Kathleen Hayes Rollins Snavely, the longest-living person ever born in what is now the Republic of Ireland, is not fond of being asked about her secret to longevity.
"I get so tired of people asking me about my secret. I've got no secret," she told Sean Kirst of the Syracuse Post-Standard at her 113th birthday party. "You live and you do it the best you can."
And that’s precisely what she has done, from her early years in Feakle, Co. Clare to her brave Atlantic passage at 19 years of age; from her marriage and business partnership with her first husband, Roxie Rollins, to her independent living until a few years past her 100th birthday.
Nor, it seems, does she enjoy talking about her age – at least not judging by this exchange: "Someone came up to me in the cafeteria and said to me, 'How old are you anyway?' I said, 'I'm old enough to have some manners.’”
Supercentenarians such as Kathleen have offered all kinds of advice over the years, from eating raw eggs to swearing off booze. So there’s something wonderfully refreshing about a reply as straight to the point as hers.
A group of close friends gathered on Sunday at the Center at St. Camillus in Syracuse, NY to celebrate the start of Kathleen’s 114th year. She is currently the longest living Irishwoman, and in 35 days will be the longest living person ever born on the island of Ireland. That record is currently held by Annie Scott, who was born in what is now Northern Ireland in 1883 and passed away in 1996 at 113 years and 37 days.
But back to the party.
“I thought it was intimate and nice, right at the home where she is – a mixture of people who have known her for years, people from the Francis House, Sean Kirst and his wife,” Dave Liddell, a friend who was in attendance told IrishCentral. They had hoped to be joined by members of the Snavely family, which Kathleen became a part of in 1970, when she married her second husband Jesse Clark Snavely, Jr., but they were detained by the bad weather.
The celebration is a tradition Kathleen and her friends have maintained for the last few years. They enjoyed a big birthday cake, and Kathleen was treated to a meal of baked haddock and one delicious Manhattan provided by Karen White, who owns a restaurant and catering company based out of the apartment building where Kathleen lived for many years. The Manhattan is her once a year cocktail, which she declines initially and then always enjoys.
“She was very happy from the get go, was typical Kathleen, reveling in the moment, and it was a shame in some respects when it had to come to a halt,” Liddell said.
Having known her for 30 years, he describes Kathleen as someone who likes to keep her distance to a certain degree, but says that “once she opens up and becomes part of the group she enjoys expanding and telling stories.
“She’s warm and cheerful and thoughtful of others, that comes through in a lot of the things she says. She’s very intelligent even though her education was somewhat limited, leaving Ireland so young, and she’s still sharp as a tack even though she has relinquished some of her physical vitality. And she’s Irish through and through” he said.
Kathleen shared stories from the years gone by – of arriving in Syracuse in 1921 and staying at her uncle’s house; of working – first at a state school for the developmentally disabled and then at a department store; of meeting and falling in love with her first husband Roxie Rollins and building their business, Seneca Dairy, with him. "It was a Godsend," she said. "We were very much in love. It was the secret of our success," she has said.
Kathleen’s memories are more personal than historic – as she told Sean Kirst on a previous occasion, "I've forgotten a lot of history. I've been living my whole life. I didn't think I'd need to remember these things."
But she remembers the important stuff, like the night she left Ireland and the advice she gave to her two younger brothers: “Work hard and you be careful about drinking and grow up to be someone to be proud of."
And her advice today? "You can't go through life thinking you're better than the other guy."
* Originally published in Feb 2015.