Mary builds a house

Newsletter – Friday 30 April 1965


When 50-year old Mrs Mary O’Neill left Magherafelt’s Mid-Ulster Hospital after a major operation her doctor warned her to take things easy. She did not! Instead, plump bespectacled Mrs O’Neill armed herself with a spade, a trowel, a plasterer’s float, a sledge hammer – and turned house-builder.

Now the house that Mary built – all by herself – is the talk of Aghacolumb, a townland in Ardboe on the shores of Lough Neagh.

The dynamic little woman, who threw caution to the winds and invaded a man’s world, explained, “I was feeling depressed and wanted to forget my operation. Building the house with my own hands seemed the ideal way to lift my mind. Anyway, I needed the space!”

What Mrs O’Neill did was to double the size of a single-storey building already on the site. She, husband Felix and family occupy the new three-apartment house, and married daughter Kathleen and family the old.

“Now I know why Winston Churchill built walls while under pressure,” said Mrs O’Neill, “when you are slapping on the mortar you forget all your troubles.”

Local tradesmen who once scoffed at her efforts now agree that the house is constructed immaculately. Normally it would have cost £800 but do-it-yourself Mary spent only £145 on materials.

She said, “I dug the foundations, built the walls with six-stone concrete blocks, did the joinery work, installed windows, roof and ceilings. It was tough but it did me a world of good. I kept my hands soft with margarine.”

Husband Felix has been in the building trade all his working life but zestful Mary pooh-poohed his offers of help. Only her daughter Kathleen lent a hand – strictly in the role of builder’s labourer.

“Maybe building is in my blood,” smiled Mary. “My father was a part-time stone mason and I used to mix cement for him as a child. Mind you, I can’t use a spirit-level. But when a tradesman checked the levels I was only a quarter-inch out at one point.”

Mrs O’Neill, who used an old cupboard as scaffolding for the high work, had no mishaps while building the house. Ironically it was while engaged in the comparatively safe job of papering that she hit trouble. She slipped from a table and received a leg gash that required nine stitches. The accident has not killed her enthusiasm. “I still have a few building jobs in mind,” she smiled. “And I intend to do them myself.”

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