Castlerea native, Betty Keaveney (nee Brennan), lost her mother, Bridget, in 1955 at the tender age of eleven. Betty and her twin brother Sean were the oldest of eight children and so the responsibility of taking care of her younger siblings fell to Betty. Luckily, she had a good mentor in her father, Paddy.
Later in life, Betty would suffer another heartbreaking loss when her husband Seamus passed away at a young age in 1999. It was then that Betty discovered Vita House, which in turn led to her rediscovering herself.
“We grew up with an outstanding father; kind, gentle, strict but lenient. He would sing at night and play games with us before he went on night duty – he was a nurse in the hospital.
“He was very calm, very gentle. He taught me to sew, to cut hair – he taught me everything I knew. But even being so young I looked at him and thought ‘He’s there for us but who’s there for him?’ Later in life, when I was 16 or 17, he did remarry; many times I thought to myself that it was just to give me the chance to move out.
“It was tough at times but there was an awful lot of laughter in the house and the laughter was healing.
“The thing I found the toughest was when the ‘kids’ would cry out for mama and ask why she had to go to ‘God’s house’. I remember getting angry at God.
“When I did the Rainbow training in Vita House I couldn’t believe how similar the training was to what I had experienced as a child. When I was young I thought if I just fix it for my younger siblings and make them laugh they’d be okay. Whereas with the Rainbow training, I was taught to help children find their own strengths. This is what amazes me – did I choose Vita House or did it choose me?”
So how did Betty cope with such heartbreaking responsibility at such a young age?
“I was always the type of person who wanted to be there for other people. I’d hear the children crying and be too busy caring for them (to dwell on things)”.
Betty’s very nature led to her joining the nursing profession in her late teens, but due to illness she was forced to return home. She said it was one of her biggest regrets.
“I got on the nursing staff and I loved it but I was taken ill and was three days in the hospital in Castlerea before being sent home,” she said.
Before she fell ill there was fun to be had in her temporary freedom away from home and, following the late-night checks of the dorms, Betty and her companions would enjoy late-night excursions.
“She (supervisor) wouldn’t have the door handle switched up and we were out the window and gone dancing,” she laughed.
Following her recovery from illness, Betty worked as a dental nurse for a time before moving to England, where she was gradually joined by her younger siblings.
She remembers docking in England following heart-wrenching goodbyes at the train station back home.
“All I had was the name of girl I had known back home. But she didn’t turn up to meet me. Getting off that boat I know in my heart and soul that it was my mother protecting me.
“This kind ‘gentleman’ had this taxi and he came to meet me on the dock. He asked if I was looking for accommodation and I was all happy and told him I was. He told me he could get that for me and guaranteed me work within days. I felt something was wrong and when he went to pick up my bag I stopped him. I could see my mother so vividly, an image of her sitting there. I wouldn’t have known about anyone preying on girls to groom them or anything like that. I believe my mother protected me.
“Being Irish in England was tough but there was an awful lot of humour and that’s what pulled us through,” she said.
Before moving to England, Betty had met her future husband, Seamus Keaveney, at a dance back home.
“Seamus was home on holiday from England when we met. I remember saying to a friend ‘Would you go down and ask that big fella’ to turn around and we’ll get a look at his smog?’ After a while I got a tap on the shoulder and he asked: ‘Would you dance miss?’
“I remember afterwards saying to a friend that I would never, ever settle down until I had had one more night on the dancefloor with Keaveney. He was a brilliant dancer!”
The pair began to write to each other and rekindled their romance once Betty moved to England. They came home in order to be married in St. Patrick’s Church in Castlerea in 1966, before returning to England.
“We were married when I was 23 and we had three daughters – I didn’t realise there was a second variety until it was too late!”
Betty and Seamus were beginning to make a comfortable life for themselves in England when Seamus’ father became ill and they were forced to move back home.
“At that time when you got a call to move back, you moved back. I never thought I’d ever be back. Seamus had said that he’d return home and come back to England once a month. I told him I’d rather be in the turf shed or the hay shed and be together. That’s all I ever knew in our house; all hands in, all hands out”.
The couple and their young family made the most of their situation over the following years and began to thrive back on home soil. Sadly, however, Seamus became ill at the young age of 52 and passed away in 1999.
“We had just built up the farm and made things very easy for ourselves. By God there were times after his death I was like a headless chicken. But no matter what, I had six years looking after him and they were six years I had him all to myself. The craic was still there between us and we have super memories,” she said.
Betty has her late husband to thank for her involvement with Vita House. She used to accompany him when he went to the mart and it was this habit that led to her becoming aware of Vita House.
“When Seamus came into the mart I’d come in with him and ramble around. After his death I was still coming in and one day I drove past Vita House with its warm, red door and wondered what went on here.
“I came in to do the psychology course and went on to do all the courses available to me. I was blown away by it, there’s so much here,” she said.
She also found solace in writing poetry and is considering returning to Vita House to take part in the Writers Club. She remains very much at home at Vita House and credits it with helping her to cope with the pain of losing her husband at such a young age.
“There was a time when I could see no reason to live, not that I didn’t want to live but you’re left looking around an empty four-bedroomed house.
“There have been some horrendously tough times, but finding out who I was became very important. You have to find out who you are in order to be confident. I learned how to say ‘No’ at Vita House.
“Music and dancing were also my lifeline and my salvation. I still go dancing. I’ve always thought it was very important to find the laughter or the humour in things,” she said.
Music, dancing and writing still feature prominently in Betty’s life, as do her three daughters and four grandchildren. It hasn’t been easy at times but the resilience she developed in childhood has enabled her to make the most of even the toughest situations. She says she’s grateful to everyone at Vita House for providing an outlet in her time of need and her many certificates are evidence of her time well spent behind the “warm red door”.