Lives Remembered

Mary Burns: 'Turbo Mom' was one of 27 children in Co Derry family

Mary and Gerry Burns pictured in 2010

IN 1938, when Mary Burns was just six, her mother, Susan Rafferty, died after giving birth in Craigavole, Swatragh, Co Derry.

The doctor called a local Garvagh policeman to do a blood transfusion on the spot, but the blood was the wrong type, and the transfusion killed her.

When Mary’s father, William, re-married, his new bride, Kathleen Margaret Kearney, was not much older than the eldest Rafferty.

Kathleen soon became the matriarch of the family, beloved by all.

For nearly four decades, their home was filled with children. Counting all the babies born to William and his two wives, Mary was one of an astonishing 27.

There were 12 in the first family and 15 in the second. As it was at that time, however, not all those children survived, including a set of triplets who died shortly after they were born in 1947.

A live birth of triplets was such a rare occurrence that Queen Elizabeth II sent a letter of acknowledgment.

Life on the farm back lacked modern conveniences. Before running water was installed in the 1950s, they used a “cow’s tail” pump. On Saturday nights, the children would take turns in a tin bath set up in the front room.

“If you had a priest and a pump in your house,” said Sr Teresa Rafferty, Mary’s sister, “you were well above the earth”. (The Raffertys did, indeed, have more than one priest in their clan.)

A single fire in the living room was the only source of heat, so at night the children would use hot water bottles and pack into the beds four at a time. “Two at the top and two at the bottom,” said Mary’s sister Anne O’Connell of Garvagh. “Tops and tails.”

The Rafferty farm grew flax that was sold to a local mill and made into linen. Mary and her sisters would put on special rubber boots and tramp on the flax soaking in a dammed-up pool.

She attended Swatragh Primary School and St Mary’s Dominican Convent in Portstewart, where she was head girl and played camogie.

Mary went on to train as a nurse at Belfast City Hospital and as a midwife at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital.

Mary trained as a nurse in Belfast and later returned to the profession in the US

In 1956, she started working on the tuberculosis ward at Musgrave Park Hospital, where she met a young doctor named Gerry Burns.

They planned to marry, but tragedies got in the way. First Gerry’s father, Frederick, was put in a coma by a drunken driver, and in 1961, Mary’s sister Martha was killed, struck by a car while riding her bike.

Mary came home from nursing school on weekends to help take care of Martha’s nine children.

“She’d put all the babies in the bathtub in the living room, two or three at a time,” said her sister Rose Boylan, a retired teacher from Garvagh. “She’d make them scrambled eggs and toast and bake for them. She had so much energy.”

Mary and Gerry eventually married in August 1961 at St Brigid’s Church in Belfast, with her older brother Fr William Rafferty officiating.

Mary and Gerry Burns

"Mary was always so glamorous," said Anne, who was 16 at the time. "She’d come home on weekends with floaty summer dresses, high heels, and stockings with a seam up the back.”

In 1966, Mary and Gerry travelled by cruise ship to Buffalo, New York, with their three children for Gerry’s work as a general surgeon. A year later, they moved to the US permanently.

Mary was a force to be reckoned with. Her kids couldn’t keep up, dubbing her “Turbo Mom”. And when her fifth child was born in 1968, Mary delivered the baby herself in the back of a speeding station wagon en route to the hospital.

Despite seeing little sneachta in her lifetime, Mary became an avid skier and put all six of her children into the local ski-racing programme. She drove them to races all over New York state, often through snowstorms. Rosaries were said - for the roads and the races.

Mary Burns enjoying skiing with her sons Peter and Stephen

In 1979, the family moved to Old Westbury for Gerry’s work. After raising six children, Mary went back and earned her nursing certification and returned to work.

She joined the ski patrol at Holiday Mountain in Monticello, where season passes for the family of eight were perks of the job.

After Gerry and Mary retired, they moved to Colorado to ski, golf, hike, and spend time with their grandchildren.

Mary Josephine Burns died aged 89 on July 5. She is survived by her children Gerard, Catherine, Helen, Peter, Stephen and Clare and 11 grandchildren.

Helen Olsson

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Lives Remembered