Rowena Walsh meets Rosie Smith-Dunne, an energetic 91-year-old who is happily still helping others after a lifetime of volunteering.
Rosie Smith-Dunne thinks she might be slowing down. But anyone looking at or listening to this remarkably vibrant 91-year-old would beg to disagree. She is poised and elegant as we sit chatting in a local hotel, all set afterwards to go and sing in the church choir she first joined in 1973.
Rosie has always been a busy woman. Born, bred and still living in Dublin’s Dun Laoghaire, she has six children, 13 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren with two more on the way.
Being matriarch of such a large family would be enough for most nonagenarians but, incredibly, Rosie has only just eased up on her regular volunteer commitments. She hasn’t given them up completely though. “I’m there for them if they need it,” she says.
Although she retired last year after thirtysomething years as Chairperson of Dun Laoghaire Mental Health Association, she continues to be involved. “They think I’m still there,” she says.
Rosie also loved her work with the Tivoli Training Centre and she received a citation from the head of the probation service when she recently stepped back from her role there.
She left school at the age of 17 and says she was very involved in the church. Along with Fr Sean Cassidy and three of her friends, including the man who would later become her second husband, they helped people arriving off the boat from England who had nowhere to live.
At the time, the late ’70s, there was a lot of solvent abuse in Dun Laoghaire, and Rosie used to go around the country giving talks about it. She also went to England, where she worked with agony aunt Marjorie Proops to open an addiction unit for solvent abusers.
Rosie was aged 57 when she went to university to study addiction counselling in Trinity College Dublin. Her family of four sons and two daughters was grown at this stage, and she was about to embark on a new phase in her life.
She was motivated by two shocking events close to home.
One snowy morning, she was putting the bins out when she noticed five young boys coming up the road. “I asked where they were going because it was so early and they told me they had been down in the dockyard. They had been stealing ampules from the first aid boxes on the yachts and were planning to walk across to St Michael’s Hospital and get syringes.”
The boys were sleeping rough in an abandoned local hotel. Rosie let them stay in her basement for over two weeks. Astonishingly, her then-husband Jim never knew about his wife’s guests. He worked in RTÉ and would often be away at night. (Two of the boys, now grown men with families of their own, still send her Christmas cards.)
On another occasion, she helped a lost young boy to find his way back home. When they arrived, his mother said that he could only come in if he had house-keeping money. He was just nine years old.
During her time in Trinity, Rosie did a placement in Stanhope Treatment Centre. “They asked me if I would stay on and I worked in St Dympna’s on the North Circular Road until I was well in my 70s.”
Later, she was asked to give a talk in Sports Youthreach in Sallynoggin on Dublin’s southside, and she ended up working there for four years.
She would encourage people to keep working in some capacity, irrespective of age.
She was married for 44 years to Jim who died in 1994. When her youngest son Vinnie got married, he moved into the family home and she built a two-bedroom house in the garden, where she still lives.
At the age of 74 and a widow, she married Eddie. Though he passed away two years ago, she is grateful for the years they shared. “We met through the church and were married for 17 years. I enjoyed the years while we had them.”
As a young woman, she had been apprenticed as a tailor and went on to make a lot of wedding dresses, including those for her daughters. Today, although she suffers from Paget’s disease, a condition affecting bones, she still sews a little.
When asked for the secret of her remarkable energy, her daughter points out that Rosie has never smoked a cigarette or drank alcohol.