Wisdom of the Ages: 'Do the best you can and then let go'

Wisdom of the Ages: 'Do the best you can and then let go'

From L-R: Jim Curham, Gemma and Eugene McKiernan, and Peggy Mitchell.

The global pandemic has affected everyone, especially people over 70-years-old, who either cocooned in lockdown or who live in nursing homes with restricted visits from friends and family.

Martin Rogan, CEO of Mental Health Ireland, says older generations play a crucial role in society, and never more so at times of great disruption and panic.

“There are 30,000 people living in nursing homes and in the Fair Deal Scheme in Ireland. We’ve taken that knowledge out of society. The role of the older generation is to be the repository of life experiences and wisdom We’ve denied society that wisdom,” Mr Rogan said.

Joyce Fegan asked people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s for their wisdom when it comes to surviving and living through great challenges.

Here are the stories of four people who lived through everything from the Second World War to the TB epidemic, and who have helped people out of poverty for 47 years and worked on Hollywood movie sets alongside Rita Hayworth.

‘I remember in the canteen, three tables away was Robert Mitchum having a coffee. Rita Hayworth was there, all the big Hollywood film stars were there’ 

I was married to two fantastic women. I won’t go again — I mightn’t be as lucky,’ says Jim.
I was married to two fantastic women. I won’t go again — I mightn’t be as lucky,’ says Jim.

Jim Curham, 86, Wicklow

Jim Curham, 86, has worked with Hollywood movie stars such as Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, and Kirk Douglas, as well as on movies like A Night to Remember and The Devil’s Disciple, before going on to work as RTÉ’s construction manager for 29 years.

Throughout his life, he was widowed twice, overcame prostate cancer, had a heart bypass, and had both of his knees replaced.

This all came after losing his mother at 13 years of age and moving into digs at the age of 16. He remembers the Second World War and a time when there was virtually no cars on the road.

His belief that there is a solution to every problem and always looking on the bright side are the secrets to his long and fulfilling life.

“You have to look at all the wars and the decimation in countries like Japan and Germany, and now they’re some of the most successful countries in the world,” says Jim.

He has the same optimism about Covid-19.

“With the help of God there will be a fix,” he says. “We have to depend on scientists and immunologists.

“Where there’s life, there’s hope. You could worry your guts out about it and it won’t do a damn thing about it.

“But there are a lot of research people out there working their guts out.” 

Born in Sligo in 1934, he remembers a very different Ireland as well as life during the Second World War.

“There were no cars, you could walk two miles and not see a car. Then there was the war. The war years were tough, everything was rationed.

“So we’d no tea. Then white bread was a gonner, the bread at the time was terrible, it always seemed to be half raw, it was desperate stuff.” 

However, the death of his mother was a more formative experience, and is what sowed a sense of resourcefulness and resilience in him for the rest of his life.

“My mother died when I was 13, it was bloody hardship,” he says. “When I was 16, I ended up in digs. My father took it very badly and he went back to Laois.

“I honestly think, as an only child, you have to face reality. I was broke once. I wound up with only sixpence in my pocket, and I vowed this would never happen again. You have a great sense of independence [as an only child], and that stood to me.” 

He trained as a carpenter and worked in Sligo for several years before moving to England with a friend and working in the movie business, which was booming there in the 1950s.

“We went to MGM, all I could think of was the big lion in the theatre back home in Sligo and here I was working for them.

“We were interviewed on the Friday and started on the Saturday morning at eight o’clock. We worked 10 weeks non-stop. They had 94 carpenters and 60 plasterers working for them.

“I remember in the canteen, three tables away, was Robert Mitchum having a coffee. Rita Hayworth was there, all the big Hollywood film stars were there.” 

While in England, Jim went to Mass every Sunday morning and it was in a local Irish newspaper, that was given out in the church, where he read about the opening of Ireland’s “mini Hollywood” (Ardmore Studios, in Bray, Co Wicklow).

He wrote a letter, came home to interview and started working in the studios as assistant construction manager.

He got married to his first wife May in 1956, and his daughter Antoinette was born in 1957, his son Vivian in 1959, and his son Eugene in 1962.

“That was a fantastic time, all five of us,” remembers Jim.

He moved on to RTÉ after two and a half years in Ardmore Studios, to work as the construction manager.

“When I went to RTÉ, I didn’t even have a panel pin — an inch-long nail,” he says. 

Then, in my time, I ended up doing three Eurovisions, and having my work broadcast to half a billion people.

