Monday, March 31, 2014

Fearless Females: 'The Woman with the Joie de Vivre!'

On this last day of Women's History Month, I remember Mary Catherine 'Mollie' Magee Halpin, a grand-aunt who in my opinion exemplified the phrase 'joie de vivre'. On our family tree Mollie is my father's aunt, sister to his mother, my grandmother Anne Mary 'Annie' Magee Geraghty. Although she was our grand-aunt, we addressed her in the same way my dad did, and called her Auntie Mollie.

When I was a child it seemed to me that Auntie Mollie was the tallest woman I had ever seen; she appeared to stand head and shoulders above all of the women around her, and even some of the men.

Taken on 25 August, 1930, the studio portrait of Mollie on an oversized hobby horse accentuates just how tall she was, and reminds me of the 'joie de vivre' — literally: 'joy of living' — Mollie had for life. Although I was not given this photograph until long after Mollie had passed away, I can well imagine her laughing at the sight of it, and then sharing a story about it. Mollie had a great sense of humour, and her raspy voice and deep throaty laugh played off the timbre of her lovely Dublin accent.

Since my grandmother died years before I was born, in some ways Mollie filled that role for me. Sometimes I would write to Auntie Mollie, tell her about my hopes and dreams, and share my little stories. Mollie understood my love for literature and history, and she encouraged me to explore my own creative talents. When she was a young woman Mollie used to write poetry. At parties and family gatherings, she often recited her latest creation from a book of her own verse which she always carried.

Auntie Mollie loved wearing hats, and in addition to her penchant for hats, Mollie loved costume jewellery, especially dress pins which she would affix either at her shoulder or at her décolletage. It seemed the bigger the pin, the better Mollie liked it. Whenever she gave you a hug, you might come away from her embrace with the imprint of the pin, or a slight nick, on your forehead.

When it came to revealing her age, Mollie liked to tinker with the numbers a bit, so hopefully she will not be spinning in her grave when I tell you that she was born 23 March 1905 and lived until the age of 91. Christened Mary Catherine, but all her life called Mollie, she was the fifth and last born child of Patrick Magee and Mary Dunne. Mollie grew up in Stoneybatter, Dublin, with her elder siblings Michael Francis, Anne Mary and Francis Leo.

Auntie Mollie once told me that she was immensely proud of all the members of her family. Her father Patrick and brothers Michael and Francis were employed by Jameson Distillery. All three were scribers, men who engraved the Jameson logo and other information on the barrels. Both Patrick and Francis became managers, with Francis and his family eventually living onsite and overseeing the entire Smithfield distillery. Mollie's sister Anne had been a member of Cumann na mBan — the women's branch of the IRA — and their brother Michael had lost his life during the War of Independence, as a member of the Irish Volunteers. In their memory, in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Auntie Mollie donned the medals her sister and brother had earned for their service and proudly marched in the parade to the GPO.

My father used to say Mollie was fiercely independent, so much so that apparently some members of the family wondered if she would ever marry. Mollie’s independent inclinations were perhaps spurred on by the fact that when she was a young woman she helped to support her family by working outside the home. When Mollie was a teenager she was employed as a ‘tailoress’ by the Cork & Bandon Clothing Company on Bridge Street, Dublin. Records from 1924 show that, by the age of 19 years, Mollie was employed by Cork & Bandon for eight months out of each year. She earned 15 shillings per week, almost all of which she contributed to the household.

Mollie with her beloved husband Willie
Mollie did marry. In the summer of 1932, at the age of 27 years, Mollie married a lovely gentleman named William Halpin, the son of Robert and Kathleen Halpin, and ever after they were Mollie and Willie. To me, he was Uncle Willie, a gentle soul with a shock of white hair, who was very kind and soft spoken, and had a wonderful sense of humour.

Unfortunately Mollie and Willie were never able to have children of their own. In a predominantly Catholic country in which motherhood is enshrined in the constitution, it must have been difficult for a childless woman like Mollie. Although she and Willie had no children, they were a good support for their nieces and nephews. When my father and his brother Patrick were children, Auntie Mollie and Uncle Willie often took the two boys along with them when they went on holiday in the summertime.

After she was married, Mollie continued to work outside the home. Mollie was employed by the Irish Sweepstakes Office in Dublin, something which thrilled me on a visit when I was a teenager. I remember her giving us a guided tour of the place, including a look at the original big drum in which all the tickets were spun.

During their married life, Mollie and Willie lived in the artisan's cottage at #11 Swords Street in Dublin, a home which was very much like the cottage on Ostman Place in which she grew up, and only seven minutes walk from it. The cottage on Swords Street was a lovely little house which she kept neat as a pin.

Mollie and Willie loved to travel, visiting us on this side of the pond a couple of times, but mostly preferring to travel to continental Europe. One of Mollie's favourite destinations was the South of France. She loved the bright sunshine, the azure blue waters, and the gentle warm breezes wafting in off the Mediterranean Sea. For her it was a world away from rainy Dublin.

On 3 November 1996, Auntie Mollie passed away at the age of 91 years. Uncle Willie had died ten years before her on 5 March 1986. She is interred with Willie and his parents in Deansgrange Cemetery, Blackrock, County Dublin.

The first time I visited their grave, I felt my heart break a little. Auntie Mollie and Uncle Willie had always seemed to me as though they would live forever. From my perspective, both were such warm and happy people, it seemed a shame that the world should no longer have them.

In Memoriam card for Mollie.
On my paternal family tree, my grand-aunt Mary Catherine 'Mollie' Magee Halpin is one of the women who best exemplifies 'joie de vive', the joy of life. Auntie Mollie not only dealt with what life gave her, but also used her talents to the best of her ability, and sought to live life fully, making her one of my fearless females.



  1. Jennifer, you wre lucky to have your Aunt Mollie. Sounds like she was lots of fun! Love the photo on the hobby horse! ha!

    1. Thanks for your comments Colleen! You're absolutely right Mollie was a blessing for our family because she was so much fun, and she certainly made a big difference in my dad's life when he was growing up.


  2. Jenn, Auntie Mollie sounds like the kind of grandaunt everyone would want to have, great fun. My granny's sister was so glum she used to scare us.

    1. Thanks for your comments Charlotte! Mollie was great fun. Sorry your grandaunt was glum; now I'm curious about her too. Do you know much about her life?



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