By Michael Dawson
TESS Blanche, Ballinadrum, Ballon passed away peacefully at St Luke’s Hospital, Kilkenny on Friday 22 January. In her 98th year, she was the oldest and one of the best-known parishioners in Ballon/Rathoe.
Born in 1923, she was the fifth and youngest daughter of the village blacksmith John Brennan and his wife Catherine and was predeceased by her sisters Ciss, Kitty, Rosie and Birdie.
Tess loved the ‘street’ as she always called the village, and never moved far from it, locating first to Connaberry and then to Ballinadrum following her marriage to Wish Blanche from Ballon Hill in 1944. The couple had five children: Gerard, Francis, Breda, Seán and Kathleen.
One of Tess’s trademark characteristics was her singing ability and she joined the church choir as a nine-year-old. That was in 1932 and she remained a faithful member of the ‘old choir’ until 2005. She continued with the new choir because she regarded singing in church as a part of prayer. And the ‘old choir’ never really disappeared anyway, since she and her great friend Jenny Cummins continued to sing at weekday Masses for as long as she was able.
As a young woman in the 1930s and 1940s, she was also a member of the renowned Ballon Village choir, separate from the church choir, and popularly known as Fr Lawlor’s Choir. Fr Lawlor was the parish priest at the time and Tess was unstinting in her praise and admiration of this man, who trained a choir of local men and women in four-part harmony melodies that won top prizes in competitions and feiseanna over many years. The choir’s last performance was in 1946 at an outdoor public concert in Courtown harbour, Co Wexford.
Locals of a certain vintage will have vivid memories of Tess singing solo at concerts during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Blessed with a strong soprano voice, she could hit the high notes as true and clear as a lark. She also loved her role as prompter in the many plays that were produced by the late Peadar Swayne in the Old Village Hall and elsewhere. She also knocked great fun out of performing in Ballon’s Tops of the Town teams over many seasons, acting and singing. And she was part of a Kilbride GAA ballad group that won the Carlow Scór competition.
Tess had a great sense of adventure. She loved going places, and when the responsibilities of rearing the children were past, she and Wish took to the skies and visited America and countries like Holland, Spain and Italy, and with many trips to Scotland and England.
Tess also loved her work with the Apostolic Workers’ Guild in the village. She would often take work home and sit down at her old Singer sewing machine that she inherited from her mother. This old machine is still in working order and she used it up to the last – now sadly sitting waiting for another hand to thread the needle and turn the wheel. At home she would continue the work on altar linens and so on. She also frequently made the trip to the annual diocesan apostolic workers’ display in some part of the diocese, making new friends and renewing old acquaintances. She loved the annual retreat in Kiltegan until illness prevented her from going. In latter years, she would sit in the kitchen trimming thousands of stamps for Kiltegan’s fundraising, her feet buried in a snowdrift of scraps of paper.
For years, Tess was a member of the parish senior citizens’ committee, at a time when all the food had to be prepared and cooked in advance. It was then brought ahead of the tour buses by car to the stopping points at various places in the east and southeast, where it would be served. A lot of hard work went into all that but she enjoyed it and felt she was helping the members of her own community who had reached their old age and deserved to be treated with appreciation and dignity. But she had lots of laughs and fun, too, during those outings.
Tess had a fantastic recall and in 2002 shared her early years growing up as the blacksmith’s daughter with readers of the parish Chronicle, but her contribution in the 2005 edition, in which she detailed all of the villagers, house by house, who lived in Ballon in the 1940s and 1950s, stands as a valuable record of the social fabric of the village in the mid-20th century. This article was reproduced in The Nationalist last year. She contributed an article on ‘Travelling shows in Ballon’ in the most recent edition of the new community magazine Connected.
Tess was very outgoing and loved mixing with people. Even when angina, osteoporosis, arthritis and other ailments slowed her physically and gave her frequent pain, she still wanted to be out and about as much as possible. When she couldn’t be active, she enjoyed just sitting, watching the world go by. She would never sit with her back to a crowd of people – preferring to be where she could observe and nod and smile at people and appraise the fashion. She had a terrific sense of humour, a hearty laugh and a great sense of fun, and she both contributed and got a lot from life.
Religion played a huge role in Tess’s life and she was a lifelong member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. She genuinely loved church ceremonies and these were an enormous part of country and village life when she was growing up – sodalities, Quarant Ores, first Fridays, May devotions, the Lenten stations of the Cross, Missions, High Masses and so on. She loved all the ceremonies and services and saw them as a personal exchange with God. One of her most beloved devotions was her eucharistic hour in the church on Wednesdays. Ill-health made attendance sporadic in recent years, but if she could at all, she’d insist on going.
In Ballon church on 23 November 2008, she and her good friend Jenny were awarded Bene Merenti medals, the highest honour the Catholic Church can bestow on a lay person.
She had her disappointments and her terrible sorrows, but she accommodated all of them, carrying her crosses, but she was always resilient. She had a very positive attitude to life and even when her daughter Breda died in 1988 and her grandson Fran in 2002 – both suddenly in accidents – her husband Wish in 2004, her great-grandson Conor in 2008, her son-in-law Iain (Kathleen’s husband) in 2016 and many other close relatives in the intervening years, she never doubted that the Blessed Virgin would see her through. She always remembered to be grateful for what went well in her life and took great comfort and joy from her role as grandmother nine times over and as great-grandmother of 14.
Tess’s remains were removed from her home on Wednesday 27 January on her final journey to Ss Peter and Paul’s Church, Ballon, where a private funeral Mass was celebrated by Fr Jim O’Connell Adm, with Rev Lester Scott in attendance. Burial took place immediately afterwards in Ballon Cemetery. Because of the Covid restrictions, only close family and friends attended the requiem Mass, while neighbours, friends and acquaintances gathered by the roadside as the cortège passed from her home to the church, while others gathered at the churchyard observing social distancing.
Tess is mourned by her sons Gerard, Francis and Seán, daughter Kathleen, daughters-in-law Mary and Breda and by her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces, cousins, relatives, kind neighbours and friends. She was predeceased by her husband Wish, daughter Breda, son-in-law Ian, grandson Fran and great-grandson Conor.