Saturday 1 June 2019

Living off-grid for almost 80 years

Margaret Gallagher has lived off-grid for almost 80 years.

When she was was born - near the Irish border in County Fermanagh in 1942 - it was not unusual for families to live without electricity and running water.

Margaret's neighbours only began to update their homes in the late 1940s and 1950s.

But her family missed the opportunity to join the trend due to her mother's death, when Margaret was 10, and her father's ill health.

Now aged 77, she is one of few elderly people in the UK and Ireland who have lived their entire lives off-grid.
Margaret's family missed the opportunity to go "on-grid" when it became fashionable in the 1950s
"I am doing it because I like doing it, not because I'm a hippy, that I think it's new and fashionable," she said.

"My childhood was over at 10. My father took to the bed with severe arthritis, so it never was feasible for us to do anything.

'There were no finances'
"I didn't have the will, he didn't have the will to do it and there were no finances if we were very keen to do it so it just didn't come onto the radar."

Margaret has lived alone in the family's 18th century thatched cottage since her father's death in 1980.

Living without modern amenities requires physical strength - she must cross a field to collect water in a bucket from a well up to 10 times a day and needs to stoop to cook over an open fire, which she lights every morning from a stack of turf and logs.

Margaret Gallagher said her childhood ended abruptly when her mother died
Her daily routine begins at 05:30 BST when she heats water in a kettle over the fire for washing and tea - milk and perishables are stored in a wheelie bin. She keeps up-to-date with news on a wind-up radio.

Lamps decorate the thick stone windowsills of her tiny two-bedroom home, but paraffin is expensive so Margaret's schedule is governed by daylight - she is usually in bed by 18:30 BST.

'People are entitled to live as they want'
Margaret said her lifestyle meant she grew up with "the seasons being the master of us all."

She recalled her father taking her outside as a child on Halloween night to gauge the wind direction.

The prevailing wind would, according to local lore, determine the severity of the winter ahead.

She loves summer and is less keen on winter when she uses a long fishing pole to push snow off her roof to prevent damage to the thatch.
Margaret Gallagher cooks over an open fire
Despite the difficulties of a cold winter in a house without central heating, Margaret said the compensations of her life could not be overstated.

"You have the birds in the morning nesting in the house, you have the views, the tranquillity and peace, you have the clock ticking - all those things that you couldn't put a price on," she said.

"I am living the way my forefathers lived, who left the footprint for me. It was good enough for my people, for my parents, my grandparents, who bought the house in 1887 - it is a tribute to them."

'I am not going to change for anyone'
Margaret said visitors were often surprised that she does not fit the stereotype of an elderly woman living off-grid.
The red shoes Margaret wore when she was presented with an MBE by the Prince of Wales
They expect to find her, she said, "sitting in the corner wearing a long black dress and a white apron."

Instead, if they take a peek in her bedroom, they will find this sprightly woman likes modern fashion - evident from her long ear rings and the red high-heeled shoes stored beside her bed, bought for the time she received an MBE for community work from the Prince of Wales.

"I don't know of anyone living like me, without electricity, without running water without any of the amenities. But then I am not interested in how people live. People are entitled to live as they want," she said.

"I am my own person, I have my own identity, this house embodies who I am and what I am. I am not going to change for anyone."

'Absolutely no regrets'
While she has "absolutely no regrets" about her life off-grid, Margaret realises her unusual lifestyle is disappearing.

"Everyone likes to come and look at this house but if you asked them to stay they couldn't wait to get out of it, particularly younger people," she said.

Yet, she believes young people could learn from the simplicity of her choices, instead of seeking "everything big and shiny and better".

Margaret makes soda bread over an open fire
She said her message to those starting out in life was to "be aware of who they are and where they come from. Live as they mean to go on".

"Be content with what you have," she added.

As she approaches 80, and following a serious accident eight years ago, Margaret fears she may not always be fit for the physical demands of living off-grid.

"I loved everything I did. It was a great lifestyle. But there is always the fear, will I have to leave it?

"If I won the lottery, I would still live here. I am a rural rooted spinster."

(Source: BBC)

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