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Belfast Telegraph reader Ellie Lawther (108) now oldest person in Northern Ireland

By Allan Preston

During a walk on the Cregagh Road in Belfast in the 1930s, 17-year-old Ellie Lawther was on one of her first dates with her future husband Harold.

The Second World War had not yet broken out and she remembers the breathtaking sight of an enormous zeppelin air balloon passing over their heads. She told Harold "we'll have to remember this".

Incredibly, Ellie celebrated her 108th birthday yesterday, making her what is believed to be the oldest person living in Northern Ireland today.

After family celebrations on Sunday, she was the star of the party hosted by staff and fellow residents at St Finnian's House on the Cregagh Road.

Her 108th birthday cake was set out and surrounded by her eight medals from the Irish President and her letter from the Queen proudly displayed on the mantelpiece.

Still mobile and full of energy, Ellie stood to cut her cake, blow out the candles and toast the day with friends.

She was born in 1909 - a time when Northern Ireland had not yet come into existence, women had no right to vote and Harry Ferguson became the first man in Ireland to build and fly his own plane.

Married to her late husband Harold at 24, she had three children and is now a proud great-grandmother.

In her long life spanning the launch of the Titanic, two world wars and the partition of Ireland, Ellie worked as a seamstress.

To this day she still has no problem threading a needle and sewing on a button.

At 108, this isn't her first birthday fielding questions from the Press and insists she has no interest in repeating the same old stories.

Holding court from the same seat at the dinner table she has had at St Finnian's for 22 years, the conversation turns instead to her memory of the zeppelin balloon on the Cregagh Road.

"I wasn't married at the time. It flew over us and it was a wonderful sight," she said.

"I was 17 at the time and I got married when I was 24."

Asked by one of the St Finian's volunteers if Harold - who worked as an engineer - was her first and only boyfriend, there were roars of laughter when she quickly replied: "No, but I'm not going to give any names."

Friends at the table add that in their youth, Ellie and Harold would go out dancing to the Floral Hall, which was located on the grounds of Belfast Zoo.

Ellie grew up on the Woodstock Road in Belfast before moving to St Jude's Crescent after marrying Harold.

Geraldine Maguire, house manager of St Finnian's, first began caring for Ellie 22 years ago.

"She has not changed in the whole time she's been here," she said.

"I've never seen anyone with eight medals, it's incredible.

"She would say her secret is good food, hard work and she never drank or smoked. The medical staff will say she has the heart and lungs of a 50-year-old.

"She's amazing. She can't understand why she's living to this age, she says it's God's will and whatever he decides to do."

While enjoying tea and cake with other residents, one of the volunteers recalls Ellie told her how as a child she was puzzled to see her cousin come home from the First World War wearing a blue uniform.

He was part of the 36th Ulster division, and the uniform signified he was returned home after being injured.

Geraldine says Ellie still keeps up to date with current events and last Thursday cast her ballot in the Assembly elections by postal vote, although kept who she voted for secret.

"On the voting, she said she was tired listening about it," said Geraldine.

"She still watches the TV and we get the Belfast Telegraph every day, when she reads about the politicians at Stormont she'll just say 'again, them people'."

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