Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Daniel O'Donnell's mammy makes return to her island home

Ireland's most famous mammy made an emotional return at the weekend to the tiny windswept island of her birth.

Julia O'Donnell (91), mother of singer Daniel O'Donnell, and her last surviving sibling, Owenie McGonagle (88) and other family members made the short 1.5 km boat journey from Kincasslagh pier to Owey Island off the west Donegal coast on Saturday.

“It's great to be back home once more,” she announced over the phone to her son, who is currently on tour in Australia, as she sat by an open fire in the three-roomed cottage.

Once inhabited by almost 100 islanders, Owey's population had dwindled to about 30 by the time the last people left in 1974.

But in recent years Owey has been enjoying a resurgence of life with many of its cottages being restored as holiday homes.

A quad and trailer transported Julia and Owenie to the renovated cottage, where an open turf fire greeted them.

Julia's daughters, singer Margo and Kathleen, nieces, nephews grandchildren and neighbours crowded into the once thatched cottage to hear the islander reminisce about her childhood.

“This is very nice but sad for me, but it's nice to be back in the old home. I have so many memories of this house and the island including painting this very kitchen ceiling while standing on top of a chair and two tables. This big open fire reminds me so much of when I was living here. It's great to see the old home being fixed up again,” she said.

Her brother Owenie, who made the journey from Scotland, pointed to the front garden, which was once the potato plot. “That's where we use to set the potatoes and what great days those were. It's great to see the old homestead again and especially now that it is being renovated,” he said.

He recalls being woken as a young boy in May 1932 to the sound of a low flying plane only to learn later that it was Amelia Earhart about to complete her solo flight across the Atlantic.

“We jumped out of bed as we didn't know what it was. We later heard it was Amelia Earhart and that her plane had landed across the border in Derry,” he said.

Tears came to their eyes, when Margo sang one of her own hits, The Old House.

The brother and sister enjoyed a cup of tea and a wee whiskey by the fireside before heading off for a walk down the little lane in front of the house, as they so often did as children.

“This is really nice for them. Its great to get them back home for what they have said is their last trip to the island. It was very emotional for them both on arrival and again as they left. They had a hard life trying to eke out a living on a small island but they loved the place and still do to this day,” said Margo.

As a young teenager, dire poverty forced Julia and her sibblings to Scotland where she picked potatoes and gutted fish before meeting her husband Francie and returning to live in Kincasslagh on the Donegal mainland.

Widowed for 42 years, she has enjoyed the celebrity status that has come her way with the sensational success of her son, Daniel on the international music scene.

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