It was also a stressful time, with 80 people to manage, and then the death of his wife May in 1980.

“That was a tough time,” says Jim.

In what was to be a very serendipitous moment, Jim’s boss asked him to go back to Ballina, where May came from, for a work assignment.

“I put up all kinds of excuses as to why I couldn’t go back, but he said I had to. We stayed in a guesthouse there that a woman called Pat Murphy owned.

“She was widowed too. That was 1982, and we hit it off and got married.

“I must say I was married to two fantastic women. I won’t go again — I mightn’t be as lucky,” says Jim.

At this time, Jim also bought a boat on the Shannon, and he is still boating to this day.

He describes it as his “saviour” and his “safety valve”, especially when other challenges passed his way, such as Pat dying on Christmas Day in 2014, and the death of his son Eugene.

“They were tough times, a kick back,” says Jim.

In spite of all of this, and his own health challenges, he’s relied on a deep faith, positive thinking, and the people who have populated his life.

When it comes to the pandemic, he would encourage people to be more solution focused.

“You have to think positive, I’ve always had that,” he says.

“My mum was a milliner and went to London for work. By the time she was 28, she was a buyer for Selfridges.

“That was in the 1920s — some achievement for an Irish girl. I think I got a lot of my tenacity and will from my mother.

“She was a very positive thinker, she was very talented, that’s where I got that creative positive outlook. She gave me a great start in life for the few years I knew her.” 

At 86 years of age, Jim cycles and walks most days and is inspired by the many relationships in his life.

“I have a wonderful family, a daughter Antoinette, a son Vivian, and my daughter-in-law Gerry — super,” he says. “And four lovely granddaughters.

“They have been the great inspiration of my life.”

‘As a student nurse we carried dead bodies down two and three flights of stairs’

Gemma and Eugene McKiernan near their home in Delgany, Co Wicklow. Never look too far ahead in life says Eugene and swimming in the sea can help you get in touch with your soul, says Gemma. Picture: Moya Nolan
Gemma and Eugene McKiernan near their home in Delgany, Co Wicklow. Never look too far ahead in life says Eugene and swimming in the sea can help you get in touch with your soul, says Gemma. Picture: Moya Nolan

Gemma and Eugene McKiernan, 80, Wicklow

Gemma and Eugene McKiernan, both 80, live in Greystones, Co Wicklow and have four adult children.

They love music, sea swimming and hillwalking, but between them, they remember living through the TB epidemic of the 1940s, the immigration of the 1950s and the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Eugene grew up in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, right on the border and otherwise known as Quinn Country, because of Sean Quinn and his businesses there.

Gemma was from Castlebar, Co Mayo, but moved to Dublin when she was 6 years of age.

“We used to go back to Mayo at Christmas and coming back on the train to Dublin, it was very sad, you’d see everyone going back to England, that would have been around 1946, and the women were crying their hearts out as their husbands weren’t going to be back until the next Christmas,” remembers Gemma.

Eugene, on the other hand, remembers trouble of a different kind, the type where roads were blown up.

“Ballyconnell was a typically rural town, everyone knew the colour of your underwear. 

"When the trouble got really bad across the border, my father had two first cousins who were vets, they used the phone in our house for the vet. 

"The northern authorities would blow massive holes in the surrounding roads, and so you couldn’t cross. This then meant one of the vets had to buy a second car and leave it on the other side of the road, across the border, to continue on his rounds. 

"They were rough times and there was a lot of undercover going on around the time. I was too young to understand it all, but that was the environment I grew up in,” says Eugene.

The couple met in Dublin, where Gemma was studying nursing and Eugene went to UCD, which was where the National Concert Hall, on Earlsfort Terrace is now.

“In 1950 I went nursing to the Meath Hospital. I was 18. Then I did midwifery in Holles Street. We were getting £3 a month, and as a student nurse we carried dead bodies down two and three flights of stairs,” says Gemma.

Eugene was 23 when he met Gemma. He describes being in a “mickey mouse job” but needing to get a better job when Gemma became pregnant.

He was offered a job as manager of a shopping centre in Ballymun, something he had no experience in whatsoever.

“It was a big turning point for me, Gemma was pregnant and young women had to give up their jobs when they became pregnant back then, so I was in a tight corner, but I got out of it.

“There was a new company car, an increase in salary I could never have dreamed of, they told me to get a phone and they’d pay for it. 

"It was one of the biggest breaks of my life, there was a good Christmas bonus and a good summer bonus. I used to have to attend board meetings with all sorts of executives. I did well,” says Eugene.

