Centenarian extraordinaire —  Phyllis Furness celebrates one hundredth birthday

Recently Phyl Furness, one of the best known personalities in Oughterard, celebrated her 100th birthday.

If ever anyone uniquely 'did it my way', it is Phyl. What's more, she continues to do it her way, with her rich, warm, voice  charming the birds from the trees and captivating her audience.

Born Phyllis Olwyn Ryder in Newark, Northampton, in 1915, she had one brother, two sisters, and three step-sisters. Starting school at the age of five, she finished at 14, the normal age to finish schooling at that time.

Phyl was no stranger to the world of work from the time she was a child at school. She moved to live with her step-sisters after she left school, and through them she found employment. One day, her then boss asked her if she could cook. She said: “Yes, but what for?” It turned out that he had 150 dignitaries expected for a dinner the next evening and the chef had walked out. Having elicited her boss's promise to help her, she agreed. They drew up a menu and the dinner event went ahead without a hitch. Phyl was never one to refuse a challenge.

To meet Phyl, you would take it that she had had a trouble free, happy, life, yet there were many difficulties to overcome. Phyl leaves these gently in the past, where, as she says, they belong. They moved house many times, which must have been disruptive for friendships. When Phyl mentions any negative times, it is simply in a factual way, free from self-pity or bitterness. It seems she simply expects herself to pick herself up and get on with it.

And she most certainly did. She was involved in war work in munitions in Bournemouth during World War II, and married John Furness in 1940.

When they were living in Christchurch, Dorset, Phyl was able to find work again, and it was here, after doing voluntary work with the Red Cross, that she applied for a job as the manager of an older people’s home. At the interview, she was her usual honest self and agreed that she had no qualifications. They asked her how she thought she could do the job, and she told them that she knew exactly how she would want to be treated in her old age. She got the job and was sent to Christchurch Hospital for a week’s training.

Phyl was by now an experienced jam maker and, as now, loved growing her own vegetables and fruit. She describes one Christmas Day when she invited the local doctor and the postman to the home, treating them and all the residents to her homemade cakes and applejack, a drink distilled from fermented apple juice. The postman fell off his bike a few times on his way home and the story goes that the doctor was only available for emergencies the rest of the day. 

In 1981 Phyl’s husband John, who already loved Ireland, bought a house in Glann when he was over on a fishing holiday. Phyl claims that her life really took off when she came to live here in Ireland. It was now that she dropped Olwyn from her signature, as much as she liked the feeling of being adopted by Ireland, she found she was being addressed as ‘Mrs O’Furness’.

She made many friends through Kilcummin Church of Ireland. She and Barbara Edwards teamed up with Mary Rose Glynn, going to concerts and music hall nights organised by the John Player group. Tops of the Town competitions were held throughout the country and she, Barbara, and Mary Rose must certainly have been a ‘class act’, taking part in many competitions and social evenings. Phyl is especially gifted in recitations. Anyone who has heard her recite ‘Albert and the Lion’ will not be surprised that she won an impressive Oscar for this in one of the John Player competitions. 

Her husband, John, died in 1984, and she moved to her present home by the waterfall in Oughterard in 1985. When she was not engaged in her John Player escapades she set about cultivating her garden, making it beautiful for herself and her friends, and especially the birds. Phyl is a keen observer and knows all the foibles and characters of all the regular bird visitors to her garden. 

In 2012 came the immense loss of her gifted only son, Michael, after a long fight with cancer. Accepting that loss was probably the hardest thing in her life, to have to face, again, Phyl’s indomitable spirit and her strong faith carried her. The Nativity groups went on being produced, the garden was tended to, and the birds fed, as usual. 

May the sun shine happily on you, Phyl, as you celebrate your 100th birthday and move into your new century, with the company of your granddaughter Jackie (on a visit from Australia for your birthday ) and your friends. What a role model you are for us, favourite chocaholic that you are!

Margaret Larminie

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