Tuesday 17 July 2018

'Hard work has never bothered me' - 90-year-old grandfather who is still passionate about dancing

At 90, Michael Barrett knows a thing a two about life, and how to enjoy it. Kathy Donaghy talks to the Dubliner who still enjoys putting on his dancing shoes

Michael Barrett, 90 years old, who still goes dancing, pictured at his home in Kilbarrack. Picture: Arthur Carron
Michael Barrett, 90 years old, who still goes dancing, pictured at his home in Kilbarrack. Picture: Arthur Carron

Scientists predict that in the next 15 years life expectancy will exceed 90 for the first time, overturning all previous assumptions about longevity.

If those same scientists were to ask Dubliner Michael Barrett - who turns 91 next month - about how best to live those years, he would tell them the key is to do the things you love, and not to waste too much time watching TV.

The father and grandfather believes that keeping active and following your passion - in his case dancing - are the things that will keep you active and fit regardless of how many candles are on the cake.

How long we live today is defying all expectations. If you were born in this country a century ago, you could expect to live to the age of 50. According to the Department of Health, today the average age for a man is 77, and 82 for a woman.

But new research funded by the UK Medical Research Council and the US Environmental Protection Agency and published earlier this year, found that women born in South Korea will have an average life expectancy of 90 with other developed countries not far behind.

In this country the Central Statistics Office (CSO) reports that there will be about 20,000 more people over the age of 65 every year until 2040 and that of the one million older people here in 2031, some 136,000 will be aged 85 or over.

While we have a national Positive Ageing Strategy, which talks about providing for a society in which age is seen as a national success story, the language around ageing is often very different and it's usually only discussed in the context of economics and the burden on society.

But in his daily life Michael Barrett, at the age of 90, lives a full and active life, laughs often and goes dancing every week. He's enjoyed good health and has spent his life giving back to the community where he is deeply rooted.

Born in Rolestown near Swords in north Co Dublin, Michael was the fourth child in a family of 12. His father was a farmer and Michael recalls there was certainly no silver spoon in his childhood. He began the day milking the cows before school.

He describes his childhood as idyllic and says Christmases, when there were 14 of them around the dinner table, were the most magical of times. He was active as a boy helping on the farm and playing football. Playing football was something of a family affair, and at one stage six of the eight Barrett brothers won the Ballyboughal seven-a-side football championship in north Co Dublin.

The days of the big band and ballroom dancing were to play a big part in all of Michael's life. One evening he jokes, he was stood up by a girl on a date, so he went to Clery's on O'Connell Street, where bands played every weekend. It was there he met his future wife Marie.

After some years spent in Wales and in London where Michael worked in construction, he and his wife Marie, and their four children Bernadette, Patrick, Dermot and John settled in Kilbarrack, where Michael became an active member of his community. When hundreds of local people marched against anti-social behaviour in the area in 1988, it was Michael who was at the front of the line.

When the Six One News came on that night, it was Michael who gave the impassioned speech about how politicians were turning a blind eye to the problems people faced in some communities in Dublin. And when anyone in the neighbourhood had a problem, it was Michael they turned to.

He says his policy all through his life has been to look after the weak because the strong survive.

As well as his philosophy of putting others first and being actively engaged in his community, Michael says he never smoked, and drank only very occasionally. It wasn't until he was in his 40's that he first took a drink.

Throughout his career from working the farm to building roads in Wales, to having a team of men working for him building roads in London, Michael says he enjoyed everything he did and that is something that he has continued to do throughout his almost 91 years.

"I enjoyed every bit of it. There were challenges but hard work never bothered me. I took everything in my stride," he says.

Of his own family of brothers and sisters, only two others are still alive. Brigid is 93 and his brother Tom, the baby of the family, is now 80. He still goes dancing with Tom, something that began at the Rolestown Hall in Swords some 70 years ago. Dancing these days is on a Sunday night at Fingallions GAA Club. He says his wife Marie isn't dancing as much these days but it will be a rare Sunday night that he and Tom don't put on their dancing shoes.

A year ago Michael had to briefly take a break from dancing. He suddenly collapsed at home and was dispatched to Beaumont Hospital. A battery of tests couldn't find a thing wrong with him until an irregular heart beat was discovered. He had a pace maker fitted and is back on the dance floor again.

"Last week at the dance a couple of girls came over looking for me to come out on the dance floor. I said to Tom 'that's what happens when you're 90'," he jokes.

"A friend of mine calls and takes me out. I wouldn't miss that for the world - it's so important. You listen to top class music, music you can dance to. I'm always looking forward to Sunday".

Laughing is part and parcel of talking to Michael. He does it often when you're talking to him and it's infectious. His stories are peppered with jokes and funny anecdotes about his own life.

"It's all about your attitude. You've just got to keep going and not stay sitting down. People are too fond of sitting and watching rubbish on the TV. I think you've got to stay active.

"I will get out every day for a bit of a walk. I'll put a bet on an odd horse. I go up the Jacuzzi in the Parnell GAA Club three days a week. I'll have my lunch there and get the bus home. I get out and about every day," he says.

On a more serious note, he is quite strict with himself when it comes to his food. "I'm very careful with what I eat. I eat a lot of fruit and a nice bit of steak.

"The most I would ever have to drink is a pint of Guinness and maybe a whiskey, but no more than that at any time ever. This evening I'm making lamb chops with a bit of carrot and celery. I'm a fully self-catering individual," he says.

"I'm the most contented person you could meet. Life is so important to me. I've enjoyed everything from my work to working in my local community. I've met so many decent people over the years," says Michael.

"I may not have the money but in many ways I'm a millionaire. It's because of my four children. I'm so pleased about them. The four of them are successful and they never forgot home or gave me an hour's trouble," says Michael.

● This article is part of a series of profiles of people who are redefining later life. If you know someone who may fit the bill, email yhogan@independent.ie

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