I was standing on the pavement in Ballyconnell, County Cavan. Looking up and down the street, searching for an angle that made the town look as good as my editor at his desk in Berlin imagined a rural Irish town. 'Quintessential' Ireland. There is a pun in here somewhere as I was there to photograph the barely larger than one street village and it's most famous resident. The sun was in my eyes and I squinted behind my lens wishing the trial of the shoot schedule hadn't me photographing at high noon. Yet the loveliest encounters that was about to happen would never have occurred had I not been there at the halfway mark in the day. I heard a soft but assured voice mixed with laughter behind me ask "what on earth are you looking for?" I turned to find a tiny lady watching me from her doorstep where she was framed rather perfectly like in an old John Ford film by her blue wooden door and stone facade. Not the rather more well known resident I was sent to photograph but one equally interesting.
She had seen me from inside through the window where she quietly observes the to and fro, the rhythm of the village where she was born and will surely expire. "Well if you want to know about Ballyconnell, I know it all" she says. "I'm 96 years of age and Ballyconnell's oldest resident." I took her at her word. I had no reason not to. 96 is a right old age alright. "97 next month" . Seems we were both going to hit milestones soon. I took her soft, bony, veined hand and introduced myself and the lady called Una McBarron invited me in. I could tell she wanted to chat more and fill a space in her day and I never refuse the invite of an elder. For when you've had that tea and digestives with them there'll be lessons and future predictions in the leaves at the bottom of your cup.
Una McBarron had a brief stint in England where she was a nurse in her 30's. She returned home to Ballyconnell to look after her nieces and nephews following the death of her only sister. She had raised them like they were her own and had become known as Aunty Una. Her husband had passed away a few years back. A home help popped in for a half hour a day and her nephew with the pub next door came by in the mornings. Deeply religious she's been to Medjugorje nine times and has a conviction for our lady's miracles that runs about as deep as my own conviction that a camera in your hand does not make you a miracle worker. I asked her how her health was because as far as I could see she'd be around at least to see the last glaciers out and the sea take Manhattan. For now her only complaint was her hip that she'd injured falling off her bike. While I sat there quietly observing her and admiring her enthusiasm for life more each minute, I secretly hoped that I would be like her should I ever reach her very grand old age. She was quick of mind with a wit so sharp it made me wonder where I'd left my own. And almost like she'd read my mind she insisted that despite the bike injury she was still as sharp as a tack in the head. Again she had given me no reason not to believe her for it was as obvious as the sun in the sky. Seeing the opportunity for an in on the secret I asked Una what was the recipe to her long life. Like a horse out the gate with her answer she replied "No Cheese". She saw my raised eyebrows and wry smile and said "yeah that dairy stuff is no good for you". Una and I were kindred spirits.
I was there for about an hour and left rather reluctantly with a firm promise to return. In good ole fashioned pensioner style she sent me on my way shoving a candy striped bag with some chocolate treats in my hand. After her firm persuasion I took them gladly. It was going to be a long day and I needed all the treats I could get. We said goodbye her and I and her stuffed dog in the basket by the door. Aunty Una closed the blue painted door with it's peeling paint and waved through the window. I left hoping that as an old lady that I would still be able to appreciate the world through whatever window I looked. That my days might be filled on the odd occasion by an unexpected stranger bringing me a story of a far off place or one down the road and I recounting my own. Yet for that to happen you always have to be ready to open your big blue door to the world.