Betty McElholm who celebrated her 100th birthday recently Picture: Dave Gaynor
AT 6.40 on Monday evening with the skies over Kilmallock spitting rain and sleet, a door on the main street opens back.
A petite lady wearing a navy cardigan, her hair gray-white, her skin cream and clear comes into view.
Leaning on her walking stick she leads the way through a narrow, dark corridor which runs parallel to a long wooden countertop covered in floral arrangements.
“I could open a flower shop with all the arrangements. I got them as birthday presents along with those blocks of wood,” she points out.
Merchandise which harks back to a simpler time is dotted on the shelves.
There are plastic and tin sweet jars which once housed ‘Sweets of Purity’ - glucose and barley, and Fox’s Glacier Mints - ‘the finest peppermint in the world’.
Settling into one of three chairs, in front of an open fire in the room at the back of the house, Betty McElholm looks right at home. And why wouldn’t she? It is her home, and has been for the past century.
“I don’t feel any different now to how I did when I was younger,” said the Kilmallock native who was born on March 18, 1917.
“I had my appendix out when I was 16 and I didn’t have to go to hospital again until I was 84 when I had a hip replacement. I get some pains in the bones alright, the knees.”
Last Saturday afternoon family members and in the region of 200 friends gathered around her in the local Pastoral Centre to chat and reminisce on a life lived well.
Whether it's a healthy diet or never getting wed, centenarians all seem to have their own secrets to longevity.
For Betty, it seems to be in the genes.
Her mother (Mary O’Leary) lived to be 95. One of her sisters, Bobby, lived to be 97.
And Betty never drank!
“Never ever?” enquires this reporter.
“Well, my husband,” she smiles, “if you got a cold or anything he used to suggest a hot whiskey but I never finished it.”
“Did you ever get drunk?”
“No, although I often said I would, to see what it was like because they all say, ‘never again’ but in the end I never did”.
She smoked a little bit in school and ate everything including quite a lot of sweets, mostly chocolate.
Betty’s mother Mary ran the shop at the front of the premises. She hailed from the parish of Effin. Her father William Carroll was from Ardpatrick. They were married in 1904.
Betty was just three years of age when the family home and shop was burnt to the ground by the Black and Tans in July 1920.
“We all lived here until it was burnt and then we moved to an aunt of mine who was living in town and my parents rented a place down the street and when this was rebuilt we came back in.”
Casting her mind back to her youth Betty recalls a time when she and her six siblings could hurl on the street at night.
Now, she says, you can hardly cross the street.
“There were hardly any cars at that time. At one time, there was only one. Dr Pat Cleary had it, some kind of a Ford. And then Mrs Cregan, she used to give out the dole at that time, she got a car.”
Betty has never used a computer or a mobile phone. She loves watching a good hurling match or rugby game on the TV.
Does she read?
“God forgive you!”she exclaims, bending down to pick her spectacles off of a hefty book.
She hands over The Plea by Steve Cavanagh. “His client is innocent. His wife is guilty. A gripping, twisty thriller,” the cover reads.
“Is it good, Betty?”
“It is, so far!”
“You like a thriller, Betty?
“I do, a whodunnit.”
She reads around three books a month.
“I will finish that this weekend.”
Before The Plea, she devoured Alex Gray’s Five Ways to Kill a Man.
She reads the Irish Independent every day and gets the Leader and Vale Star of a Thursday.
She remembers JFK’s assassination in 1963.
“I was here at home and it came on the news.”
Did she get a shock?
“I don’t think I ever get a shock at anything.”
The world she thinks “has gone a bit lopsided”.
“What do you think of Donald Trump?
“I was thinking he’ll probably get a bullet in the end.”
“I expect so. If he annoys them enough.”
The grandfather clock strikes a sequence of seven chimes.
“I don’t know how old it is but it’s a lot older than I am because my father bought it at an auction some time in the early 1920s,” says Betty of the impressive structure beside the back door.
Betty didn’t have far to travel to meet her husband Sam McElholm from Northern Ireland.
“He was teaching in Bulgaden and lived here in town. We would go to the pictures,” she smiles.
Sam has since passed away.
Many centenarians don’t just live to be 100 - they do while looking decades younger than their age.
“That’s from washing with soap and water,” comments Betty of her near wrinkle-free skin.
“I never used any cosmetics. I have nothing against them, I just couldn’t be bothered. I bought a lipstick many years ago, I think I was in my teens. I still have it. I found it in there in the press the other evening,” she says eyeing the press in the corner. A bottle of Optrex sits on the mantlepiece. Betty’s eyes water a lot.
Betty still cooks a fair share.
“Until I started getting my dinner across the road I made my dinner every day.” Her favourite food is bacon and cabbage. The first thing she does when she gets up in the morning is put on the porridge.
“I add some sultanas, sometimes,” she says.
The interview has interrupted her mid-evening snack - a cup of tea and a slice of birthday cake which sits invitingly underneath the Sacred Heart picture with light bulb.
“You believe in God and heaven?”
“Of course I do!”
“I don’t go to Mass anymore”.
“But you believe or hope you will end up in heaven?”
“I suppose it’s doubtful,” says the centenarian with one final flash of her roguish smile.