How a note reunited an emigrant couple after 54 years apart
Jimmy Hayes and Mary Lloyd moved to different UK cities in 1957. Chance brought them together again, and now they’re moving back to Ireland
The process of making a documentary tends to throw a variety of unexpected things at you. Making Coming Home, a film charting the journeys of Irish emigrants returning to and departing from Ireland, I stumbled upon a very unusual story.
While interviewing two of the film’s subjects - Jimmy Hayes and Mary (Kelligar) Lloyd - in Oxford last summer about their plans to return to live in Ireland, they told me the story of how they got together.
Jimmy and Mary first met as teenagers working in the Whitegate oil refinery in Cork in 1957. Mary worked in the canteen and always made a point of serving Jimmy, and a relationship eventually blossomed.
Both subsequently emigrated to England - Jimmy to Oxford and Mary to Liverpool. The romance continued with Jimmy visiting Mary until a misunderstanding led to a breakdown in the relationship. They parted ways and didn’t hear from each other again, until a note was passed to Jimmy in a restaurant in Cork 54 years later.
“I remember one night kneeling down and saying my prayers and I asked God because now I’m 74 years old and I’m alone and I don’t want to be alone anymore could he fix it to send me a female friend just for company,” says Jimmy. “And then I was cheeky…I said God - how about Mary Kelligar?”
Born on Saint Valentines Day 1939 in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, Jimmy uttered his prayer six weeks before making a planned holiday back to Ireland from the UK in May 2013. On that trip, his cousin approached him while out for a meal with family and asked for a quite word in private. She handed him a note.
Mary visited Ireland frequently with her son, who works as a teacher in Liverpool. After a trip back to Ireland in 2013, a chance conversation sparked between her son and the school secretary, who is originally from Cork, resulted in the two establishing a connection between Mary and Jimmy, who it turned out she knew. They conspired to draw up a note with Mary’s contact details, and somehow get it delivered to Jimmy.
Mary consented to the proposal but was sceptical about the note, suggesting in the unlikely event it found its way to Jimmy “he won’t want to bother”.
“I looked and I looked and I looked at the note and I thought, this is a wind up,” she says.
It took Jimmy a moment to get over the initial shock of receiving the note. His cousin explained how she had been the fifth person to handle it as it made its way from Liverpool. She asked him what he was going to do. He said: “Nothing.”
But Jimmy did eventually call Mary. A meeting was arranged and Jimmy travelled to Liverpool to see her for the first time in 54 years.
On the coach journey, he was gripped by fear and doubt. “What will she be like? She’ll have changed. This won’t work out. I might not be the same as what she visualised me to be.”
But his fear dissipated when they met face to face, and walked and talked as they had all those years ago. Finishing each other’s sentences, both said they felt as if “we were never parted”.
The pair returned to Ireland on holiday two months after reuniting, and revisited all their old haunts. They are now in a relationship again. Jimmy still lives in Oxford, and Mary in Liverpool, but they visit each other about once a month.
Return to Ireland
Jimmy is no doubt now about the impact their reunion has had on him: “It rekindled that time… and I’m not ashamed to say it I’m like a teenager all over again.”
Jimmy and Mary are in the process of moving back to Ireland together permanently from the UK. They plan to spend their remaining years together in Midleton where they first met as teenagers.
“Life is too short, why not be happy,” Mary says.
Their journey is captured in the documentary film Coming Home, scheduled to be released later this year, but a 17-minute clip featuring more of their story is available on YouTube. Watch a trailer for Coming Home and read about the things Cathal Kenna learned about emigration while making the documentary here.