Paddy Gleeson is one of those remarkable characters who makes the rigid timelines of the past just fall away. He is a 103-year-old bachelor farmer living on his own in an old stone cottage in East Clare.
Paddy was a teenager during the First World War. One of his earliest memories is of the redoubtable Willie Redmond, then MP for East Clare, arriving in the county in August 1914 to raise a regiment of Volunteers to help the Belgians fight the Germans. Redmond brought with him a fine banner under which he hoped the men would rally. ‘It was a beautiful flag, green blazes with a harp at its centre,’ recalls Paddy. ‘There were scores of dummy rifles too, for training. But there was big opposition to the British government in the Church and everywhere.’ Redmond abandoned his mission and went to France where he was killed at Messines in 1917. But the banner he brought to Clare stayed in the county and that, says Paddy, ‘is the how and the why of Clare getting the name of the Banner County’.
The Gleeson family were cattle farmers from Sixmilebridge. ‘My grandfather was born just after the Famine.’ At the turn of the century, Paddy’s father, Bartholomew, took on the pub at the O’Callaghan Mills. In a short space of time, he married the mill owner’s daughter and, on 20 May 1904, Paddy was born where Doyle’s Pub is today. He was followed by four siblings before his mother died in 1911. ‘I was nine years old when she left us, with a baby sister and all.’ Money was scarce and times were hard but the outbreak of war in 1914 brought greater hardship.
In October 1916, Bartholomew sold the pub and moved to New York with his two younger sons and a daughter. Paddy, by now 14 years old, was left behind with his other sister to look after an elderly aunt. ‘She had no one to care for her so I stopped here. Otherwise I would have gone out to the brothers.’ The aunt proved to be a great teacher. ‘She said you should always try and come out the same door you went in.’
‘I never saw him again after that,’ says Paddy of his father. ‘He died in New York and is buried there. But,’ he adds with a broad smile, ‘I have seen the Statue of Liberty.’ In the 1960s, Paddy flew to America for a reunion with ‘the brothers’. They showed him Wall Street, the United Nations and the Westpoint Academy. At the latter, he came upon a monument to all the Irish who died in the American Civil War. ‘I got the surprise of my life to see all these local names I was used to seeing here at home.’
Paddy says Clare had a rough time of it in the lead up to independence. Food and money were scarce, emigration was high and evictions were rampant. The people still remembered the events at Bodyke in June 1887 when the McNamara family fought back against their evictors with boiling water and hives of bees.
In Paddy’s youth, resistance remained strong. ‘Once, I was coming to school and I met two fellows leading a three-year-old bullock with horns. On his horns was a placard – ‘The Land for the People and the Road for the Bullock’. And beneath the bull, they were dragging a man who was after evicting a poor widow woman from her home.’ The widow’s home had been knocked but ‘the local people seen how fast it takes to build a house but they did it faster. She was evicted at ten in the morning and she was inside a house that night they built for her in the day! Timber and galvanised!’
Paddy recalls de Valera addressing the crowd in the by-election that followed Redmond’s death. To the surprise of many, the people of Clare elected “Dev” to Wesminster by a majority of 2975 votes. He would go on to represent the constituency until 1959. But Dev was in America when, in January 1920, Lloyd- George's Coalition Cabinet dispatched the notorious Black and Tans to Ireland.
East Clare was one of the areas worst affected by the violent activity of this mercenary army of cutthroats. ‘All around East Clare they were every day out searching for people and burning houses’, recalls Paddy. ‘They were an awful shower. A lot of them were jailbirds. They were sent over here to do the damage.’
Paddy was making his way home from the village with groceries one evening when he saw a ‘Tan’ convoy of motorcycles and Crossley Tenders parked outside the home of his neighbours, the Hogans. ‘There must have been twenty of them or more. Black hats, tan coat. I hid up an ivy tree and I was there from seven o’clock to eleven o’clock with my bag of groceries. That was 19 December 1920. I heard them going and I went over to the Hogan’s house and everything was upside down.’ By the time Paddy got home, the Tans were raiding the house next door to his aunt. They came back again the following night. ‘They had the mother and daughter brought out of the building wearing only their nightclothes. Then they set fire to the house. We heard them going and went over to see could we do anything. At that time, farmers used to kill their own pigs and store them in a barrel to season. I saved the barrel and I saved chairs and I even saved the duck eggs. But the house was burned to the ground.’
‘So here I am,’ he says matter-of-factly. He may be ‘facing 104’ as he puts it, but he’s looking good for a few more years yet. Over thirty full moons have already waxed and waned since President McAleese sent him a Centenarian’s Medal in May 2004. Inscribed on the medal is Patrick Kavanagh’s plea to the aged, ‘Tell Us What Life has Taught You’. On the same occasion, nine-year-old Eoin McGrath sent Paddy a birthday card. ‘You have seen many things in your life from World War One to the Millennium. You must have had an interesting life.’
It is difficult to know the secret of Paddy’s longevity – it’s hardly the Silk Cut cigarettes he puffs. Although born in a pub, he doesn’t really drink so that might have helped. He never married either – ‘although maybe I’ll meet someone my age soon’.
Paddy Gleeson was the oldest man in Ireland when he died at Raheen Community Hospital on Saturday November 13th 2010.