Pictured above: Barth O'Leary (centre) pictured at his 100th birthday celebrations at Mount Carmel Hospital in Clonakilty with his niece Elma ó Maolalaí and nephew James O'Leary.
On Friday, January 29, Clonakilty native Barth O’Leary celebrated reaching his 100th birthday with over 60 family and friends in Mount Carmel Community Hospital, Clonakilty. An uncle, granduncle and a great-granduncle, as well a much-loved neighbour and friend, Barth is a well-travelled man who has witnessed great changes over his long lifetime.
Born to a family of eight children (two girls and six boys) in Kilbree, Clonakilty in 1916, Barth was known as a very strong young man and was a great addition to the Kilbree Tug-o-War team. He worked on local farms in his youth but was always keen to travel and see the world; when he had enough money saved, he headed to London where his brothers, Michael and Drewy, met him.
At his recent birthday party, Barth’s nephews from London, Chris and John, shared their memories of Barth arriving on his bicycle every Saturday with big bags of the very best sweets, before taking them to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park to hear the debates of the day. The trio were all redheads (at that time) so people always assumed they were Barth’s children.
In London, Barth worked as a ‘brickie’ in the waterworks and on the railways. He was also very involved in the Catholic Church in Stockwell – taking up the collections every Sunday and acting as an unofficial bouncer at Church dances when required. Barth loved to dance and was in great demand due to his good looks!
Barth spent 30 years in London before striking off for New York City in search of a new adventure. He made his home in the Bronx but cycled into Manhattan daily, where he worked as a concierge in a residential block. Barth had a large circle of friends in New York, again many of whom he met through the Church, but he also maintained strong family relationships and friendships in Kilbree where he returned for his holidays.
Every year, Andy O’Leary, Vincent Beechinor and Tadgh Hurley travelled to Shannon Airport with Barth on his return journey to the US, a trip that they referred to as their “annual excursion”. On the morning of the excursion Barth always invited them into his house in Kilbree where he had tea made. The guests were then encouraged to eat all the perishables in the house, as Barth didn’t like to waste anything. The three men could be faced with three eggs or more and refusing them was not an option. Barth loved his eggs and ate up to two dozen a week until very recently. A fluent French speaker, a language he’d studied in New York, Barth always said ‘un oeuf’ was never enough.
Barth retired to Kilbree at the grand age of 88 and was warmly welcomed back by his neighbours. He took up blackberry picking with a passion; making his own jam and sometimes even his own wine, products that were in high demand in the locality. Barth never allowed age to limit him. One day he wasn’t at home when relatives called so a search party set out; Barth was discovered up a ladder in the middle of a great growth of blackberry-filled-briars. He had two buckets attached to a necktie across his shoulders and was happily picking juicy berries.
Barth became a daily mass-goer in retirement; in his youth he sang in the choir in Bealad and he loved to attend Mass there in his later years. He also liked to play the violin and regularly invited his fellow nonagenarians, John Crowley, Tim Joe Collins and Tommy O’Donovan to play music at his house in Kilbree.
Barth has experienced some of the most important events of the last century – the War of Independence, the Second World War and even the Cold War in the US – a fact that was recognised when he received special messages from both President Higgins and Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of his birthday. Barth is now enjoying his twilight years in the comfort and care of Mount Carmel in Clonakilty.