They say the longer you live the more you learn, well I know one thing for certain that in my time I may not have learned a lot but I've met some interesting and amazing people. One can come across lovely people anywhere but in Lourdes I've met some of the best. I have only hazy memories of my first visit to the Marian Shrine in France around 1966 or 1967 -I was only nine or ten then. With the last ten years I've been a fairly regular traveller to the Grotto at Lourdes. Once you go into the 'domain' - the enclosure that encloses the churches, grotto, baths and hospital, one of the first things you see is a beautiful statue of Our Lady; it's called the Crowned Virgin Statue. A white marble statue with a beautiful crown on our Lady's head. There's a tradition -maybe more of a habit or practise that if pilgrims stand before that statue and make the promise that 'I'll return' then indeed one does come back to Lourdes. One man that has stood before that statue now for over thirty years is Ned Hartnett of Kanturk. I met him for the first time just a decade ago, in June of 2007, when I returned to Lourdes after half a century. This week Ned celebrated his one-hundredth birthday. He's a truly amazing man and I'm so honoured to know him and to have listened to his storytelling and dispensing of wisdom.
Ned was born on Wednesday the 7th of March 1917, the youngest of ten children, nine boys and one girl, reared on a small farm at Knockatoon, Rockchapel. The day of Ned's birth was also the day that British Prime Minister David Lloyd George announced that Britain was prepared to allow self-government in the parts of Ireland that wanted it. Also born in March 1917 were composer and music professor Brian Boydell and singer Josef Locke. The month of March 1917 also saw the end of the Romanov Dynasty in Russia. After completing his National Schooling in Knockaclarig NS Ned attended Ballyhaise Agricultural College in County Cavan. He trained as a butter maker -a thirty-week course, but also worked for farmers, tended a stonemason and spent a few years with Erin Foods. Five of Ned's brothers emigrated to San Francisco and America, England and France are jut some of the places Ned has visited. In January 1941 Ned married Kitty Lucey from Ballinagree and they had six children, five still living. In 1955 the Hartnetts settled in Kanturk and Ned has been there since. Kitty died in 1980 two years after Ned's retirement and for nineteen years after her death Ned daily walked the mile from his home to pray at her grave in St. Patrick's cemetery. With over thirty years Ned Hartnett has travelled annually to Lourdes. His son and grandson generally travel with him -both work as Brancardiers (helpers) in Lourdes.
The most fascinating thing about Ned is his robust health and crystal clear memory. He is a well-built man and must have been a powerful cut of a man in his younger days. Ned was five and a half when Michael Collins was shot dead and was a teenager when the catastrophic Economic War was raging in the 1930's. His gift in telling stories and yarns is legendary. He seems to have retained every scrap of information he ever heard and his ability to recall times and dates is superb. I've often been in his company in Lourdes when he's 'holding court' surrounded by maybe twenty eager listners. Lourdes is a place of prayer but also of happiness, friendship and enjoyment and Ned is part and parcel of every facet of the Cloyne Pilgrimage each June. There's a moral or a lesson to be taken from so many of his stories and his loud laugh is infectious. When one hears of a man working as Ned did for ten hours a day and earning just 14 shillings a week -they surely were tough times but then people of Ned's generation knew how to re-use, recycle and make do with whatever they had.
They had little expectation from life but had great 'nature' in them and as little as they had they were always prepared to help those less well off. Ned says he has no great secret or 'recipe' for his longevity but believes in a common sense and taking life one day at a time. He also credits walking and daily exercise as vital factors in his long life. When one thinks of the First and Second World Wars, the War of Independence, Civil and Economic Wars, the depressed 50's, the coming of the Motor Car, electricity, telephone, television and the man on the moon isn't it just simply superb that one hundred year old Ned Hartnett has lived through all these and remembers them all. He is a gifted communicator and can relate with children, teenagers - in fact with people of every generation. During his long life his family have been his priority but he has given of his talents freely to the wider community. He has been a great exponent and promoter of the Credit Union movement over many decades. He reckoned the growth of Credit Unions revolutionised the lives of so many people who previously had no access whatsoever to credit. In Kanturk Ned also played key roles in both the Boys Club and Youth Club.
Next Saturday night in Killarney there will be one mighty gathering of friends, neighbours and friends to celebrate Ned's big birthday. He will be presented with the Presidential Bounty, courtesy of President Michael D. Higgins, by his own grandson Mark O Sullivan in what will be a very special presentation. We congratulate and salute you Ned Hartnett a truly remarkable man and friend to so many over the decades. May you enjoy health and happiness for many a year to come.
Rockchapel on The Feale (Timothy Curtin)
I love to speak of my native place,
And think of it with pride.
Where first I saw the light of day,
In a cot by the roadside.
It’s there my youthful days were spent,
So joyful young and free.
But now an exile far I roam,
From Ireland clear and thee,
O time why do you hurry so,
And leave us but the past.
While life remains through far away,
Of all the places I have seen,
None to me appeal,
Like the love I have for my native spot,
Rockchapel on the Feale.