Life is no brief candle but a sort of spelendid torch

At 102, Kit Duhig is one of Clare's oldest residents. Born a British citizen in Kerry, her life has spanned the twentieth century.

ONE of the few residents of the county older than the Clare Champion is Kit Duhig who was all of two when the newspaper was launched in 1903.

“The paper is nearly as good as myself,” she says.
Last week, she turned 102, celebrating the birthday with a glass of whiskey in Regina House, Kilrush, where she has lived for the past three years.

She received a medal and a congratulatory note commemorating the event from president Mary McAleese. Inscribed on the medal is a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch....”

‘Keep laughing’ is her secret for long life. She admits that she smoked a lot until recently, she obeyed doctor’s orders. “When we were going to school, three or four of us would smoke. We would ask to go to the toilet and it is out to smoke we would go.”

She has lived in Clare for most of her life but, during that time, retained links with her native Castlegregory on the Dingle peninsula. She was born on a farm two months after Queen Victoria died in January, 1901. Symbolically, her death marked the beginning of the end of the empire ‘on which the sun never sets’.

Kit’s brothers played their own role in this dissolution of empire, forming part of the local Flying Column headed by Tadhg Brosnan. “All the boys were stuck in the Troubles,” she says. “They would march with rifles around the village.”

The church bell rang when the Black and Tans were coming on a raid and normally the rifles were hidden in a loft. One morning one of her brothers hid a rifle in the bed where she was sleeping.
The house next door was burnt on one occasion, she remembers. “We were carrying water from our house to quench it.”

She had four brothers and three sisters, one of whom died shortly after birth. Kit was just seven when her mother died and her grandmother took over the rearing of the family.

Her aunt owned the village post office. “They told me that when I was very young, I used go to the post office and lace all their shoes and when they got up, they would be cursing me. They had to undo them.”

As was common in those days, she left school at the age of 15. “They wanted to make a teacher of me but I did not want to. I used to say a prayer that I would not be called.”

At one stage, she wanted to join her brother, Michael, who was living in the U.S. ”I said I was going to America. He wrote back. He nearly ate me. He did not want me to go. He had to go.”

Kit moved to Kilrush in 1932 to help her brother, Pat, who had been transferred there from the Tralee-Dingle railway to work on the West Clare Railway as a linesman. “I hated leaving Castlegregory,” she says.

She visited home two or three times a year over the course of her life. She also worked for the company as a gatekeeper outside her home at Leadmore No.1 Railway Crossing half a mile up the line from Kilrush. There, she worked the gates for each train that passed or, if she was unavailable, a neighbour had to do the job. “I did not like the job,” she says. “It was dangerous.”

There were two passenger trains running daily as well as a number of goods trains. “There was a diesel [train] from Kilkee for the schoolkids,’ Kit adds. She was nearly killed on the line on one occasion when the train came unexpectedly while she was still opening the gate. “There was no view of the train coming out from Kilrush, but coming in you could see way up. The train was coming out from Kilrush and I went to open the gate and the next thing, the train had to stop. I was there in the middle of the track. “I had to fall back.”

The brother and sister continued to live in the cottage which was sold to them by the railway company when the line closed in 1961. They also maintained their links with Kerry. Their sister, Mary, was married to Dan O’Shea, a brother of the legendary footballer Pat ‘Aeroplane’ O’Shea. Dan, Kit remembers, sent the Kerryman by post every week.

Life was simple. She got her milk from a neighbour, the Burkes. Drinking water was also collected from a neighbour’s well and rainwater was used for washing.

For recreation, she sometimes played cards with neighbours. During the years of the Second World War, ‘everything was scarce’, she recalls. “I used not use any sugar. I sent the sugar home and they sent butter to me.”

There were three things she wanted in life: a bicycle, a radio and a gramophone. When the cottage was electrified, she remembers that everything looked dirty. “We had three oil lamps to throw a bit of light,” she says.

She made one trip abroad in her life when she was accompanied a sister home from America to Lourdes in France. “I had to go by boat, I would not fly.”

When her brother, Pat, died in 1986 at the age of 90, Kit spent the next 13 years alone in the railway cottage that has been a secluded spot since the railway’s closure.
“I did not mind it,” she says. “Neighbours visited.”

Courtesy of the Clare Champion
March 2003