By Claire O'Neill
“A home without children is no home” says mother of 22
Sometimes Annie O’Neill stops and stares at the fast moving world around her and longs for the simple, penny-pinching day of her youth. She often recalls the lines of bleached flowrbag sheets and the plain wholesome meals of home baked bread and boiled spuds. And it’s with a nostalgic smile that she remembers the tears and laughter of more than a dozen well scrubbed little faces settling down for the night.
Life has changed a lot since then, but for mother of 22, 64-year-old Annie O’Neill of Derrychrin Road, Coagh, it has been a change for the worst. With four children dead and 18 reared, she knows a thing or two about human nature and the ways of life. For some, she’s an ‘ole timer’ for others she is a woman of courage and conviction who lives out the principles of a bygone age in a modern world of ‘extravagance and ease.’
Born in Loup, County Derry, Annie was only 13 when she first came to work as a servant girl in Tyrone. She was hired out to a farmhouse in Drumullan, a few miles from Coagh, and was ready to turn her hand to anything. That’s the way it was in Annie’s time – for a £1 a month you wrought from dawn to dusk, and thought nothing of milking and wheeling turf after had done your day’s work in the house.
But one night in the midst of the ‘work and sleep’ routine Annie found time to go to a dance in Drumullan Hall. It was there that she met Charles O’Neill from Ardboe, a 17-year-old farm labourer who six months later became her husband. Annie was just sweet sixteen when she and Charles left Tyrone to set up home in County Derry. She was 17 when she give birth to her first child – by the time she was 49 she had 22 children, four of whom died at birth. In those days children were born at home and the only professional help on hand was the district nurse who made sure there was an adequate supply of hot water, clean towels and fresh sheets. For Annie the inside of a hospital delivery suite was as rare as a home birth is now. It wasn’t until the last children were born that she went outside of her own bedroom to give birth. “I never found anything difficult about having babies, in two or three days you were up and about, doing you work again” said Annie.
“There was just eleven months between the first two and looking back I suppose I was constantly pregnant. Annie’s phi1osophy of -child rearing was simple - you didn’t spoil them, one helped to rear the other and they ate whatever was set down in front of them. But although her philosophy may have been simple - it worked. She never remembers having to resort to physical punishment or having reason to be ashamed of the children’s conduct when out in public. Charles worked as a farm labourer and although wages were low they always got by with being thrifty and never wasting what was not worn out. Charles brought home milk, meal, and vegetables from the farm and the children’s clothes were washed, patched and handed down. There was little, time for entertainment and even if there had been it was against Annie’s principles for a married woman to be ‘running about’. “I never got out because I hadn’t the time but even when Charles asked me to go to the pub the odd time I always refused because I didn’t think it was the right place for a woman to be. I was content looking after the children and doing the housework.”
As the children got older, Annie was free to leave the eldest girl in charge of the work and earn a little extra money gathering potatoes and spreading flax. She never knew what it was to be tired or depressed her golden rule was take things as they come and never get in a fuss. And that’s how life was for the best part of Annie’s youth. They lived in a one bedroom labourer’s cottage and apart from the parents everybody, just piled in where there was a space. It was the same at mealtime — you took your plate and ate the food where ever you could find room to sit. Life was hard and simple and everything was rough and ready, with luxuries unheard of- but that’s how Annie always knew it, and if she had her life to live over again she would do it the very same way, and still commit herself to bringing up 18 children.
It is only now at 64 that Annie has time to call her own.’ But although her routine and lifestyle may have changed her principles have remained the same.
She still eats the same plain diet of fresh vegetables, boiled potatoes and home baked bread. Her views on child rearing haven’t changed and as she looks around her, she sees a generation of young people heading for disaster.
“People eat all wrong; women just open a tin now and never bother to cook fresh vegetables. Children get far too many toys and clothes, mothers want to be out running to pubs and dances, and nearly every house you go into the television has taken over.” said Annie. All through her life Annie never drank alcohol, smoked or used cosmetics. She believed in simplicity to the fullest and the principle of cutting your coat to suit your cloth. For her the world has become a place of materialism and falling moral standards, and sometimes she wonders where its all going to end. “Woman don’t think like me anymore, I suppose I’m one of a dying breed, but this is the way I’ve always lived and my life has been a good one.” When Annie got married there was just the bridal party, and her mother and father in attendance and although she has been to many weddings in recent years, she still believes that money spent on the traditional trimmings is money thrown away.
She has her views on marriage too and by looking around her and listening to people talk, she believes that this generation is no longer prepared to work at marriage to the same extent. “I decided a long time ago that if I went grey, then I would stay grey. I never put a dye in my hair or used make up — it was always soap and water and a few curlers for your hair that was the extent of my beauty treatment. I never heard tell of slimming in my young day, but now all you hear is dieting and losing weight” said Annie. Although times were hard when Annie was rearing her family, they were happy years of simplicity and tranquillity. For her the world is too fast now and too taken up with materialism and extravagance. “In those days people had time for a bit of crack — but when you go to visit now, the television takes over and there’s no communication. Children are not disciplined the way they used to be and there are not the same standards and values” said Annie. Hard work has never done Annie any harm - in fact it seems to have kept her fit and healthy and given her a greater appreciation of the new leisure time she is now enjoying. “I had a good life and if I had it all to do again, I would still have 22 children. For me a home without children is not a home.”