Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Living in a 280-year-old cottage with no running water, electricity, TV or phone - meet the Co Fermanagh pensioner who says her rural lifestyle is the secret to genuine happiness

In a revealing and thought-provoking interview, Margaret Gallagher (74) from Belcoo tells David Dawson why we could all benefit by taking a break from the 21st century

When Margaret Gallagher was a child, every Halloween night she would venture outside the family's quaint thatched cottage in Belcoo, Co Fermanagh, to see which direction the wind was blowing in.

"That always set a pattern for the months ahead," says the 74-year-old, speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at her remarkable timepiece home, which was built in the 18th century and, in many ways, hasn't changed very much at all over hundreds of years.

"If it was coming from the west we knew we would have a wet winter; the north east we knew it would be snowy; and if it was coming in from the north, we knew it would be cold and dry."

Overlooking misty fields and blanket bog to Cuilcagh and, below it, the twin villages of Belcoo and Blacklion, is her home that is now more than 280 years old and has never had running water, electricity, a television or a phone. And when it's cold, it's cold. But she knows how to keep warm.

With heavy snow forecast earlier this week, Miss Gallagher was well prepared inside her grade two listed home.

"I have a wireless radio and listen to the news headlines on that. I brought in plenty of logs and turf and carried in plenty of water, so I was well equipped for it. I have enough water now I could bathe the country for a small charge," she laughs. "I had to get up very early the other morning to knock the snow off the roof with a pole. If you don't do that it can damage the roof. It came down with a crash.

"With a house like this you have to prepare for what's coming."

Each morning she has a blazing fire to get going and all kinds of tasty cakes to bake. There's the fresh water to carry from the spring well in a nearby field for washing clothes and the floor. There are bags of logs and turf to fill and carry, and all before nine o'clock.

"I tell you, I carry some turf, I also carry some water. I was born under Aquarius, but nobody carries more water than I do.

"People come to look at me as if I am an endangered species. That's grand, I am very endangered. But it's for real. I am not here to please an American tourist who is ooh'ing and aah'ing, looking at me, saying: 'I thought people in this lifestyle would have a long black skirt on them'. I say: 'Possibly, but if you see the path I have down to the well, a long black skirt would need a washing'."

With the front door open for circulation as the fire burns, there are double oil burners on the walls and the flames are reflected in mirrors to provide extra light. Every inch of Miss Gallagher's home may reflect the past or a bygone era to some, but to her this is her reality. It is her home.

"There never was a time for transition to something more modern. I was born into this house on January 26, 1942, at five past nine on a Monday morning. My mother died when I was 10, my father died in 1980. His father bought this house in 1887, and my take on it is if it was good enough for them, then it's good enough for me."

There wasn't a lot of money in those days but there was always an open door, she says."By God, there was a welcome. There was no intrusion of a television, not that there is anything wrong with a television. I have a wind-up radio which I listen to in the mornings to get the time, the day, the date and the news headlines. The problem with televisions and everything else, there doesn't seem to be an off button ever used."

Miss Gallagher, who enjoys reading many books, fears that "solitude" is now gone from society. "We were taught so much long ago from the monks of old, particularly the monks who lived on Cleenish Island, about solitude and hospitality. But that is gone now. When you talk to someone they are on a mobile phone or an iPad, there is no eye contact. I do think we are slipping on hospitality. I think the day of the open door is gone."

She believes "a period of silence or solitude should be encouraged in the house" to help cope with the pressures of life.

That means cutting out on the television and internet use.

"I am not interested in what is going on in the world because I can't fix it, I can't fix what is going on in Northern Ireland, and I could even fix something if it was going on in my own homeland. The news doesn't interest me. And all this chatting about people you don't know: I don't think anyone in outer Mongolia is the slightest bit interested in what Margaret Gallagher is doing.

"Television is wonderful, but credit me with some intelligence. Coronation Street? Give me a book, let me read anything. Coronation Street is not on my radar, nor is that Bake Off. I hear more about soggy bottoms!

"When I bake the bottoms of my cakes are burnt black. I like everything burnt. I don't do soggy bottoms," she laughs.

In a hectic world, the pensioner wants to see hospitality "back on the agenda".

"There are some communities that are hospitable, there are others are not. Some ask you do you want a cup of tea, but you never ask anyone if they want a cup of tea. You make it, you just get it there, full stop. If they don't drink it, they don't drink it. Tough luck, but at least you made it.

"I don't like the modern kettles. I like my own kettle. It's always by the fire and is grand. I don't see the need to change something that is not broken, and sure if it was broken it would cost too much to fix. What would I want with a post kettle anyway? I don't even think like that."

When she isn't inviting her neighbours over for tea, the birds keep her company. "The birds are pretty expensive. It takes six loaves in the week, plus about three stone of bird seed, to feed all the birds I have," she laughs.

"I have the wren, Jenny I call her. Jenny seems to have a family; babies one day, adults the next. For her body weight she eats far too much, I keep saying this, and she's there all the time, she never leaves me. I have the sparrows, the blackbirds, the magpies, the crows. I have the whole lot."

She doesn't get lonely and enjoys the peace and calming influence of her home."It's part of me, it's my identity, it's who I am," she adds.

"This house makes a statement, it sits very comfortably on the landscape, even though I am surrounded by beautiful new homes. It says that you can't forget about your past, you bring it with you proudly into the future," adds Miss Gallagher with a smile.

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