Northern Irish pensioner thrives in off grid cottage

Joe STENSON
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For all of her 77 years Gallagher has lived in a 200-year-old thatched cottage in Northern Ireland without running water, electricity or an indoor toilet

A wind-up radio, a smattering of colour photos and a stack of glossy books: these are the only signs that Margaret Gallagher lives in the modern world.

For all of her 77 years Gallagher has lived in a 200-year-old thatched cottage in Northern Ireland without running water, electricity or an indoor toilet.

It is an "off grid" lifestyle that defies modernity but is in tune with contemporary trends.

"I've never known anything, only what I'm living now. So you never miss what you've never had," Gallagher said, as she showed off her white stone home.

"All I need is good health to be able to live out my life in this idyllic home."

- A family home -

Gallagher's close family has lived here since her grandfather bought the house, plastered with cow manure and pigs blood, from his cousins after they emigrated to the United States in 1887.

Nestled in the countryside of County Fermanagh, the 13 metre by 7 metre (43 foot by 23 foot) cottage is split into three spaces -- a kitchen bracketed by two spartan bedrooms.

Come rain or shine the entire home is heated by an open hearth fire stacked with bricks of peat, emitting a distinctive blue smoke funnelled up through a chimney above.

Earlier in her life, Gallagher held down the family's small farm, nursing her bedridden father in the house for 17 years, before working in local community development.

Every morning she is roused at 5.00am by a local wren which perches on her windowsill and demands to be fed. "Lucky I'm not a good sleeper anyway," she quipped.

Then Gallagher starts her day -- hauling water from a nearby spring well, stacking wood and peat for fuel and cooking three meals a day on the open fire which lights her home alongside oil lamps and candles.

"This is my lot. I am happy with it," she told AFP after a morning spent baking a cake over the fire.

"This is me -- open space, doing my own thing, working with what I know. It's hallowed ground as far as I'm concerned."

- 'They love fads' -

Ironically, Gallagher's archaic existence puts her on the cutting edge of changes in mainstream discourse around the environmental and psychological impact of modern lifestyles.

Aside from her radio, only the occasional newspaper and a basic mobile phone -- charged in her car "to ring for a priest or a doctor" -- connect Gallagher to the outside world, making her an unwitting advocate for the movement.

Environmental concerns and growing housing costs are also driving a new generation to search for alternative ways of living with a smaller carbon footprint.

But Gallagher is sceptical of the current push towards eco-friendliness.

"It's faddish -- they love fads. It's brand new and shiny. In a year or two it'll be something else. It's not for real."

Gallagher has never married, but does not feel her solitary existence marks her as a hermit.

"There's a vast difference in being lonely and being alone," she said. "I'm alone but I'm not lonely."

And she does not regret her decision to live a life that still requires hard graft in her twilight years.

"I've enjoyed every minute of my life to date".