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Homage to Auchterarder’s Mary who cared for gran at 13, saved husband’s life and still works at 79

Auchterarder's Mary McGraw, right, with sister Frances Miller. Image: Frances Miller.
Auchterarder's Mary McGraw, right, with sister Frances Miller. Image: Frances Miller.

Auchterarder’s Mary McGraw has received a prestigious award from the Pope after devoting her life to helping others.

Mary, 79, was given a coveted gold Benemerenti Medal for her services to the Christian faith.

In a surprise ceremony at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Auchterarder she also received a video message of congratulations from Irish singer and family friend Daniel O’Donnell.

Mary has been a tireless worker in the parish since first becoming a member of the church when she was 16.

Her duties have included church sacristan, extra ordinary eucharistic minister, taking holy communion to the sick and housebound and organising the church cleaning rota.

She also prepares the alter with floral displays and her fundraising has included soup and sandwich lunches, bingo teas, coffee mornings and selling homemade cards.

Mary has won awards for her floral displays. Image: Frances Miller.

She is a member of the Friends of St Margaret’s Committee, MacMillan Cancer Support, Auchterarder in the Community and the Women’s Rural Institute.

Mary is also at the heart of parish organisations, raising funds for other charities such as Women’s Guild, Legion of Mary, Mary’s Meals and the SMA Fathers. She additionally fills packs for needy children in other parts of the world.

Remarkably, Mary has managed to juggle all this with working as a cook at St Margaret’s Hospital and caring for her husband Jimmy, who had a heart attack 42 years ago and now suffers with dementia.

Mary with husband Jimmy. Image: Frances Miller.

Mary also took a leading role in raising sons James, 55, and Anthony, 51, after Jimmy’s cardiac arrest.

When the incident happened in 1980 she performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to save her husband’s life.

And all this after being shipped out to a remote Irish island at the age of 13 to care for her unwell gran for almost two years.

“She is some lady,” said her proud sister Frances Miller, 62.

This feature pays tribute to one of Auchterarder’s precious living treasures.

Fateful trip to Ireland

Mary McGraw was raised by Patrick and Theresa Henry in Pittillock Farm near Falkland.

She attended Freuchie primary and Auchtermuchty secondary schools before a fateful holiday with her parents to their homeland in Arranmore Island, County Donegal, when she was 13.

Her gran Bridget was unwell so Mary stayed on the island to look after her while her parents returned to Fife.

Patrick was a potato foreman with the Scottish Potato Trading Company and Theresa used to help look after some of the workers on the farm.

Privilege to look after gran

Mary says life on the island was “primitive” in the 1950s.

There was no electric or hot water, for starters.

“I would go to school come home and look after my grandma,” she said.

“I couldn’t tell you what illness she had because when you are young you don’t ask.

“My generation you just did what your mum and dad told you to do.

“Nowadays it wouldn’t be allowed.”

Mary with sons James and Anthony. Image: Frances Miller.

But Mary looks back on the experience with fondness.

It really helped that she had the support of her extended family on the island.

“It was a happy time,” Mary said.

“It was a wonderful experience and a privilege to do that for gran.”

Bridget recovered and lived for many further years. She was present at Mary and Jimmy’s wedding in Auchterarder in 1966.

Local employment

The Henry family, which also included Mary’s younger brother Hugh, moved to Auchterarder when she was 15.

She worked at Morton’s, a tailor and draper shop in the town, before moving to Gleneagles Hotel‘s housekeeping department.

After the wedding she took on a part-time home-help role with Perth and Kinross Council.

Saving husband’s life

In 1980 Jimmy, aged 42, suffered a heart attack in their home.

Mary was sitting at a table writing a letter to her aunt in Ireland.

Jimmy was about to leave the house to get a pint at a local pub.

Mary and Jimmy on their wedding day in 1966. Image: Frances Miller.

“He had pains in his chest and just fell on the floor,” she recalled.

“I was hanging on his chest, blowing down his throat and luckily I managed to get him breathing.

“He was probably not breathing for five minutes.”

Jimmy suffered another heart attack 15 minutes later but by this time professional medical help was on hand to keep him alive.

He hasn’t worked since the incident and has undergone open heart surgery three times.

Never asked for help

At the time of the heart attack Mary and Jimmy’s children, James and Anthony, were aged 13 and nine respectively.

Knowing she now had more responsibility on her shoulders, Mary simply got on and made the best of a tough situation.

Mary McGraw (back row, third from the right) in an historic photo of the team at St Margaret’s Hospital, Auchterarder, where she has been the cook for more than 35 years and serves on the Friends of group since the committee was formed. Image: Frances Miller.

In 1983 she was employed as a cook at St Margaret’s Hospital and is still doing the job in a part-time capacity.

“We never asked for assistance from anybody,” she said.

“We just had to get on with it and live according to what you can do.

“Probably nowadays everyone would ask for what they can get but I’m not that type of person.

“We just did what we could and what the kids couldn’t get they couldn’t get.”

While Mary’s children long ago grew up and fled the nest, in recent years she has had to cope with the additional challenge of Jimmy’s dementia.

Typically, she remains positive.

“We have been very blessed,” Mary said. “Jimmy is one of seven and we have a lot of good friends and a good family on both sides.”

Heart bypass shock

Mary has not been immune to health problems of her own.

Six years ago she felt some discomfort in her chest and it turned out she needed a heart bypass and valve replacement.

The procedure kept her off work for a year.

“I was very fortunate to make a good recovery,” she said.

Visit from family and friends

The medal Mary received is similar to an MBE, but with the focus on services to the Christian faith.

She was nominated five years ago by Monsignor Basil O’Sullivan, parish priest for the Diocese of Dunkeld.

Mary with Heather Wilson from Neuro Central group in the Auchterarder community fayre. Image: Frances Miller.

Pope Francis‘ decision to grant the award was kept a secret right up until Mary saw lots of familiar faces in a recent Sunday mass service that preceded the ceremony.

Family travelled from Ayrshire, Edinburgh and Glasgow, many of whom she had not seen for several years due to Covid restrictions.

All generations were present, including her great grandchildren.

Mary McGraw receives the award from Monsignor Basil O’Sullivan. Image: Breige McLaughlin.

After mass, the monsignor presented Mary with the medal.

She then joined family and friends then at Aytoun Hall for a lunch, with a cake provided by Gleneagles Hotel, where Mary’s sister Frances works as PA to the general manager.

Award was a complete surprise

Video messages were sent from Ireland, including a special message from singer Daniel O’Donnell – see below.

“I didn’t know a thing – it was a complete surprise,” Mary said.

“The Monsignor said he couldn’t believe they kept a surprise from Mary McGraw!

“Daniel O’Donnell is a very close friend of my family in Ireland.

“He is from the mainland but raises money for our church on the island and doesn’t take any fees for playing for us.

“He is amazing and does so much for charity.”

Mary the ‘mother figure’

Mary is proud that her church operates closely with Auchterarder counterparts St Kessog’s and St Andrew’s.

“We are a very ecumenical in Auchterarder,” she said.

“We work together with other churches. That’s very important to me.

“We all have a great relationship supporting each other in whatever we do.

“That is something I imagine has contributed to the award.”

Mary getting into the Christmas spirit in one of a fundraising event. Image: Frances Miller.

Younger sister Frances Miller “couldn’t be any prouder” of Mary.

“Mum passed away in my early 20s so Mary has been my mother figure all these years,” Frances said.