Sarah celebrating her 70th birthday with family members in the west of Ireland.

‘I live for each day. I try to be positive’

Local Lives, with Ciara O'Hara

Sarah Pringle’s life began on a farm in Dublin and she had adventures all over the world before settling in Westmeath. “I’m from Tyrrelstown House. It’s where we were brought up, and originally, I was born in Ballymun. That was Balcorris Farm… my uncle sold that in the ‘60s for a lot of money.”

The land was bought by Dublin Corporation, and the fields were replaced by flats, as the Ballymun tower blocks were built. “And my father was the eldest and we moved to Tyrrelstown House.” There were six children in the family, four boys and two girls, and Sarah was in the middle. She and all her siblings were expected to “work hard on the farm”.

Sarah Pringle.

“There was no getting away with not picking up the spuds or growing things… we used to work the land.” On the grounds of Tyrrelstown were two walled gardens and Sarah’s mother encouraged the children to “grow a few things”. That instilled in Sarah a lifelong affinity with nature, and she always enjoyed gardening and being outdoors, but school was challenging.

“I suppose I had a difficult time growing up because I was dyslexic… but, I mean, you get through life and now I read books, and last night I was at a book launch. Anne Griffin had a launch.” Sarah went to a “pretty awful” boarding school. “It’s not a good memory because I was so dyslexic, but I did enjoy the sports. I went to a school reunion and they said, ‘Sarah, you knew it all in your head, but you couldn’t put it down on paper’.”

Summer holidays were by the sea. “My heart is in the west. When we were young, my mother used to take us away from the farm. And that was so good because she could be who she should be, not working so hard. I don’t know how she did it. Six of us in a Renault car, one pair of shoes, no socks, pair of shorts, a jumper and maybe a swimming costume, and that was all we were allowed.

“And then we’d have these cottages with no electricity or nothing. We lived off the food we caught, and of course, the vegetables that we brought. She’d send my brother off fishing, and she was so brave; she put her hands in the pink rocks and pulled out edible crabs… and we’d go cockling and musseling, and she’d get the Irish Times, and she’d read that and lie in the sun. She was a real sun worshipper, and we’d be gallivanting all over the place. “She gave us all those lovely memories, which is special.

“My mother was a physiotherapist. She lived in England after she qualified. She came home and her sister had met Dad’s brother. So she grabbed Dad one night, said, ‘You’re going to the Trinity Ball.’ And he said, ‘I’ve no clothes to wear!’ Her father was very intellectual, and he was a scholar of maths and law in Trinity, so she nipped in and borrowed his clothes. That’s how they met and the relationship blossomed from there.”

Sarah’s aunt was involved with Amnesty International. “My aunt used to have great parties. She was very bohemian, my aunt… she was very politically minded… a lot of theatre.” Sarah recalls her aunt organising an anti-apartheid party in Balcorris when Sarah was 15. The guests included the Bolshoi ballet, the Clancy Brothers and Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly, Ciarán Bourke and Barney McKenna of The Dubliners. “Sure, we all danced and everything. We’d be drinking Guinness out of jam jars. The Dubliners would stay all night… we met them loads more times.”

Sarah got to know all the founding members of The Dubliners, and her favourite was Luke Kelly. “We were all mad about him!”

Both Sarah and her mother were interested in transcendental meditation and even met Guru Maharishi, “The Beatles’ guru”, but Sarah probably had more in common with her father. “I think I take after my Dad. I always said he never took me fishing but then I found a photograph of me as a little child; he was holding a fishing rod and I was holding his hand. So I was really pleased. He was a proper farmer. He did everything: wheat, barley, oats, everything. He grew vegetables for the Dublin market. We were familiar with the markets. We used to run around the markets and Mam would buy vegetables, stuff like that, and then she’d go into the fish market there. It’s no longer there… it was fabulous.”

Sarah met her ex-husband Tony when she was still quite young. “He was the first that I ever went out with.” Tony was an architectural student and Sarah “helped put him through college” in Bolton Street, where Marian Finucane was a classmate and friend. Their eldest child, Julian, was born when Sarah was only 20. Shortly after that, Sarah and Tony travelled to the USA and Sarah’s mother looked after Julian. “We went to America to make enough money to keep us for the year.”

