Thursday 22 March 2018

Obituary: Kathleen Snavely - Oldest person in Irish history

February 16, 1902 - July 6, 2015

Kathleen Snavely: the longest living Irish person, she left from Cobh in 1921, and made her fortune in the United States
Kathleen Snavely: the longest living Irish person, she left from Cobh in 1921, and made her fortune in the United States
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Kathleen Snavely, who has died at the remarkable age of 113 years and 140 days, is believed to have been the oldest Irish person in history.

The Clare woman emigrated through Queenstown, now Cobh, Co Cork, 94 years ago and made a small fortune with her first husband Roxie Rollins after they set up a dairy business in Syracuse, New York.

Hers is a classic emigrant success story, and she preferred to talk about financial matters than her longevity. But, inevitably, her long life gave rise to great curiosity.

She was believed to be the 16th-oldest person in the world when she died on Monday and the sixth-oldest person in the United States.

She smashed her first record for longevity early last year when she became the oldest person in history from south of the border.

The previous record was held by Katherine Plunkett, an aristocrat from Co Louth who died in 1932 at the age of 111 and 327 days.

Kathleen then broke the age record for the island of Ireland, previously held by Dungannon woman Annie Scott, who passed away at the age of 113 years and 37 days in 1962.

The wealthy businesswoman from Feakle, Co Clare, was bemused when people asked about the secret of her ripe old age, even though the question was inevitable.

"I get so tired of people asking me about my secret," she told a reporter from the local paper in Syracuse, New York, at a party for her 113th birthday. "You live and you do it the best you can."

Kathleen was born in 1902 to Patrick and Ellen Hayes from Feakle, and her father is listed on the birth cert as a "farmer and publican".

Although she was listed as a "domestic'' on the manifest of emigrant ship that took her to America, she said she had actually worked as a business apprentice in Limerick and Dublin before she left Ireland. Kathleen said her listing as a "domestic" was a mistake.

She said recently: "I wasn't here to change sheets or wash clothes."

She left her native Clare in September 1921 amid the dying embers of British rule in Ireland.

The War of Independence had just ended with the truce, and Michael Collins and his compatriots were about to negotiate the treaty.

On the day she left Ireland, she got up just after midnight and neighbours took her to the ship.

She then addressed her two younger brothers in a tone that showed remarkable maturity for someone of such a young age.

"I gave them a lecture about growing up," she told Sean Kirst of the Syracuse Post-Standard. "Work hard and you be careful about drinking and grow up to be someone to be proud of."

Diligence seems to have been her watchword. Later, when she donated $1 million to the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, Kathleen said: "Not a penny was given to me. I'm giving them what I didn't get."

When she arrived at Ellis Island after an eight-day voyage, she had just $25 to her name.

She once recalled her amazement when she saw the Statue of Liberty. She first went to stay with an uncle in Syracuse.

Kathleen worked in a school for children with developmental disabilities before taking up a post at a local department store.

Her career as a successful businesswoman began after she met her first husband, Roxie Rollins, who ran a small laundry business.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Roxie and Kathleen founded the Seneca Dairy, which quickly expanded and became an institution in Syracuse with two shops and an ice-cream fountain.

"Neither of us had a formal business education," Kathleen recalled. "We learned on the job, through experience. If you have a feeling for management and enjoy it, experience will give you the skills."

The enterprising Clare woman worked seven days a week, looking after the accounts, and although she retired long ago, she kept a close eye on her financial statements right up to her death.

An ad for the Seneca Dairy from 1964 says: "You'll have plenty of drive, even at 50, if you fuel up each day with energy-packed Seneca Dairy Milk."

Kathleen herself maintained plenty of vim way beyond the age of 50 and outlived her first husband Roxie by 47 years. She later married Jesse Snavely, who ran a lumber business, and she also outlived him by many years. Although Kathleen herself never had children, she had three stepsons through her second marriage.

In the years after she left Ireland, she sent money home, and continued to keep in touch with her Irish family. She still has relatives in Clare, who visited her recently, and she is related to renowned fiddler Martin Hayes.

As she passed her 110th birthday, and began to break Irish age records, Kathleen inevitably became something of a celebrity in Syracuse, and the news also reached Co Clare.

There is now a plaque celebrating her life at her family homestead in Feakle.

Earlier this year two pupils at Feakle National School, Roisin Quilligan and Siobhan Tuohy, wrote to her when they were doing a project, and were delighted to receive a response.

Kathleen sent them a photo of herself, and expressed the hope that they would both do well in school and go on to college. She also wished them a happy St Patrick's Day.

While she brushed aside questions about the secret to her long life, some of her relatives have put forward their own theories.

Her grandniece Donna Moore was asked this week in an interview why Kathleen had lived so long.

She put it down to "spirit, hard work, and two good loves".

"She had two wonderful husbands, a wonderful family, and maybe the occasional Manhattan (a cocktail made with whisky and sweet Vermouth)."

Kathleen has been honoured in the city that became her home. Last year, St Patrick's Day was declared Kathleen Hayes Rollins Snavely Day by the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County.

In recent years she lived at the Camillus Centre in Geddes, New York, and celebrated her 113th birthday there with a few close friends, birthday cake and her favourite cocktail. When she became the oldest person in history from the island of Ireland, there was also a celebration, and she joined in a rendition of 'When Irish Eyes are Smiling'.

Her longtime friend Dave Liddell said she was warm, cheerful, sharp as a tack, and "Irish through and through."

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