The couple went on to have four children together settling in Greystones where Eugene ran the town’s newsagents.

They had been living in Glasnevin before that and did not have family close by. Gemma remembers managing life as a young mother.

“We had three under 3, at one stage, which I really wouldn’t advise. I remember being in Finglas in a supermarket with two of the children, and one of them was 15 months. 

I remember coming out of the supermarket, and me a nurse and a midwife, and if someone had said: ‘I’ll help you with the kids’, I’d gladly have taken it. 

"I was so fatigued, that was a low point but you just got on with it. There was no way you’d go along to anyone to talk back then,” she says.

Another challenge that came much later in life was when she retired at 65.

“It was 1995 and I had played golf with a friend called Irene that day and we had right fun, it was that kind of a day. Then that night, at midnight, I got dreadful seizures. 

"It turned out I had viral encephalitis. It took me a good six months to get over that. 

"At one point Eugene was told to call the family. He even rang the Carmelites. Since then, life is very precious to me,” says Gemma.

Eugene says that his life has been full of unexpected things, and as a result he tells younger people to never look far ahead.

“I’d never think I could give advice to the younger generations. 

"Don’t look too far ahead in life, enjoy your babies if you have them, your partner if you have one, your father, your mother, your siblings, your friends. Things cropped up in my life that I’d never have expected,” he says.

Gemma remains positive in the face of the pandemic, because history has taught her that things can and do improve.

“I can remember when we had TB and polio and then when the vaccine came it changed everything. 

I’m sure I would have given countless vaccines as a nurse. To anyone feeling hopeless or worrying I would say: ‘OK what is one year or two years out of our life?’ 

"I’d worry more about climate change, with the virus we know what to do,” says Gemma.

Her modus operandi for life is to take control of your own happiness regardless of what is going on or who is around you.

“If you can at all, create what you can in life, put it out to the universe. 

"If you’re always expecting people to make you happy that’s not going to happen. I’d have to nearly walk by the sea every day. 

"Eugene would say: ‘But sure you were there yesterday?’ But for me, the sea - it’s different every day,” says Gemma, who swims in the sea all year around.

What does she get out of it?

“You lose your mind and you find your soul – that’s what I get from it. I mean I dread going in, it’s so cold, but getting out, you can take on the world. 

"You might only be a drop in the ocean, but the ocean is in the drop”.

There were times when I was completely despairing but I got over it

Peggy Mitchell has lived through the Second World War, the TB epidemic, as well as several recessions.
Peggy Mitchell has lived through the Second World War, the TB epidemic, as well as several recessions.

Peggy Mitchell, 94, Cork

Peggy Mitchell, 94, still drives, has seven children, 25 grandchildren, nine great grandchildren with two more on the way, and has all her own “faculties”.

She was widowed suddenly at the age of 43, but all of her children went on to college, and she recently overcame breast cancer.

“I was born in august 1926, I still have all my faculties. I’m a tough old bird,” says Peggy.

Having lived through the Second World War, the TB epidemic, several recessions and now a global pandemic, Peggy believes that if people do the best they can, everything comes right in the end.

“I was going to secondary school in town [Cork City] during the war. 

"When the first boat came into Cork, they were throwing oranges over board, they were the first oranges we had in nine years.

“Everyone was worried when the war was on, things were rationed, we had coupons for butter and tea. 

"Even the bread wasn’t nice - it was black, the flour was ground, they didn’t bleach it. It wasn’t very nice. We survived, we got through it, we were lucky,” says Peggy.

But it was not global war that presented as her biggest challenge, instead it was the sudden death of her husband in 1972.

“The hardest challenge was when my husband died. It was the hardest thing that ever happened. I thought: ‘How will I get through this?’ 

"My mother was still alive and she'd walk up every day and help me, but there were times when I was completely despairing but I got over it.

“Then I took up golf and it helped me, I played three times a week, and I had friends,” explains Peggy.

But it was her own children that got Peggy “through life”, and her grandchildren and great grandchildren now. 

All of whom give her a great “g-up” with their exam results, and life’s achievements.

When it comes to surviving a global pandemic her advice is simple.

My advice is to be truthful and honest and everything will come right then. 

"Be kind to the elderly, all my grandchildren are very kind to me and I think that’s a great thing.

“All people have to do is do the best they can, I’m not a deeply religious person. 

"I think that's all anyone can do, do the best they can and then let go”.

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