In Boston, Sarah and her ex-husband shared a flat “with only one sitting room”. “And there was about eight on the floor, it was great craic.” Sarah had three jobs all at the same time: “Making beds in the Sheraton Hotel, cleaning offices, and packing fish, all in one day, after having a baby! It was hard work. When we came back, we needed a holiday, so we went to France to pick grapes. It wasn’t a problem for me as I was used to hard work, but Tony was not able to do that.”

Their accommodation in France was “primitive”; they “ate sardines” and “slept on the floor”, while the shower was “homemade” and freezing cold. “So we left because Tony couldn’t do it.” They decided to head for Paris by rail, jumping off the train as they approached the city so that they could travel “without paying”.

“We thought we were inside Paris but we were miles out. We got a lift to Paris from this man who took pity on us because we looked so unfed. He bought us a meal. We slept on the banks of the Seine, ate baguettes and chocolate for breakfast.”

Back in Dublin, Tony studied and Sarah worked on Sundays. “He minded the baby while I did the work.” Sarah waitressed in Jonathan’s, a popular restaurant on Grafton Street, and was amused when her cousin came in on a first date. “It was a fabulous place. The manager married a friend of the family so we’re very close now. She’s living in Navan.”

Sarah also started driving. “You could drive with just your provisional licence. I remember not being in the right gear and this guard stopped me. Another time, I had to go to the dentist on my own and I reversed back and hit a car. I didn’t have any lessons! And then I failed my driving test in Ireland and then I went to England. I had lessons and I passed the first time in England.”

After Tony qualified as an architect, when Julian was four-and-a-half, the trio departed for London “to work and save money to drive from London to Cape Town”. “On the trip to Africa, we travelled across the Sahara in convoy. We were the last to get up in the morning as we had a tent to put away. We got stuck in Goma waiting for a visa; it was a dangerous place. When we got over, there was a football pitch. We parked and camped in the middle. Ziggy the German was in a tent, he was travelling with just the two of us, him with his BMW motorbike.” One night, they were woken up by Ziggy “running around naked”.

“His belongings were stolen. They ripped his tent to get his spare parts of his BMW. All the stuff was returned” after Tony and Ziggy went to the nearest village, armed with a gun and a machete. “I didn’t know Ziggy had a gun, but other times when Ziggy and Tony went through customs, he would put the gun under the jacket and pass it to Tony. Another time, we turned over the Land Rover in a village and there was a lot of people; we were quite afraid. We winched the Land Rover on to a banana tree. Ziggy turned off the battery to stop it getting a spark.

“After that, we fitted out the inside of the Land Rover with wooden boxes that all fitted together so Julian could sit on it during the day, and it also acted as a bed. Then another time we got lost in a salt lake which was all cracked. Tony put two sand ladders in the wrong place; he didn’t listen to me, and he went for help, but I took them out. It was very hard because it was all muddy. I put them in the front, took the 22 jerry cans off. I took a photo of my son. He took one of me. And we got the Land Rover into low gear, four-wheel drive and drove back to meet Tony, with lots of African men looking for money.

“I got mad but we made up for it because we took a sick lady to hospital, and the next part of the journey was dangerous because we were on our own and it was flooded. There were loads and loads of cars stuck. There was one Maasai standing with his staff and he was so beautiful; it was unbelievable.”

In Kenya, they found work as extras in a movie that was being filmed in Naivasha. “We were Voortrekkers, dressed up as the Dutch settlers… Stanley Baker was making a film about a boy being brought up by the Turkana and the Maasai. Then we went out to Lake Naivasha, which was amazing. We drove to Johannesburg, didn’t like it, so we went to Cape Town.

“My second son, Jason, was born there. Then we went to Nigeria. Tony was building a university in Benin. It was hard, no electricity no water. I was the only other white person in the housing estate. We were tough after we travelled!” The family then “went to Libya for a while”, which Sarah also describes as “tough”, while their time in Africa made a lasting impression.

