An Irishwoman's Diary
SHE would have been 100 years old on Saturday last, and though she and her vast network of friends would have enjoyed the party, in the end it was not to be. Mrs Violet Maud Hannah McDowell (nee Gray) died peacefully at home on August 24th, 2009, six months shy of her centenary, leaving Achill Island, Co Mayo, bereft of a significant figure in its social history.
Vi, as she was known, owner of Gray’s Guest House in Dugort for 40 years, left this world as she had inhabited it – making an impact in the county and beyond. Her death topped Midwest Radio’s news bulletins all day long, pieces ran on page one of the Connaught Telegraphand inside the Mayo News, and she earned the lead obituary in The Irish Times.
“Nearly all of the guests who ever stayed here came to the funeral, and anybody who wasn’t able to come was on the phone,” Vi’s longtime companion, Margaret McLoughlin, said recently over a bowl of freshly made soup at Gray’s. Margaret, who looked after the Gray and McDowell families for 50 years, added: “She would have been delighted with all her old friends.” Vi, a legendary figure in the hospitality industry who was named Host of the Year 2006 by travel writer Georgina Campbell, passed away in the early hours, surrounded by those closest to her, including her niece, Dorrie Darlington, and Margaret. Soon after, planning for her wake, removal and funeral went into top gear.
“None of us had gone to bed,” Margaret said. Arrangements had to be made, local people informed and extended family members contacted.
Achill men removed a window from the sittingroom of the main house to make way for the coffin because it would not fit through the door. A neighbour helped to answer the phones, which never stopped ringing once word had spread.
On the day that Vi died, Dorrie and Margaret began greeting visitors around 3pm. Over the following days and nights, hundreds of people arrived to pay respects and sign the visitor’s book. Scones were passed around and meals were cooked for arriving family members and neighbours.
Tea, sandwiches and something stronger were sent up the hill to the gravediggers, who were lifting large boulders out of the grave site with a machine.
The weather for the removal was cold but dry. Mourners walked slowly behind the hearse to the small, historic, 19th-century St Thomas’s Church in Dugort, built by the Rev Edward Nangle in the days of the Achill Mission. It was the church where Vi had played the organ as a child and where she had married Arthur McDowell, a banker from Banbridge, Co Down, who died in 1995.
The light on the austere church in the barren landscape was eerily reminiscent of Jane Eyre.
Nature was unkind and there was no refuge inside the church, where swarms of midges tried to eat the mourners alive. “Oh, the midges,” Margaret said, shaking her head, remembering. The weather was even more difficult on the following day. As pallbearers, including her nephews, carried the coffin a short distance to the grave, rain came down in merciless torrents and the doorway of St Thomas’s was blocked by mourners huddling from the deluge, trying to locate their umbrellas.
Vi’s friend, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Tuam, Dr Richard Henderson, was away when she died, but had visited her the week before. Another friend, the Ven Gary Hastings, formerly of Westport, had gone to Galway as the new rector of the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas, so Vi’s funeral service was led by the Rev Dr Gordon Graham, acting as summer replacement.
It was left to an old family friend, David McConnell, from Larne, Co Antrim, to pay a personal tribute.
“She described herself as a daredevil,” David began, slowly and clearly, “a boisterous youth often to be seen galloping on horseback down on the beach with her long hair flying in the wind behind her.” He went on to praise Vi’s single-mindedness, vision, determination, drive, vitality, style, perfectionism and charm, but he did not portray her as a saint.
“She was nevertheless a tough old lady and woe betide anyone who crossed her path, for her mood, like the weather in Achill, could change rather quickly,” he said.
A diverse and notable group of people, local and national, turned out to celebrate her long life, and Vi would have enjoyed knowing who had been there. The Chief Justice, Mr Justice John Murray, and Mr Justice Peter Charlton of the High Court attended her funeral. Writers, musicians, painters and poets came, as did former residents of the nearby Heinrich Böll Cottage. The worlds of banking, commerce, medicine, education, tourism and the local community were also represented, indicating just how wide Vi’s reach had extended over her nearly 100 years.
Six months on, Vi’s world remains intact, which is precisely what she would have wanted. Preparations are under way to reopen Gray’s at Easter and Margaret has been doing some spring cleaning. “She wanted to keep Gray’s Guest House going the way it always was,” Margaret said. “And we hope that it will continue for many years to come,” Dorrie added. They are expecting their first guests on Good Friday.