PORTRAIT OF ELLEN
I met Nellie for the first time at her cottage at Ballyvisteen in 2012, when I was researching a book I was writing for her cousin, John Magnier of Coolmore, and for a few years I became a regular visitor to her home. I knew I’d ‘made it’ when, one evening, she invited me to sit down for a chat. It wasn’t my first time being asked in, but it was the evening I felt that she had become at ease with me and that she was keen for company, so we sat and talked in her big open fireplace.
Nellie (baptized Mary Ellen) Magnier was born in December 1931. Her only brother, Tom, died when he was a mere twelve months old in 1935, and her three-month old sister, Mary Josephine, died in 1936. Then another year later, her mother, Norah, was only 37 when she too died. Afterwards, Nellie lived with her father, Michael, on their family farm north of Kildorrery. After his death in 1969, she lived there on her own, working hard, minding a modest farm that had been in her family since around 1740.
On a sunny evening in June 2013, I drove down the cul-de-sac to her home at Ballyvisteen, parked the car and walked around the corner. There she was at the front of the house, kneeling on the ground wearing a bright blue jumper, extracting cinders out of the ashes from the fire. We chatted for a few minutes before I plucked up the courage to ask if I could take a photograph of the house for John Magnier. I took a few before I asked if she’d mind standing in for a photograph. Despite her apparent shyness, she didn’t hesitate, and without any prompting from me put on a thread-bare coat. The bright blue was covered up and this old coat seemed perfect. I took some shots of Nellie around the yard and then asked her to stand at the open south-facing front door. With the evening sun low to the west and the blackness inside, I set about my task.
I stood her in ‘the sweet spot’ between darkness and light and moved myself into place. I deliberately positioned myself to look up at her, because I wanted to make her appear taller than her five feet. I wanted to portray her as the quietly proud, likeable and stoic woman that I knew her to be. She still had remnants of natural blonde through the white of her hair. Her blue eyes seemed eternal. Every vicissitude showed on her weather-worn face. I pressed the shutter on continuous fire - click, click, click; then paused, quickly refocussed, and then another click, click, click, click. In six of the seven shots, she was looking down and it made her eyes look closed. In this one image, Nellie looked up for a split-second at something in the sky that caught her attention. That was it! I had before me my perfect portrait of this wonderful dignified character.
Any time I visited Nellie after that, the scene by the fire was repeated. Us sitting in the big open fire, with the timber-plank door left wide-open behind me and the breeze driving the heat up the chimney. I stepped back in time to an Ireland consigned to my childhood memories. A fire machine to one side, a crane over the open fire, objects stuck in little cubby-holes of the wall. To my left was her cluttered kitchen table that, until recently, had probably been used every single day it had stood in the house.
She had known my father and there were people we both knew. We connected through chatting about simple things and the more I got to know her, the more I came to appreciate her life. She was content, had everything she needed and always kept busy doing chores about the house and farm.
She was thankful for the cousins, friends and neighbours who kept an eye out for her and minded her. They were her lifeline, bringing her to the doctor or to Mass on Sundays, or helping with whatever else she needed. When the Stations came around every few years, she insisted that they be held in her house, and she drafted in cousins and friends to get the place ready for the ‘show’. Nellie, on such occasions, was in her element. Christianity was at the centre of her life and having the neighbours in for the Stations was something that came naturally to her.
On Christmas Eve 2013, I brought her a framed print of the photograph. I suggested that if she didn’t like it, she could throw it into the fire. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘I’ll put that down with the others in the room’. I never saw ‘the others’ but I knew she meant her bedroom and I guessed it might have been with family photographs, perhaps of her mother and father. No higher compliment could my portrait of ‘Ellen’ have received than that she liked the photograph enough to put it in a special place. Meanwhile, it has travelled around the world in international exhibitions and competitions and has won a few awards, but I love it purely because it encapsulates the genuine grá I felt for her.
Nellie was in her 89thyear when she passed away last week, but I didn’t know this until afterwards, so all I could do was visit her grave in Kildorrery last Sunday to say farewell. ‘They shall not pass this way again’ was the thought that crossed my mind. Nellie was one of the great characters of Kildorrery. Her move, over a year ago, to the nearby Abbeylands Nursing Home gave her a new lease of life because they were able to give her the care and kind attention she needed. Her passing wasn’t entirely unexpected.
I believe I have the finest image ever taken of Ellen Magnier. She lives in my memory and amongst those in Kildorrery who knew her from the times she cycled into the village, or went to Mass on Sundays, or went to parties and plays in the hall. She was a decent country woman, a gentle soul, one of the ‘auld stock’. Her passing marks the end of an era in her home at Ballyvisteen, where Magniers have lived for almost three centuries. Out of that house were descended farmers, horse breeders, priests, nuns, solicitors, businessmen of all descriptions, and a lovely woman called Nellie Magnier, immortalized through the lens of my camera on a sunny June evening in 2013. May she rest in peace.
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