Born in 1922, a select club of citizens share the year of their birth with the foundation of the Irish State. Here, four of them share the stories of their lives and the secret to a long, happy life
When it came to ageing, Albert Einstein had this to say: “Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.” Having spent some time in the company of some of the country’s oldest citizens, it struck me that all had a relentless curiosity about life that the years have not dimmed. While they are from different backgrounds and parts of the country, all of them had this innate curiosity about the world in common.
Poverty was a harsh reality of life, but when they look back on their lives, it’s not the privations they focus on but the people and things they loved, their memories spun into precious gold. Having lived such long lives, they have seen many loved ones die, and this is a source of sadness, yet all of them find joy in the everyday things of life and share some of the secrets of what has made them happy.
At the kitchen table of her home in Ardara in Co Donegal, Bridie Byrne is holding court, describing in detail stories from her childhood. The years have not faded her razor-sharp memory, but it is a wonder to her that these events she describes are so very long ago.
Byrne marked her 100th birthday on March 2. It was an occasion that the whole town of Ardara celebrated, with events taking place in her honour. And while she may not be as mobile as she once was, Byrne loves to have visitors pop in to keep her up to date with what’s happening locally.
She was working right into her eighties, keeping books for local businesses, and when we sit down to chat, she asks me what shorthand I have as she remembers learning the strokes and dashes of Pitman Script as a girl.
Byrne was born in Gortnasillagh, a townland outside Glenties, Co Donegal, in 1922. One of three children, and the daughter of small farmers Ambrose and Bridie Sweeney, Byrne started school at the age of four. She left school at 14 and got a place for two years at the local technical college, or the ‘tech’, as it was known, where she learned bookkeeping, typing and shorthand. Afterwards, she left to study at St Martha’s College of Agriculture and Domestic Science in Navan, Co Meath, where she learned cookery, butter and cheese making.
“I didn’t enjoy it and came home to look for a job,” says Byrne, throwing her eyes skywards. Her first job was in the post office in Carrigans where she had to be up before 8am to greet the mail coming in. It was the happiest time of her working life but was cut short when she went to work for relations in the fishing town of Killybegs, spending five years there.
It was during this time she caught TB. She was only 24 years old and was sent to Belfast to recover. “My mother wasn’t well when I left. I had a suspicion about what she had. It was cancer and she died when I was away,” says Byrne.
After spending two years in Belfast, Byrne returned home, where her father and sister were still living, and got a job in the local hotel in Glenties. Here, she explains, she did the office work, later moving to McDevitt’s factory. “I’m sure Phonsie McDevitt knew the war was coming, because he bought a sight of wool. When the war did break out, he could keep his factory open,” she recalls.
She was 44 years old when she married Hugh Byrne, but lost her husband to a heart attack only seven years later. By this stage, Ardara was her home, and Byrne continued to work in Kennedy’s, a local knitting factory, for more than 20 years, buying her house in the town centre.
Still fiercely independent, Byrne says it’s something that’s ingrained deeply into her — she doesn’t know how else to be. “I had to depend on myself for everything. I wasn’t one for going out or parties. Everything I earned went into the kitty for the house. I didn’t get anything left to me from my marriage,” she says.
“When Hugh died, I could have gone back home, but I sat down here and I started thinking. I thought about how I wanted to be able to walk and cycle into town, and I decided to stay. I know it was the right thing,” she explains.
Longevity runs in the family. Byrne’s younger brother, Danny, is 97, and her older sister, Molly, lived to being within months of her 100th birthday. “I often wonder why I lived so long. Sometimes, I do think I’d change some things. I’d never have gone to work in Killybegs. I was working for relatives and they expected too much. The sea air was also bad for my chest.”
Covid-19 was a particularly hard time in her life. “No neighbours calling in, the disease stopped everyone,” she says of the pandemic. But Covid aside, Byrne says she’s never worried too much about things in life so far. “I take things as they come. I think I was inquisitive always and took a great interest in life and in people. I do worry a bit about my future. I wouldn’t like to be a burden on anyone,” she says.