“Africa gets into your blood… everything about it, the culture, the heat… it’s a totally different landscape.”

When they returned to Ireland, Sarah and Tony bought a place on Oakley Road in Ranelagh, Dublin. “When we bought a house in Ranelagh, I ran a marathon. We travelled to the west; I trained in the west. Tony would run backwards and shout, ‘Come on, you slow coach.’ I finished the marathon, and he came back in the ambulance!”

A brochure for the Old Glebe from the 1980s.

One day, Sarah’s mother said, ‘Come on and we’ll look at this place in Mullingar’. “The Peters owned it. And on the way back she said, ‘Oh, we’ll call in to the Glebe. We’ll have a look at it’.” Glebe House in Killucan would become Sarah and Tony’s home for several years. “Twelve acres, farmed guesthouse. So I had to keep running it as a guesthouse… I did everything organically: pigs, chickens, geese, turkeys, everything. And I cooked for outsiders as well. I had a chef who came in to teach me one-to-one. We were all good cooks because of my mother; we had an Aga. We learned to cook on an Aga when we were children.”

‘The Old Glebe’ was Sarah’s home from “the ‘80s up to 2000, nearly”. “We turned it into a health farm. We were way before our time.” Sarah qualified as a bio-energy therapist and a massage therapist, and guests were offered a variety of holistic treatments. “I learned a lot through my experience of training and working with people. I used to have people coming from all over Ireland for massages.”

Pages from the 1980s brochure for the Old Glebe with information on some of the holistic treatments available to guests, many of them ground-breaking at the time.

Many celebrities came to stay, including Bibi Baskin, Terry Keane and Paul Brady and “a fella from Glenroe”. “Jean Butler from Riverdance, I did massages on her… Celia Larkin, Bertie was down in the pub waiting for her.” After her marriage ended, Sarah ran the health farm by herself. “How I did everything in that place, I had WWOOFERs.” That stands for ‘working weekends on organic farms’ and Glebe House attracted WWOOFERs from different parts of Europe, and “for some reason, a lot of French people”. “I created the right energy. I only got the ones that were into spiritual stuff… and I still write to one in France. We’re still friends. We send each other presents or Christmas cards. I went to France.”

Sarah arranging flowers at the Old Glebe. The swimming pool can be seen behind her.

A German WWOOFER named Walter was working at the Glebe when Sarah suffered a serious head injury. “I was nearly paralysed. I could have been killed. I had filled up the pool with cement because it was too deep, and I had forgotten that it was no longer 12 feet deep. And I dived in, hit my head, and that night I went to the doctor. He said, ‘You’re not having double vision or whatever? You’re going to be in trouble.’ With that, the next morning I got up, I couldn’t put my hand above my head. I was in serious pain. Ray Dolan’s wife Rosie was a nurse. She called an ambulance and I got in to Mullingar, the worst journey ever; the pain was terrible. Dr Mina came along and looked me over, and said, ‘You’re lucky to be alive.’

“The only reason I was able to get out was Walter was a qualified nurse. I said I had a nurse at home.” Following a brief respite, Sarah walked into the dining room wearing a neck brace and introduced herself to the guests. “I said, ‘Hello, I’m the owner.’ The guests said, ‘If you want to keep going, get rid of that fella!’ He was starving them and having the sauna too hot, which you don’t do; you have to be careful with people.”

Glebe House had a large hall where Sarah gave “the best parties”, but she doesn’t miss the place as it was “too much hard work”. “It wasn’t a kind house. I’d come back and next thing there’d be a flood right down three storeys into the dining room. Little things, you know. I had a fire in it once and we had a house full of guests… and the fire brigade, I hoped they wouldn’t make a noise but, of course, they reversed, and the beep, beep, beep came on. And I had some difficult guests at the time.”

