Born and raised in Loughmore village, Tipperary, Mary worked in banking from 1974 until 2009 after retiring due to ill health. Following her recovery from breast cancer, she realised that there were no services in her village and vouched to do something about it.
She studied the Co-operative way of working and loved the idea of bringing a community together to help itself. It was this idea that brought her to become a Co-founder of Loughmore Community Co-operative Society Limited that is better known as The Cottage Shop & Tearooms Loughmore.
Since inception it has gone from strength to strength, winning many awards including the Irish Times “Best Tearooms in Ireland” with Mary helping many more communities throughout Ireland to set up similar enterprises.
What's your idea of a perfect day, or perfect weekend in Tipperary?
I like nothing more than to walk from my home to the Village, sit by the river Suir, listen to the water flowing, watch the ducks and swans happily swimming around and tending their chicks. I love to listen to the birds singing, soaking up the beauty surrounding me and enjoying the peace and tranquillity of a truly beautiful place - it is like a little bit of Heaven.
What's your first Tipperary memory?
I have so many happy memories of an idyllic childhood spent in the love, affection and protection of my parents and grandparents. My grandfather kept a lovely vegetable garden and I remember running up and down through the drills of potatoes pestering him with thousands of questions to which he always had an answer. I thought he was the wisest man in the world.
On Sundays my father would pack us all into his Morris Minor and bring us to visit our granny who lived at the edge of the wood in Kilrush outside Thurles. He would take us for a walk into the woods and show us exactly where Little Red Riding Hood lived and of course we could see her inside doing her knitting! Then there was the excitement of waiting for our cousins to come to visit.
We were lined up with our faces stuck to the windows looking out for the car to pull up. My mother would say “wet the tea and they will arrive” and invariably they did! Those were magical days for sure.
What's your favourite part of the county - and why?
Oh for certain it is Loughmore! I honestly believe that the beautiful village of Loughmore is one of Tipperary’s hidden gems.
It has so much to offer – a place of untouched beauty, steeped in history and tradition with the majestic Loughmore Castle, the ancient Mill, the River Suir flowing through the village, the Picnic Area and Duck Sanctuary, the old Abbey and the famous Cormack brothers Monument in the Church Grounds.
And now of course you can visit the award winning tearooms – The Cottage – where you will receive the warmest of welcomes and enjoy a lovely cup of tea or coffee with the most delicious locally produced fresh food and confectionery.
Who has made the greatest contribution to Tipperary in your lifetime - and why?
It is really very hard to pick out one person as so many people in Tipperary have given their time so generously for the betterment of the county, be it GAA, music, drama, dancing, education, religious or community services.
Other than my parents, at a local level there were two people who really influenced me growing up in Tipperary. The first lady was our National School principal – Peggy Gleeson RIP – she was the kindest and most supportive person who shaped my future, encouraged me and all the pupils who passed through the school over the years to do well and follow our dreams.
The second lady is Kathleen Nesbitt who instilled in me a love of traditional Irish music and taught me how to play the button accordion. Kathleen has passed on the gift of playing music to thousands and thousands of children since she started teaching in 1970 not only in Loughmore, but in County Tipperary, Munster, Ireland and Europe. What a gift it is! – being able to play a musical instrument will carry you anywhere in life. Through their kindness, patience and encouragement both Peggy and Kathleen have made an enormous contribution to the successes in my life and the lives of so many people for which I thank them.
What do you think gives Tipperary its unique identity?
It is quite unique that Tipperary is known all over the world because of the song “It’s a long way to Tipperary”.
But it is its people, its beauty and its food that stand out. Tipperary people are renowned for their warm welcome and hospitality, and it is an added bonus that people enjoy locally produced fresh food. People will visit all the big tourist attractions but it is the authentic local experience that is longed for.
Tipperary has the capacity to offer wonderful local experiences to visitors and I can vouch for that because of the reaction of people visiting The Cottage. In conjunction with Tipperary Tourism we offer a “Tipperary Breakfast” whereby everything on your plate comes from Tipperary.
The Cottage is one of nine “Tipperary Breakfast Champions” and all our confectionery is supplied by local ladies baking in their own homes within a five mile radius of The Cottage. You cannot get more local than that!
Do you have a favourite local writer or author?
I had the great honour and privilege of witnessing the different stages of the magic in developing and writing a wonderful children’s book from its earliest stages.
A very talented and gifted local lady – Kay O’Connell – published her first book recently “Swanky Spider meets Professor Pendulum”.
I eagerly awaited each visit Kay made to The Cottage to hear about how her book was coming along. She had to ability to carry me to another world and visit Cobbletown where Swanky Spider and all his amazing friends lived. One day Kay would visit and tell me what Swanky Spider was going to wear – a diamond on each leg and a red bow tie tucked neatly under his chin. Then another day I would learn all about Miss Cupcake, Professor Pendulum or Madam Bonnet.
I was always hoping that Kay would have more coffee so that I could hear more. Her book is for children but I enjoyed it as much as any child – a must read for young and old. The last sentence in Kay’s book reads –“Just remember to be fair in your dealings with everyone and your magic will never fade”.
Not bad advice at all. I cannot wait to see what Kay produces next.
What's the biggest challenge facing the county today?
It will be a huge challenge to emerge safely from Covid-19, but we will do it, I am sure of that. Everyone has faced a challenge since March in one way or another but most of all my heart and my sympathy goes out to anyone who has lost a loved one.
Their pain and sorrow must be unbearable. I was once told that “any problem in life can be solved – except for death” and that is now my attitude in life.
Every problem has a solution. We will work together to get through this awful time and perhaps we will all come out of this being better people and enjoy a much better lifestyle. I think this experience has been a great leveller for many people showing us what is really important in life – our families, our friends and our communities.
If you had the power to change one thing in, or about Tipperary, what would it be?
I would love to see Social Enterprises being more recognised for their value to local communities not only in Tipperary but in Ireland. Social Enterprise is the backbone of Rural Ireland and will be even more important post Covid 19 and Brexit.
We know for sure that the world has been changed forever in terms of social behaviour and work patterns. Social enterprises will be an essential player in the socio-economic recovery, a regenerator of communities, a creator of jobs, a developer of people and social cohesion plus a host of other social and economic benefits.
The Cottage is a very successful social enterprise and is deemed to be one of the most important Social Enterprises to have been established in Ireland in the past 20 years.
I would love to see the concept of The Cottage replicated in many more rural areas that are dying due to closure of businesses and services.
I have already helped many communities in Tipperary and numerous communities throughout Ireland plus I was offered the most amazing opportunity by Tipperary County Council to showcase The Cottage in Hungary and Slovenia last year.
We got fantastic financial help and support from North Tipperary Leader and Tipperary County Council to whom we are eternally grateful.
Loughmore is now a vibrant and thriving community, seeing many young couples coming back to live in the area and what warms my heart more than anything else is to see that these young people want to be involved in the community.
They recognise the fact that Loughmore is a wonderful place to live, offering a rich quality of life. All the services are available in one small parish – we have an outstanding National School that also incorporates a wonderful Autism Unit, plus sports, music, drama and many more social activities available in the parish, such as The Cottage which has become the heartbeat of the community.
Hopefully the new Government will see the value of supporting Social Enterprises into the future .