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Irish immigrant baked her own Irish soda bread till age 101

Kathleen Clancy

Kathleen Clancy

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Updated: December 19, 2012 12:35PM

Kathleen Clancy believed in the power of prayer and holy water, and hot tea and Irish soda bread — which she baked until she was 101.

She lived to be 105, nearly every one of those years in good health.

At 85, when she was about to have hip-replacement surgery, hospital staffers quizzed her beforehand to get her list of prescriptions.

“I don’t take any prescriptions,” she replied.

They told her to get the information from her doctor.

“I don’t have a doctor,” she said.

Mrs. Clancy died in her sleep Sunday at her North Side home.

She was born on the grounds of Westport House, the stately Georgian mansion belonging to the Marquess of County Sligo, Ireland. It had three gatehouses, and the young Kathleen Kenny’s little home was known as “the Bog Gate” — the one on the Bog Gate Road.

It was a little like Downton Abbey. Those who were born or lived on the estate toiled for the “Laird.” “Everyone, at one time or another, worked in the sawmill or worked on the farm or the dairy or as servants in the house,” said Mrs. Clancy’s son Gerry.

Though Ireland’s 20th-century landlords had a kinder reputation than those of previous generations, Irish nationalists never forgot the cruelty of many English-installed landlords in the era of “An Gorta Mor,” the Great Hunger, when potato blight arrived in the 1840s. There were mass evictions, starvation and the enforced export of other foods that could have fed the starving Irish.

Her family supported independence for Ireland. From time to time, young Kathleen went out in the fields to drop off food for members of the Irish Republic Army, among the first guerrilla fighters in history.

“While [the IRA men] ate lunch, she said they held the guns, her and her sister,” said her daughter, Mary Jurewicz.

The hated English paramilitaries known as the Black-and-Tans — whom even the Colonial powers described as vicious — were a constant threat.

“She’d be running through the fields after she gave provisions to the IRA,” said her son Gerry, “and one [Black-and-Tan] guy knew her, and he said, ‘Kathleen, you little b----, we’ll get you yet.’ ’’

Decades later, she could still remember how her walk to morning mass was once marred by nearby Anglo-Irish sniper fire.

She married William P. Clancy, who became an inspector general for the Lipton tea company grocery stores that dotted Ireland. There were no addresses in the little town of Westport, so they named their house “Shamrock Lodge.” They had seven children.

As the Irish economy stuttered, her husband decided to come to America in 1952. He wound up in Chicago, where William Clancy’s brothers-in-law already were settled. They helped him land a job at Kroger Foods. The two eldest Clancy boys soon followed their father to the United States.

In 1954, Mrs. Clancy boarded the SS Brittanic to join her husband. The parting from her family in Ireland was sorrowful. “Back in those days, when you said goodbye, it was like goodbye forever,” her son said. There was no social media, and for most, no telephones or jet travel.

They moved to North Mohawk Street, where Mrs. Clancy had to get used to a landlady who berated her for what she perceived as a declasse habit: hanging her wash on the line.

Fortunately, most of the Clancys’ culture clashes were comical. Her kids were leery of an American food with an odd name: hot dogs. When someone handed her a bowl of popcorn, she daintily took only a few kernels, not realizing she was being offered the whole bowl. She’d never seen popcorn before.

The family eventually settled near Bryn Mawr and Broadway in St. Ita’s parish.

She relished being a mother.

“She was a great cook,” said her son Bill. “She loved to bake her own bread — the soda bread, the brown bread, the currant bread and the Christmas cake. She loved the home, and she loved the people to come in and visit.”

One of the hardest times of her life occurred in 1965, when her son Joe, a Marine serving in Vietnam, died when his C-130 troop transport plane crashed.

Typical of her graciousness was the way she welcomed the 21-year-old Marine lance corporal who was assigned to accompany Joe’s body home. During the wake and funeral, he stood at attention next to the casket, never taking a break, even for water.

The Marines had reserved him a room at the YMCA, but Mrs. Clancy wouldn’t hear of it. She invited him into her home, where he stayed until Joe was laid to rest.

In fact, she welcomed everyone into her home. And she had the same ritual whenever they prepared to leave. Regardless of whether they were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic or atheist, she encouraged them to bless themselves with the holy water she kept in a font by the door, to carry them safely on their way.

Once, her urgings caused concern to a suitor.

“I was dating a boy, and he came over to the house to pick me up, and we were leaving,” Mary Jurewicz said. “And my mother said, ‘Now goodbye, God bless, bless yourself.’ “

Outside, the young man turned to Mary to ask: “Does your mother have a problem with you going out with me?“

She liked to watch “As the World Turns,” “The Price is Right,” “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune,” but her favorite programs were hosted by Sister Angelica on the Eternal Word Television Network.

She had a 3-foot-high statue of the Blessed Mother in her bedroom; a picture of the Sacred Heart over her bed and rosaries everywhere. She said the rosary every day.

“Every room I turned around, touched anything, I ran into rosaries, pictures of Jesus, Mary, all the saints,” Gerry Clancy said. “I figure I could open a religious store.”

Mrs. Clancy is also survived by another daughter, Kathleen Kamer; sons Charles and Patrick; 23 grandchildren; and 31 great-grandchildren. A wake is scheduled from 2 to 9 p.m. Friday at Cooney’s Funeral Home, 3918 W. Irving Park. A funeral mass is set for 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Ita’s, 1220 W. Catalpa, with burial to follow at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines.

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