It wasn’t till Sarah sold Glebe House that she realised how tired she was. “I was exhausted. I got into photography and walking, and fishing, and I just chilled out.” She met a new partner, who unfortunately passed away, and “that was a sad time”, but they had “five or six happy years” together. Sarah now lives in a renovated cottage, “sort of a land-commissioned house”, which she discovered by accident. “I was staying with my son’s family and next thing I missed the turn, and I found the site. It had no fencing. There was no doors, no windows… so I got a builder in. My son did the architecture. We built it quickly. While it was being built, I lived in a mobile home and even then, I did a bit of yoga, had my little window boxes and plants outside, grew my herbs outside the door. Coming from a big 32-room house to a small cottage… it’s a different scenario… I’m not house-proud. I prefer to be outside.

“I’m so lucky where I live. I have the nicest neighbours ever, the Greens. Leona, Rachel Edward and Angela, who’s the best person in the world. I’ve always wanted to garden and stuff. So there’s a big field that drops down, and there’s a walkway where I live, the end of the road all the way round, through the woods and up through the bog. So if I couldn’t be anywhere near water, bog is the next best thing. And my father used to say, ‘Heather is for freedom.’ Because you don’t have to pay for it. You can just go walk in the bog. Which is lovely.”

Sarah has planted “a lot of trees around the garden”, including fruit trees. She is regularly visited by pheasants and finds it “satisfying to be able to pick things from the garden and cook them”. “I don’t know how anybody can manage nowadays… growing vegetables, it helps. It’s crazy.” Sarah enjoys writing poetry and “a little poem” she wrote in lockdown was published in the Westmeath Examiner. Although she says, “A lot of people move off. I miss a lot of my friends,” Sarah is still in touch with people she has known all her life. “I just had a schoolfriend come over from England, and we went to a school reunion, and she came back to Mullingar. I drove down to Abbeyleix, where she had members of her family and a family tree that was on a piece of wallpaper that went 14 feet long!”

She goes to Uisneach every year and last year she went on a retreat in Sligo with a group called ‘Earthy Soulmates for Lovers of Nature, Earth, Art and Soul’. “They are singles… wonderful people. They are men and women. The whole idea is to meet other people. There’s not many people my age… We did a bit of yoga. We did creative writing. They sang and did lots of things. We played games. We had great fun… the women are very strong, they’re also very beautiful. They’re strong-minded, independent and beautiful.

“A lot of us have been through breakups, divorce, loss; it’s not nice to go through that again… we all feel the same; we’d like somebody in our lives to go for a holiday and just do things, but we don’t want somebody in our house… if you feel settled and happy, you don’t need anything.”

Constantly “learning different things”, Sarah remains interested in “working with the energies” and is involved with “various meditation groups”. “I’ve always had that connection with the spiritual side of my life. I still do the japa meditation and they meet in Kildare.”

Even though Sarah “did lots of things” in her youth, she wishes she’d been “more free”. “I was too shy. I never opened my mouth.” That changed when she had to deal with clients at The Glebe. Now, Sarah places great store in simple acts like saying hello and makes a point of greeting everyone.

Very intuitive, she has always been “a bit psychic”. “I seem to know things.” She can discern a stranger’s astrological sign within minutes, and has “a way with the higher conscious mind, higher energy”. “Some little miracles happen” in Sarah’s presence. “I never looked for it – it just happened.”

Sarah is extremely proud of her “two lovely boys”, Julian and Jason. She became a grandmother in September. When she first heard there was a grandchild on the way, it was “the best news she’d ever had in her life”. She “looks forward to” her monthly ritual of going to Clonmellon market, especially the organic venison burgers, and the walk in Girley Bog afterwards. Sarah regularly walks in Scragh Bog too. She does aqua aerobics twice a week at Mullingar Park Hotel. “That keeps me sort of healthy. And then I do the qigong with Alan Kane. He also does meditation too, sound therapy, which is fantastic. And I go to an art class in Multy. I joined the retirement group in Multy, we do watercolours there… and then I joined a gardening club. Actually, I won a cup, with the flowers and veg. So what I’m doing with my life now, I live for each day. And I get up and I don’t feel depressed. And I don’t get worried or feel sorry for myself, or anything like that; I try to be positive.”

Sarah fishing with a friend.