Mary G Johnson, 66: ‘I’ve stopped dyeing my hair and being coy about my age’

Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus


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Mary G Johnson lives in Tralee, Co Kerry

I’m 66. I’ve stopped being coy about my age now. And I’ve stopped dyeing my hair. The hardest thing about being in my 60s is accepting that you do not have the physical energy you had 20 years ago – and that is very difficult.

It’s hard coming to terms with knowing that there are things you will never do. In the 30-plus years I’ve been living in Kerry I’ve never climbed Mount Brandon, and now I know I never will.

I grew up in Galway city. My father, Tom, ran the men’s department of Anthony Ryans, a shop that is still going strong. He died of a heart attack when he was only 55. A shock like that makes you worry for a long time.

Things happened then in Galway that wouldn’t happen now. Eyre Square was pillaged. It was a little oasis, with railings all around it, and flowers and trees. Then [John F] Kennedy was coming, and it was decided that everyone should be able to see him, so the railings were removed, and several trees. The railings were just thrown up on the fair green. I don’t remember any protests about it. That wouldn’t happen now.

There were four of us, which was considered to be a small enough family for that time. Mothers didn’t work outside the home, but they were the very women who shoved their daughters out to work. They wanted us to have our own money, because life was uncertain, and you had to have something to fall back on. Parents were at least as ambitious for girls as they were for boys.

In Galway at that time a lot of women of my mother’s generation would have taken in students and then done B&B for the summer, particularly during race week. It was a way of working and earning some income, although they were still working in the home, cooking and cleaning. It was called the aguisín, the extra bit of money.

People kept quiet about taking in students and running a B&B. We never talked about it at school. I think that was partly because there was no tax paid on bed and breakfast at the time, even though sometimes there were signs outside the door.

There was a fear of officialdom as well. For instance, you couldn’t be a member of the library unless you were a rate payer. There was always a feeling that other people were in charge. We took it for granted.

At that time rural women in Ireland were marrying into towns in Ireland rather than going to England. I think that’s when a generation of rural women married into urban areas, and women were more aware of a changing world and of creating a better world for women. They didn’t want their daughters being tied to the home and housework.


Having said that, I got married at 23, along with half my class. I did arts at UCG, and the HDip, and I met Tom, my husband, there. Would I recommend marrying at 23 today? I think it’s a different world now, and everyone has to tune into the times they live in. I have been reading about women marrying later and then having difficulty having families.

We had three children. The thing about having children in your 20s is that you have the energy for it. My own mother didn’t particularly encourage me to breastfeed, although she had done it. It was encouraged in the hospitals, but they never pushed it on us like they do in some places today.

One of the biggest differences was that the day of the big Stanley range was gone, where there used to be two pots on the boil all the time, one for boiling the nappies and the other for the bottles. Milton changed all that for my generation.

My generation wanted to raise their children without fear. We did not do the hellfire and brimstone with them. Sin was there from the very beginning of our lives. We didn’t want that for our children.

We moved to Tralee in 1980. Kerry is home now, really. I did secretarial work, then substitute teaching and part-time teaching. I taught adult literacy and did some work with Radio Kerry and taught night classes in creative writing and English literature. I’ve had some stories published, and I want to write more. At the moment I’m learning the harp.

I do have faith. The crisis in the church about sexual abuse didn’t impact on my faith at all, because faith is a great deal bigger than that. I saw the wickedness of what happened, and the denial, but, if you go back through the church’s history, it has always been dealing with one crisis after another. The denial and cover-up of what happened in Ireland was the worst, but it didn’t surprise me. An institution will always try and protect itself.

Once you reach your mid 60s you have to be aware of your health and the future, especially when your three children are all living abroad. My children are in Manchester, Berlin and Los Angeles. I don’t feel sorry for myself that they are living abroad, but old age is facing all of us. We are living longer lives, and healthcare has improved.

I really don’t like the prospect of maybe going into a nursing home, or getting arthritis or Alzheimer’s. That bothers me.

It took me a very, very long time to learn that I can’t change the world. Kindness is all. And pragmatism. Beyond a reasonable provision we cannot worry too much about tomorrow. The sudden death of my father taught me that. I’ve always loved life. I’ve always been glad that I’m alive.

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