Words of wisdom from Granny Nancy, 'Ireland's oldest lady'
Nancy Stewart, a mere 107 years young, rose to fame during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 as Ireland's oldest lady, offering words of comfort and wisdom during that most difficult of times to people all over the world. Jenny Lee chats to her granddaughter Louise Coughlan who has penned her life story
NANCY Stewart survived two pandemics and two world wars, experienced food rationing and life without electricity, witnessed Irish independence and the advancement of women's rights... and when the lockdowns gripped Ireland, the 107-year-old became a social media star.
With the help of her granddaughter Lou, Granny Nancy - Ireland's oldest lady - offered an escape from the worries of Covid-19 pandemic with a unique blend of hope, healing and humour through the 'Living and Laughing with Lou' Facebook page and live broadcasts.
Louise Coghlan, known as Lou, had moved in with her grandmother in February 2019 to help care for her as she recovered from a broken hip.
It was during lockdown that their relationship was taken to another level. Cocooned with her grandmother, Lou, a former journalist, spent the time interviewing her Granny Nancy, a native of Clonard, Co Meath, about her life and views on our past and future, as well as introducing her to the opportunities the internet and modern technology presented.
Their Facebook Live videos and chats garnered up to five million views. And their virtual Mass tour of Ireland, which saw them log into churches nationwide, received the international attention of broadcasters, including the BBC, EWTN and CBC Canada.
"Gran used to love being out and about and meeting people and that's why she loved taking part in social media and connecting with new friends," Lou tells me.
Granny Nancy died in September last year, just shy of her 108th birthday, but her inspiring spirit lives on through a book penned by her devoted granddaughter.
"For 32 months I lived alongside my dear beloved grandmother, but for 37 years I was blessed with her as my best friend," says Lou, who hopes her book, Granny Nancy, Ireland's Oldest Lady Who Lived, Loved and Laughed for 107 Years, will continue to offer people hope and optimism.
"For many, the pandemic was a curse, but it was only as the hours, days and months passed that I realised for me, it was a beautiful miraculous blessing.
"I was blessed with the honour and the opportunity to care for and love my granny in the last days of her life, but we lived them like we were only beginning."
Lou (39) was both amazed and proud of how well her grandmother embraced technology.
"She loved Facebook Lives and really understood the internet. For a woman who was born in 1913, and went to school on a horse and cart, this was amazing and the ultimate example of moving with the times," she says.
"When I first gave her headphones, the reaction was priceless. It was like I had given her one million dollars."
The internet opened the world to Granny Nancy, with people contacting her from every corner - from Hawaii to Mauritius - and inviting her to virtual celebrations of Mass in New York and London.
The world not only found Nancy fascinating, but they fell in love with her. Lou admits that she, her siblings and cousins had to share their granny.
"I realised she was no longer just my granny, she became everyone's granny," she beams.
In the book, Nancy herself says: "My life is not very interesting but I've loved every second of it. I've cried, I've had my heart broken many times but I'm still here smiling."
So just what was so special about Granny Nancy? "She was a great woman at accepting and that's not easy. And she kept her faith. She didn't dwell on the past or worry about the future but to be able to step into the present and enjoy the moment," explains Lou.
Nancy's life wasn't without difficult times and tragedies. In 1989, she lost her husband, Bob, in a car crash while they were travelling to Mass. She also lost her twin daughters, Margaret in 2007 to a long battle with motor neurone disease, and Anne in 2010 to heartbreak.
"Granny kept going, smiling and stepping through. She looked for the good in everyone and every situation and believed we should all support each other.
"Her philosophy was that if you are worrying, boil the kettle and have a cup of tea and if you are still worrying boil the kettle again and invite a friend over to have a chat," laughs Lou.
Blessed with mobility and a sound mind for 107 years, Lou believes "God spared her for a purpose".
"More of us need to have Granny's outlook in life. I definitely have a peace and serenity in me that I got from Granny."
Lou is inviting people to share that attitude as they join her as she travels the length and breadth of Ireland meeting in person the many who joined them online during lockdown.
"Trying to get people to talk to each other again is something I firmly believe in and why I'm so excited to do the Granny Nancy's Cup of Tea Book Tour.
"There are such high levels of suicide and depression, and I think we all need to meet together and talk and have a laugh."
Lou will visit Fermanagh this weekend and also has forthcoming dates in Omagh and Cookstown. She will even speak at events in New York, Boston and Chicago in March next year. But Lou is open to further invitations in the north.
"I want to bring Gran around the country on an adventure and I'd love it if people got in touch to tell me to come to a house, a church, a community centre, a pub, even a barn that we can have the craic informally and bring herself to life again. All I need is a venue and a teapot."
In the book, as well as her views on how Ireland has changed in her lifetime, her thoughts on faith, food and politics, Granny Nancy offers some words of wisdom for our young people.
"We won't always be here for them so it's important to teach them skills in case there was a food shortage or crisis of any kind. It's not fair not to give them some real-life practical skills. Not everything can be done on the computer. I think it's important to have a balance," she said.
And Nancy's enduring advice for keeping hopeful in this world? "Say a few prayers and do a few jobs."
:: Granny Nancy, Ireland's Oldest Lady Who Lived, Loved and Laughed for 107 Years can be purchased at Livingandlaughingwithlou.com.
The Granny Nancy Cup of Tea Tour visits Killyhommon Primary School, Boho from 2.30-4.30pm on Saturday November 26 and St Aidan's Christmas Craft Fair, Derrylin from 12-5pm on Sunday November 27. To request the tour visits your area email email@example.com.