Looking back on her life, Byrne says she would have loved to have been a teacher, but the opportunity wasn’t available to her because they weren’t an Irish-speaking family and they couldn’t afford the costs that people who weren’t fluent speakers would have had to pay.
If she misses one thing from her younger years, it’s dancing. “My mother was a very religious woman. She made us join the Children of Mary. We’d go to the meetings on a Sunday evening and then go to the dances. During the war, they’d hold a dance anywhere, and I loved dancing. I’d no great time for céilí stuff, but I loved ballroom dancing.”
“I wasn’t into fashion but my mother was. She went into Derry every couple of years to buy clothes at a place on the Strand Road. She used to buy a coat and a hat. I couldn’t be bothered — I’d no interest in fashion,” says Byrne.
Thinking of the past is sometimes painful because so many of the people she loved are gone. “I was looking at pictures of my first communion class and I’m the only one left. When I go to Glenties, I come back very sad,” she says.
When I ask her what piece of advice she’d give to younger people today, Byrne says it’s always good to keep some money for a rainy day. “I’d also say never lose hope for anything you want to do,” she says.
When he reflects on his school days, Michael Caden’s eyes light up. Some of his happiest memories are of his days at Rathkell National School, where he was a pupil from 1929 to 1937. The centenarian from the townland of Derryhillagh, Co Mayo, may have left his native county years ago, but a piece of his heart will always be in the west of Ireland.
Now living in Maynooth, Co Kildare, Caden, who turned 100 in February, doesn’t pay too much attention to his age and has never ‘thought old’. “I don’t even think about age. I was always working with young people and I always thought as a young person,” he says.
He fondly recalls his school days as if they were yesterday, starting the day at 6am with a boiled egg and brown bread — good sustenance for the journey and day ahead. Living three miles from the school, he walked there with his sister, Bridie, and the neighbouring children, crossing three fields to take a shortcut.
As a young man when World War II broke out, Caden was a member of the Local Defence Force, the predecessor of the FCA. The job was to patrol their local areas at night to protect the country from invasion. He recalls sitting over the ‘wireless’ with other young men listening for updates on the war situation.
While every boy he was in school with ended up going to England, Caden, the youngest of nine children, stayed in Ireland. “I came up to Dublin to see a football match. I met a fella in a bar and he asked me if I would like a job in Dublin. I told him I was going to England. He said to come in the next morning. Reluctantly, I went in the next day, hoping I wouldn’t get the job because I wanted to go to England. When the boss asked me what I knew about the motor trade, I said nothing. He said, ‘You’re a truthful young man.’ That was my interview,” says Caden.
In fact, Caden spent all his working life in various roles with the same company — Joseph Lucas Ltd, then a huge English car components firm with its headquarters in Birmingham. This included a period spent as branch manager in Galway.
In 1952, he married Ann Hurley from Mountbellew, Co Galway, and the couple reared their four children in Dublin before moving to Kildare. Ann died at the age of 91 in 2018. She and Caden had been married for 66 years.
Despite years of disappointment on the football field, it’s still Caden’s greatest wish to see his beloved Mayo bring home the Sam Maguire Cup. He was there at the matches in 1950 and again in 1951 when Mayo men lifted Sam, and is hopeful that he will see the day again. As for the ‘curse’ that supposedly caused Mayo’s 70-plus-year drought on the football field, Caden says he doesn’t believe it.
While he’s no longer involved in party politics, which was a lifelong passion for him, his love of the GAA never waned, and he is still president of his local Maynooth GAA club.
On February 16 this year, he had an appointment to have tea with the Taoiseach to mark his milestone birthday. Catching Covid-19 scuppered not only his plans for tea with the Taoiseach but a similar appointment with former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. A party that had been organised by friends and family at the K Club also had to be put on ice. He still hopes to reschedule those cups of tea.
