A driving force behind addiction treatment, Sr. Margaret Kiely is grateful for the many opportunities she’s had to live life to the full, writes Rowena Walsh.
Sr. Margaret Kiely
The students in Sr. Margaret Kiely’s beginner computer classes have one thing in common.
“The first thing they all ask me is how do I get RIP.ie,” she says. Her pupils are usually in their 70s and she says they think she knows everything.
Since she retired a year and a half ago, Margaret, now 82, has been volunteering as a tutor for Age Action, giving lessons to computer novices at two centres in Cork. She loves teaching the classes and she is evangelical about the benefits of IT know-how for the older generation.
“It amazes me what IT has done for older people, preventing isolation and connecting them with friends and family,” she says.
She adds that in her previous work, she saw how such isolation and loneliness could lead people to turn to medication or alcohol.
Margaret grew up as the eldest of six on a farm in Millstreet, Co Cork, in a community that she describes as very caring and sharing. She left school at the age of 17, did a secretarial course, and then briefly worked before training as a Nurse in the South Infirmary Hospital. When she was 21, she joined the Sisters of Mercy.
She worked in the wards of South Infirmary before training as a nurse tutor in UCD. Margaret had been teaching for about 14 years when she was asked by her order to set up a residential treatment centre for people struggling with addiction, and Tabor Lodge was born.
She went to America for a year to train in addiction counselling in Minnesota. On February 9th, 1989, Tabor Lodge opened in Ballindeasig, Cork.
It wasn’t long before Margaret realised that many of the younger people attending Tabor Lodge needed more care than could be provided in a month-long residential stay. In 1999, again with the help of the Sisters of Mercy, she opened Renewal, a women’s halfway house in Shanakiel.
Fellowship House for men was set up in Togher in 2002.
“People could spend three months in these halfway houses,” she says, “they call them step-down accommodation now. When they were going home, some had difficulty in finding suitable places, so we bought two further houses, one for men, one for women. We have five houses in the Tabor Group now and 70 staff. I’d never have done that if I was on my own, if I wasn’t in an order. But then somebody puts you forward and says we want you to do that. You kind of trust in God then, and say if it’s meant to be, it will be.
In 2002, Margaret was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had to undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Although she found chemo hard, she says that she lives with an attitude of gratitude. “It’s like another chance at life. Every day that I get up, I say thank God for another day that I can see and hear and taste and touch and walk around.
“In my nursing days, everybody with breast cancer died, and now everybody with breast cancer is living. It’s an amazing change. I was one of those lucky people.”
She recovered well and, in 2005, she left the Tabor Group to take on a new job with the African Missions co-ordinating its health services. “I was always brought up with work, I’m a workaholic, I always need something to be doing.”
Having retired from the African Missions a year and a half ago, at the age of 80, Margaret says she has more time for herself now. She walks every day, plays bridge twice a week, visits her brother who has dementia four times a week, teaches computers for Age Action and, after taking up art classes three years ago, had her first exhibition in August.
“I always liked art and felt I could do it, but I had no time for it. Once I took it up, I took it on big time, no half measures with me.”
Margaret, who has two dozen grand-nieces and grand-nephews, has spent all her life in Cork, and now lives in an apartment on the site of an old convent with nine other nuns. She says that joining the order gave her the opportunity to live her life to the full. “Sisters of Mercy have given me a life I could never have imagined”.
This article was first published in the Irish Examiner on Wednesday 2nd October 2019. Written by Rowena Walsh. Pictures taken by Larry Cummins.