BALLINLOUGH resident John O’Shea recently celebrated his 101st birthday, with the Community Gardaí throwing a socially distanced party, and President Higgins sending a personal gift.
“Didn’t I get some surprise when I saw the letter from President Higgins,” says John O’Shea as he welcomes The Echo to his home off the Douglas Road.
John, a tall man with a shock of grey hair, had been delighted to receive a letter from the President when he turned 100, but knowing that all centenarians receive such greetings, he hadn’t expected anything for his 101st.
“When you’re old, a lot of people think you have no value to society, so it’s very good to be remembered by the President of Ireland.”
John’s family connection to the presidency goes back to his childhood.
“1919 I was born, in Caherdaniel in Kerry, but Cork was the only place that ever looked after me.
"We had a bit of a farm, but rocks and stones was all it grew.”
When John was a small boy, the fifth of seven children, he remembers neighbours helping his mother on the farm, because his father, a fluent Irish speaker, was away for six weeks in Dublin, working with the future first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde - as John recalls - on “some business about the Irish.”
Dubhghlas de hÍde, whose family hailed originally from Castlehyde in Fermoy, was born in 1860, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, and would become a hugely influential figure in the Gaelic Revival, becoming the first President of the Gaelic League.
Serving briefly in the Seanad in 1925, Hyde returned to academia, as Professor of Irish in UCD.
In 1938, the then-Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, and the then-leader of the opposition, W.T. Cosgrave, agreed that Hyde, a widely respected and popular figure, should be Ireland’s first President, and he was elected unopposed.
John O’Shea says it was a great source of pride for his father to be able to say “I drank a show of whiskey with the President”.
All these years later, the current President has written to John, recalling John’s father’s friendship with the first President, and lamenting the necessary restrictions imposed on us all by Covid-19.
President Higgins sent John a formal letter for his 101st birthday, saying “I wish you good health and happiness in all the days ahead”.
The President also enclosed a commemorative medal engraved “We are all migrants in time”.
Saving the best for last, he also wrote a personal, hand-written note:
“What a pity circumstances prevent my reflecting Dubhghlas de hÍde’s hospitality to your father, ar deis De go raibh a anaim. But we might get a chance when all this is over.
“Beir Beannacht, Michael D.”
Having been briefly hospitalised recently, John says the President’s letter gave him a great boost.
“Wasn’t he very good to write? I like the President. I was delighted when he got in the second time. A decent Labour man, and the right man for the job.”
A surprise birthday party thrown for John by his friends in the Community Gardaí gave him a similar lift.
“The Guards mind me, and I can’t thank them enough.”
Garda Lorraine O’Donovan, who visits John most days, calls him a true gentleman, always very kind and welcoming.
She says he is blessed to have good neighbours.
“John’s neighbours are excellent people, really considerate, and they always look out for him.
"He’s lucky to have their support, particularly Lydia, Eric, Kasha, Mary and Con.”
She says John took great pride in showing everyone who attended his party the letter and medal from the President.
When describing John as a great man, Garda O’Donovan, who is from Kerry herself, can’t resist quoting John B Keane:
“Being a Kerryman, in my opinion, is the greatest gift that God can bestow on any man.
When you belong to Kerry, you know you have a head start on the other fellow.”
In not unrelated news, it seems John may expect further correspondence from the great and the good.
A phone call from The Echo to Micheál Martin’s constituency office on Friday revealed a letter of congratulations from the new Taoiseach is on its way to John.