Being fit and active were always important things in life for him — he worked hard, played football and cut turf. But the thing he credits most for his longevity is his happy disposition. “I think I was always happy, but I feel despairing when I look at the world now. Young people are not enjoying themselves the way we did. I think it’s the era we’re living in,” he says.
When he goes back to Mayo now, all his contemporaries are long gone, although Caden has kept in touch with their children. “I feel really lucky. I did everything: I took a drink, I danced late at night, I kept fit. Nobody belonging to me ever lived this long — it’s not in my genes,” he says. After Ann died, Caden explains that it took a while to adjust to being on his own. But with four adult children, 11 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren, there’s always someone calling or phoning.
Asked if he would change aspects or things in his life, Caden says everyone would change something about their lives. “I would have liked to have run my own business,” he adds.
An accomplished musician when he was younger, Caden is still an avid reader — he reads the Irish Independent every single day. He sums up the best things in life as having been married for so long and having four children. “I have no ill will for people. This life is very short, you know,” he adds.
If there’s one thing that bothers Sr Mercedes Desmond about getting older, it’s that her eyesight isn’t what it once was. Not that she was one for novels, she says. It’s the science books and papers she devoured all her working life that she misses. At the age of 93, she was conferred with an honorary doctorate from UCC for championing science education in this country.
Born on May 14, 1922, in Donoughmore, 25km north west of Cork city, Peggy, as she was christened, was one of five daughters of Hannah and Patrick Desmond. She had a twin sister, Kitty, who was the only one of the family to be educated at home by an aunt who was a teacher.
After primary school, she was sent to boarding school at the Presentation College in Thurles, Co Tipperary. She remembers the train journey, her parents paying the fee, and the loneliness after they left. In time, another sister joined her and made it a bit easier to be away from home.
When on a visit home for holidays, she was asked what she was going to do. She told her family it was her intention to enter a convent. She entered the Mercy Convent, St Maries of the Isle in Cork, in 1942, was professed as a Sister of Mercy in 1944, and took her final vows in 1947.
“My mother said it was the happiest day of her life when I got the ring. She was delighted when I was professed. I never thought of going out, not once. I’d made my commitment and that was it,” she says. Sr Desmond never stayed again in her family home once she entered the convent.
The early period of entering the convent coincided with World War II, and Sr Desmond recalls sugar being rationed: there was a small parcel that they had to make last a week.
“I had one sister who went to the missions in Africa and the Philippines. She spent 40 years on the missions. I volunteered to go to the missions too, but whoever was in charge felt my sister was the stronger and I was the calmer. You’re looking at the calmer — the stronger one is dead,” she says.
She remembers wonderful family holidays to Donegal when she would travel with her family. “Donegal stayed with me. I just loved it and I remember there were great musicians,” says Sr Desmond.
While she’d never studied science, she enrolled at UCC to study physics. At the time, there was only one other girl in her class. Sr Desmond also studied mathematics and chemistry, and in 1948 she graduated with a bachelor’s degree and subsequently a higher diploma in education.
The following year, she started teaching physics, chemistry and maths at St Aloysius School on Cork’s Sharman Crawford Street. She was appointed principal in 1978 and, during her term, enrolment rose to 1,200 students, making it the largest girls’ secondary school in the country at one stage. She was also one of the founding members of the Irish Science Teachers’ Association in the early 1960s.
Astronomy was also something she taught. “I remember going to Dunsink Observatory and looking through the big telescope. I could see Jupiter and was able to see the great red spot on it. I enjoyed teaching very much — I wasn’t a bit strict at all. That was my trouble,” she laughs.
On a serious note, she believes that if you’re working at something you love, work is not hard. “I made great friends with the science teachers in Ireland, England and Scotland. What made me happiest was teaching, and with the girls especially. We had some excellent girls and they got on very well,” she says.
