates her 100th birthday

Ballinalee native met famous poet Pádraic Colum and Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe on her life's adventure

Longford native Kathleen (Catherine) O’Donnell has celebrated her 100th birthday with family and friends.

On Saturday, February, 15 Kathleen’s family and friends from Longford, Killybegs and Milford gathered in the Silver Tassie Hotel near Letterkenny for a celebratory birthday lunch to mark her 100th birthday. Kathleen O’Donnell was born on February 13, 1920 in the townland of Gelsha, Ballinalee, Co Longford. She was the second youngest child of Patrick and Rose Ann Mallon.

She was raised in her father’s family house in a family comprising five daughters and one son. Born during the War of Independence, the house was only a few miles from the home of General Sean MacEoin, the Blacksmith of Ballinalee and the leader of the IRA Flying Column.

Kathleen attended the local primary school of St Mary’s Molly, known as Molly National School, which was situated at the edge of the parish of Columcille. The townland of Molly is renowned for its connections with the writer Padraic Colum, General Sean McEoin and Mel Gibson whose mother originally came from Molly.

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One of Kathleen’s teachers in Molly was Master Dodd, a champion Irish step dancer and he taught the children Fr O’ Flynn’s jig, The Blackbird hornpipe and Mrs McLeod’s reel. One of the rhymes she learnt at school was: “Here’s to Donegal, Pride and all, where they eat the praties, skin and all”.  Little did she know then that she would one day marry a man from Donegal.

Her most memorable achievement at school was when she recited the poem The Old Woman of the Road for the poet Padraic Colum and she received sixpence from the poet. After her two older sisters Mary and Peggy emigrated to New York, there was always great excitement in the family house when the postman Mattie Fox delivered the letters and parcels from America.

In 1947 she herself left Longford to join her two sisters Mary and Peggy in New York. She worked as a waitress in Stouffers, Top of the Sixes Fifth Ave, a penthouse restaurant famous for its stellar views. The restaurant features in the opening scene of the film The Wolf of Wall St.

At the height of its popularity the restaurant was frequented by many famous people and one occasion, Kathleen served the actress Marilyn Monroe. While living in New York Kathleen met her husband Hughie O’Donnell originally from Lerrig, Kilcar and they got married on September 19, 1953. They set up home in Woodside Long Island and their two children Deirdra and Hugh were born in New York.

In 1963 Hughie and Kathleen came to live in Killybegs where the previous year they had bought the Atlantic Bar in the town. For the next 40 years she worked in the bar serving the fishermen of Killybegs. The bar now known as Hughies is still going strong and run by her son Hugh. When her husband Hughie died in 1986 after a short illness she continued working in the bar until she was 84. She had great devotion to St Anthony and kept a special collection box from the Franciscan Friary Rossnowlagh in the bar. Every Tuesday she would collect donations from the customers and the box had a great reputation among the fishermen for finding things that had been lost and good fishing.

She lived independently above the bar until she was 93 years old. On November 2, 2013 she had a fortunate escape when a fire broke out in the bar on the ground floor and penetrated to her living accommodation on the first floor. She was dramatically rescued by the Killybegs fire brigade who were subsequently awarded a National Bravery Award.

After the fire she went to live in Aras Ui Dhomhnaill Nursing Home Milford where she now resides.

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