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A Life: Maura Keyes Naughton; ‘She continued to learn and to teach’

  • Maura Naughton, who teaches Gaelic at Lebanon College, at her home in Wilder, Vt., on Feb. 6, 2014. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Maura Naughton around age 18 with her mother Ellen Keyes,, a beloved teacher in Limerick, Ireland. (Family photograph)

  • Maura Naughton, of Wilder, Vt., pours tea while teaching Patrick Maher, of Reading, Vt., how to say tea in Gaelic during Naughton's class at Lebanon College in Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 22, 2014. Maher was born in Ireland, visits Ireland yearly, and wishes to learn Gaelic to learn more about his heritage and the place he visits often. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Maura Naughton's hand-written Irish language lesson plan. (Sarah Stewart Taylor photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/18/2021 3:52:05 PM
Modified: 4/18/2021 3:52:04 PM

WILDER — After immigrating to the United States in 1959, Maura Naughton spent her days driving a station wagon chock full of Irish nuns through the Florida heat.

Having learned to drive as a young girl sitting on her father’s lap back home in Ireland, she became her convent’s designated driver before ever obtaining an official driver’s license.

Despite the adventure, it was not something she broadcast widely.

“She didn’t let many people know that she was a nun. As she told me, ‘I was not a nunny-nun,’” said Peter Money, Naughton’s former colleague at Lebanon College who, like many people she met in the Upper Valley, would become her dear friend.

Raised in County Limerick, Naughton moved to the U.S. to fill a position in a parochial school near Cape Canaveral. She became a nun at 20 and started teaching at 22. It would be a lifetime vocation. Naughton taught a variety of subjects at every level of education across her career, and was a beloved teacher of the Irish language for three decades after settling in Vermont.

Naughton, who died of congestive heart failure at 91 on Feb. 23, 2021 at her home in Wilder, remained proudly independent until the end of her life.

“I don’t go around missing things, I adapt pretty easily to people and places,” said Naughton in an interview with the Valley News in 2014. “But if I had a dream it would be to bring the Irish language back to Ireland. It’s our language.”

Naughton taught Irish at Lebanon College until its closure in 2014. Josh Tuohy, owner of Salt hill Pub, encouraged her to continue conducting her lessons in his restaurants.

She led a committed, growing cadre of students. “I was just so impressed that she kept us all in her head, all straight,” said Plainfield resident Margaret Drye, who began taking lessons from Naughton to prepare for a trip to Ireland in 2018. “She was the linchpin. It was a long, well-established group by the time I joined, and she was the glue that kept things going.”

Recognizing her intelligence and drive, a church official had encouraged Naughton to leave Florida in the 1960s and continue her education. While cheering hard for the Fighting Irish basketball team, Naughton would earn a bachelor’s degree in English from Notre Dame. (She was equally devoted to the team at the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, where she would later teach.)

She loved philosophy too, maybe just as much as the Irish language. It’s how she met Russ Naughton, a professor of philosophy at La Salle University in Philadelphia where she got her master’s degree in 1970. Naughton fell in love and left her life as a nun to marry Russ, a widower with five teenagers.

“They had much to talk about by way of Thomas Merton,” Money said. “He was the love of her life.”

The pair spent their summers in Weston, Vt., visiting with the Benedictine monks of the Weston Priory.

“They were modernizing the Mass there. It was kind of a hippie approach,” her stepson Greg Naughton said. “They were making their own pottery and having open-air services up on the hillside.” After Russ Naughton died of a heart attack in Weston in 1984, and Naughton settled permanently in Vermont.

Even in her old age, Naughton remained open to new experiences and committed to progress. Hartland resident Sarah Stewart Taylor, a novelist and former Valley News reporter, took Naughton along with her family to the 2017 Women’s March in Montpelier.

“She was a devout Catholic, so I worried about what she would think of the signs and the things people were yelling. But she was one of the most progressive people I’ve ever met. In her Catholicism, she embodied the ideal of loving and accepting your neighbor,” Taylor said, recalling that Naughton had said to her, “‘as an immigrant and as a woman I feel really proud to be here.’”

Taylor was Naughton’s student, and took lessons in her condominium in Wilder, sharing Irish tea and bonding.

“I was learning Irish, but it became more of a friendship pretty quickly,” she said. “Learning the language was a way of seeing her.”

Tea and scones were also a staple of Naughton’s group lessons. “I think the tea actually served as a device for beginning a conversation with someone. It was never really about the tea,” said Money. “Although that may well have been her secret ingredient for living ninety-one and a half years.”

Taylor described Naughton as compassionate and exacting. “She was always very interested in what people did, what they cared about. She would ask you, ‘What do you want to do with your life? How are you going to get there?’ That was the way she talked to people. I always felt like I had to do my homework because she would know if I hadn’t.”

The Irish language, which Naughton would shudder to hear referred to as Gaelic, embodied this sense of curiosity and responsibility. “To her, it tells a story beyond a story,” said Money. For instance, “I’m sorry” translates to “there is sorrow on me.” She would say to Money, “how beautiful the language is that sorrow would be on us. When we say I’m sorry, it’s more than just a cast off phrase. It’s really owning it.”

“She liked to dig deep into language,” Drye recalls, crediting Maura with “unlocking a world of poetry.”

Naughton stopped driving about a decade ago, and wound up with a lot of “windshield time” with driver Jessica Hohlbein of Big Yellow Taxi. Jessica would pick her up in Wilder three or four days a week and drive her to her lessons or the grocery store. Naughton was always trying to teach Hohlbein to speak Irish. “She was a lovely woman. The Upper Valley sure will be missing her,” said Hohlbein.

“She managed to take an interest in a lot of people’s lives, and to her this is very Irish,” said Money.

“You wouldn’t know it necessarily on the surface, but her life really was remarkable when you add up the geographies and effort with which she gave every interaction that would come to matter to her,” he continued. “She had a wide map, and she respected and honored the wide maps of others.”

Naughton continued to teach Irish over the phone to her students up until the week she died. And she also kept her distinctive Irish accent, not wanting to smooth it away to blend in more in the U.S. “It cuts out a part of your being,” she said back in 2014. “I don’t know why you’d want to do that.”

Taylor said it was an honor to have become friends with Naughton late in her life. “Maura stayed active and engaged and useful. It’s something I aspire to — that she continued to learn and to teach right up to the end.”

Her friends miss their chats and phone calls with Naughton, but they also found a fitting way to honor her life and legacy.

“In an Irish pub, you’re supposed to lean a chair towards the deceased person’s favorite drink on the bar,” said Greg Naughton.

When Naughton died, a chair was tilted to the bar at Salt hill Pub, right in front of a cup of steaming hot Irish tea.

Frances Mize can be reached at fmize@vnews.com.




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