If she has any regrets, it’s that she didn’t pray more, but describes her life as good. Her friends, the sisters in the convent, are good company, and she has family members who visit. However, she is worried about what’s going to happen with Ukraine when Putin seems hell bent on destruction.
“You have to have hope. We couldn’t do without hope. When you’re 100, you haven’t too far to go. You know you’re nearly at the pearly gates — I hope St Peter will let me in,” she jokes.
At his home in Loughrea, Co Galway, Vincent Conroy is having a cup of tea and basking in the summer sunshine streaming through his window. He offers whiskey and pretends to be slightly put out when I say I’d prefer tea. Pride of place on the wall in his living room is a letter from Michael D Higgins, which he received on the occasion of his 100th birthday on March 6.
One of 14 children, Conroy was the second youngest of William and Mary Conroy, who were small farmers. Three of his siblings died in childhood. As well as marking his 100th birthday, Conway’s old primary school, St Feichin’s National School in the village of Abbey, recently celebrated its centenary with Conroy as guest of honour as oldest living past pupil.
After leaving school at the age of 14, he worked in Portumna in a bicycle repairs shop, moving to Belfast in 1941 to join his brother. He arrived just before the Blitz, when the city was pounded by German air raids. It was there that he learned his trade as a mechanic. Conroy says, despite the upheaval, he loved his time in Belfast, but got into a few scrapes. “I was wild and young and I got arrested,” he says, explaining that when God Save the Queen was played one night, he wouldn’t stand up, and subsequently found himself in a cell overnight.
“When I was in that cell, I didn’t mind it. I pretended to speak Irish but I hadn’t a clue of Irish, but the B Specials didn’t have a clue either,” he says. It turned out the sergeant was a neighbour who knew his father and he let him go.
In 1956, Conroy moved to England, where his sister used to provide lodgings for young Irish people. It was there that he met his wife, Anne Keane from Ennis, Co Clare, and the couple had a son, Patrick, now parish priest in Ballinakill/Derrybrien in Co Galway. Anne died on Patrick’s first birthday, and within a few years, Conroy and his son moved back to Ireland. Conroy remarried a German lady, Edith Willis, and together they built up a garage, shop and service station outside Mullingar, Co Westmeath. He says he feels blessed to have had the love of two good women in his life.
Looking at a photo of his first wife, he describes her as “a wonderful and beautiful girl. I met her at a dance and I asked her to dance. I brought her home as I had a car and I fell in love with her. When she died, she was doing a novena for the priesthood,” he recalls.
Conroy remembers vividly his shock when his son told him he wanted to be a priest. “I said to him, ‘You’re very quiet. I remember the words he said. He said, ‘Dad, I want to study for the priesthood.’ That was a shock to hear but I wouldn’t stand in his way. Why would I?”
Even though he said he’d never marry again after he lost Anne, he met Edith when he was visiting friends. “She reared up, saying I was taking her parking space. I took her out — to be such a good-looking fella, she couldn’t resist. I got married to Edith and she was a wonderful person,” he says.
Conroy doesn’t believe he’s the best person to offer advice on longevity, but he certainly doesn’t believe in worrying about things. “I did everything a man shouldn’t do. I drank plenty — I certainly didn’t save myself. I smoked but I gave them up at 45,” he says. “It’s not good to worry about everything. If you worry, you die. If you don’t worry, you die. Never take life too seriously,” he adds.
His faith is something that has always been an important part of his life. When he’d come in from work at night, he’d pray. “I’d a good life — I’m not complaining. Life is what you make of it. I made a lot of it,” he says.
“There is no question, but my school days were the happiest days of my life. We had a wonderful teacher, Master Paul from Waterford. All the kids were given tea and he paid for it out of his own pocket. We walked to school with no shoes — we all did it. We were all together, a big rake of kids. Those days are long gone,” he recalls.
“I smoked, I drank pints like new milk and I worked very hard. I enjoyed every moment of my life. I’m in good oul form,” he adds.