Wisdom of the Ages: 'You're not alone in the challenge'

Wisdom of the Ages: 'You're not alone in the challenge'

From L-R: Eileen Maguire, Brendan Dempsey and Theresa O’Brien.

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 three 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.

'There was a lot of love in my home'

Brendan Dempsey, who has spent much of his life helping the less fortunate as part of his work with SVP, says that ‘life goes on, we will live through it and somehow we will get by’.

Brendan Dempsey, who has spent much of his life helping the less fortunate as part of his work with SVP, says that ‘life goes on, we will live through it and somehow we will get by’.

Brendan Dempsey, 75, Cork

Brendan Dempsey is full of optimism. 

He firmly believes that we will live through the pandemic and “get by somehow”. 

This optimism comes after nearly 50 years of volunteering at the coalface of poverty in Ireland, with St Vincent de Paul (SVP).

“I have seen a lot of hardship, the most distressing of situations where lives have been lost. 

"But I'm full of optimism because I’ve come across some lovely stories that would make you laugh, they’re not all sad stories.

“I was two years in SVP and I went into a house one night to a single mum, she was being evicted and we went in to talk to the landlord and work out a deal with him, which we had to do fairly often. 

"While we were waiting for the landlord to come, she was getting more and more agitated and we were trying to talk to her. 

"Her little boy was tugging at my pants and I looked down at him and he just asked me: ‘Will you be my daddy?’ 

I remember going out to the car crying. I had a little girl at home the same age. 

"From there on, I gave 110% to SVP. We helped her sort out another house. She was a bloody great little mother. 

"There was always a smell of ironing in her home, she took great care of him.

“That little boy went to primary, secondary school and then to third level. I was invited to his graduation. 

"I went in, he had his mother hanging out of his right hand and a girlfriend hanging out of his left hand. And I was saying: ‘isn’t life great?’ He's a professional now.

“There’s always hope,” says Brendan.

He feels the same way about the global pandemic, so long as the public follow all of the guidelines.

“Everybody should be wearing a mask and we should be doing everything the authorities say. 

Life goes on, we will live through it and somehow we will get by.

“We have a great cushion in this country with our political system and the dole, nobody should starve to death,” says Brendan.

Brendan had a “magical childhood” growing up on a farm in west Cork, where the “culture was to help people”.

“There was a lot of love in my home. I remember my mother saying to me once: ‘when you go to school today you've a new raincoat, but so and so will have your old one on and you’re not to open your mouth about it’. That was the training I got,” remembers Brendan.

He does not dispense advice to anyone but states that there are nights when he “can float home on the pavement” with the satisfaction derived from helping another human being.

'We grew up in a time when you got up and got on with it'

Theresa O’Brien grew up in a time when you got up and got on with it. At times of difficulty she would think of the people all over the world in the same predicament and then not feel so alone.

Theresa O’Brien grew up in a time when you got up and got on with it. At times of difficulty she would think of the people all over the world in the same predicament and then not feel so alone.

Theresa O’Brien, 79, Cork

Heading into her eightieth year, Theresa O’Brien, mother-of-four, and grandmother to 11, advises people “not to panic, until they tell you to panic”. 

This is coming from a woman who lost her own mother at three years of age, and last month rode on the back of a motorbike with her daughter-in-law.

“We grew up in a time when you got up and got on with it, if you can't complain - don’t complain,” says Theresa.

Having lost her mother when she was very young and having lived through both a world war and a global pandemic, Theresa says that losing her husband was the biggest challenge of her life.

“My mum died when I was 3, her sister took me and my twin, and my father bought a house in Coventry and took the other three children with him. 

"We didn’t consider it a split, it was just the way life was, you didn’t sit down and think about things too much. 

"We had freedom and we had the children’s games. We were well cared for, we didn’t have everything we wanted, but we were delighted with what we got and we made the most of it,” remembers Theresa.

The only thing I remember about the war were the air raid shelters. I remember the gas masks. 

"But the biggest challenge of my life was when my husband was ill for four years, he was bedridden, and during that time I took bowel cancer. But then again you can't complain, you do your grieving and you get up and get on with it,” says Theresa.

In order to deal with this time in her life, Theresa would allow her mind to think of other people in the same “predicament”.

“It was the toughest thing looking after him. It was the not being able to do anything for him, and knowing he wouldn’t last. 

"So when my mind went there I would just think of the people all over the world in the same predicament. You're not alone in the challenge,” she says.

Theresa says the same of the pandemic, that we are all in this together.

At the other end of the spectrum, Theresa says that the best time in her life was when her children were born. 

It was this “new life” and the fact that they were “all healthy was a big, big bonus”.

She keeps a daily routine and reads every day as well, but is slow to dispense advice to the younger generations about how to survive a pandemic.

“It's hard to give advice because everyone has their own way of working through things, but I would say go with the flow, let things happen, go for a walk and take your mind off things that are troubling you”.

'I don't worry really, just keep going, take every day as it comes'

Eileen Maguire was widowed at the age of 33 and believes keeping active and fit is key to handling all of life’s challenges.

Eileen Maguire was widowed at the age of 33 and believes keeping active and fit is key to handling all of life’s challenges.

Eileen Maguire, 89, Cork

Eileen Maguire is 89-years-old and swims in the sea all summer long and in the pool for the rest of the year. 

Always active, she plays tennis, walks three times a day and in March 2018, she graced the front page of the national newspapers as she sledded down a snowy hill with her grandson Jack during Storm Emma.

Having been widowed at the age off 33, with three children under 3, her faith and her belief in keeping busy have seen her through all of life’s challenges.

Even with the pandemic, while urging everyone to follow the rules, Eileen believes we will get through this.

“I would urge people to follow the rules and be careful and to not be gathering in big numbers and wear the mask.

“But it will get better, we'll surely get out of this,” says Eileen.

We will get through this, it'll be a spell of this and a spell of that, we only have to keep going, so as long as we can stay going.

This personal motto of “staying going” is what she lived by when she found herself widowed at 33.

“I had three children, 1-and-a-bit, 2-and-a-bit, and 3-and-a-bit. We had a haulage business, it was not long started and we were just getting going when he died. So I kept busy, and I'm still busy to this day.

“When the kids started to go to school, I got a lovely part-time job from 12pm-3pm and I could collect them after school,” remembers Eileen.

While keeping busy has always kept her going, she always carved out time for herself, something she would encourage young people today to do for themselves.

“Even at her busiest she always made time for herself - one hour a day that she called her own to do as she wished. Usually she would just read. 

"She’d have the dinner made before going to work and ready to turn on when she got home at 3pm. 

"Then she’d send the kids outside to play and take that one hour - old world mindfulness. 

"She thinks our generations would benefit from being kind to ourselves and giving ourselves just that one hour each day to spend as we wish,” says her daughter-in-law Debbie Maguire.

Even now at the height of global pandemic and heading towards her ninetieth year, Eileen is not worried and advises other people to do the same.

“I don't worry really, just keep going, take every day as it comes. 

"Don’t think too far ahead,” she says.

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