Margaret hale and hearty at just 108!
I was on the F-train-express to Parsons Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens, New York, one bright sunny Sunday morning and I tried to think what it would be like to live for 107 years and still have all your senses intact. Of course most of us won’t have to worry too much about that, but for Margaret Byrne, now 108 years old since last Friday, the oldest living Irish woman, the dream of a long and healthy life has become a reality.
Following a stringent security check (this is America after all) I am finally granted access to room 549 on the 5th floor of Mary Immaculate Hospital, where Margaret has lived for the past two and a half years in the nursing home. As I walk down the last corridor I try to think of questions to ask Margaret about her life and times in Ireland and America, but how can you define living to see three centuries, the dawn of the automobile, two world wars, the 1916 rising etc in the space of half an hour? I am greeted by a frail, yet bright-eyed, proud, old woman, who is dressed in turquoise and obviously expecting me as she has her hair and makeup done, all set for having her photograph taken.
One of the first things Margaret Byrne can remember about coming to America was being afraid. “I came to get married, I was very frightened, I didn’t know anybody – I only knew my husband a couple of weeks before I got married.”
Margaret Byrne (nee Dwyer) was born on the August 4 (sic), 1892. In 1925 while working in a grocery store in Dublin, Margaret was introduced to her husband, Denis, through her sister Mary, who had married Denis’s brother, Edward in 1923. Denis from Coolinarrig, Baltinglass, was working in America at that time and was home on holidays. He was a brother of Mick Byrne, the well-known thresher man who drove his thresher into many farmsteads in West Wicklow.
Following a whirlwind three-week romance, Denis whisked Margaret off to America. However, back then, people had to travel by ship, a journey that took at least six weeks – a far cry from the mere seven-hour present-day flight. On arriving in America, Margaret had to go through Ellis Island in New York Harbour, which was then used as an immigration centre and where her name is inscribed on the famous Ellis Island wall.
Within a few weeks, Margaret married Denis, and they initially lived in the Bronx before moving to Queens with their only child, Irene, in 1933. There they operated a bar in the borough of Whitestone for about two years after prohibition was lifted before moving to Flushing in 1935. According to Margaret’s daughter, Irene Laborde, 73, the family decided to move after the Whitestone bar began to lose money and her father was eventually forced to take on other jobs.
Losing the first business “meant losing everything she had at the time”, Irene said. “Then they got a little bit of money together and opened the bar in Flushing.” Byrne’s Bar and Grill, on 41st Avenue and Main Street, proved to be more enduring than the couple’s previous venture lasting 13 years on a ground that is now a parking lot. In the 1930s, Flushing (a borough in Queens) was on the cusp of rapid development, with the introduction of apartment buildings in the 1920s and the subway in 1928. As the site of the 1939-1940 World’s Fair, Flushing was rapidly becoming a central part of the borough.
At first, Denis Byrne owned the business with two other partners, but after a few years, Irene said Margaret and her father bought them out and took over. “They ran it together as much as they could,” Irene said. “They worked six days a week and closed every Thursday for cleaning.” The family lived on the third floor of the building, which was originally a hotel, and Irene “went to sleep with a jukebox on every night”.
“It wasn’t a transit bar, the same people came every day.” With a trolley car stop in front of the bar and a Long Island Rail Road stop behind it, the bar and grill was “a very busy little place”. Margaret, who bartended and operated the business with her husband, said tending to the bar was “a lot of fun, I met a lot of people”.
“It was a lot of hard work, but I survived. Hard work doesn’t kill anybody, more or less you take the good with the bad.” Living and working in the bar required getting up at 5 or 6 in the morning and cleaning up before opening at 8am and going “back to the bar”, Margaret said.
The bar was known as the church, “because my father wouldn’t let anyone curse”, according to Irene who said politics never really became a problem although catering to a racially mixed crowd. The bar was a neighbourhood institution and not a place for singles to meet. “There were no pickups – nobody was allowed to mingle,” she said. “Everybody knew everybody. It was just a quiet, nice place to go,” Irene said. “They were working people,” her mother added.
Business actually increased during World Wars I and II according to Irene, who said that while her father served briefly at the end of World War I, her immediate family was not gravely affected by the conflicts. Unfortunately Denis Byrne died a relatively young man in 1945 aged 52. It was around this time that Margaret developed cataracts so severe that she could barely see the customers. “She could feel the coins,” her daughter Irene said. “That’s how she knew to make change. In those days cataracts were a big deal – she had surgery, and had to keep her head still for three days. This is what she went through.”
Although Margaret tried to keep on the business it was eventually lost. “It was hard,” she said, “but I couldn’t keep it. The business was going down.”
After losing both her husband and her business she moved in with her then married daughter, Irene Laborde, who also lives in Queens and helped raise her four grandsons for 48 years. Now at 108 she is one of Queens oldest residents having lived there for 66 years in total. The last time Margaret visited Ireland was in 1968 and asked if she was ever tempted to return she replied with a definite: “No, I love it here, I’d never go back.”
None of Margaret’s brothers or sisters have lived to be as old as her, however people from Carrignameil are well known for their longevity, indeed one of Margaret’s best friends from her childhood, Liza Blackrock, is aged 101 and living in Baltinglass hospital. Margaret and Irene continued to live together until two and a half years ago when she entered the nearby Monsignor Fitzpatrick Pavilion Nursing home. “I’m very happy,” Margaret said, “I like it here. They’re very good to me.” According to Irene, the Pavilion, located within Mary Immaculate Hospital, was the original hospital where all of Margaret’s grandsons and one great granddaughter were born.
So is there any particular secret to living so long? “No, not at all, I just lived my life as a normal person,” explains Margaret, who never smoked and only had the odd tipple on social occasions. “Sometimes I wonder how I went through all I did.” Irene added: “I haven’t got her guts – she’s an aggressive woman. You have to be aggressive and looking to the future. That’s why she’s lived this long, the past is lovely, but it’s gone”.
Friday, October 20, 2000 :
Oldest Irishwoman dies after living to 108 in New York
THE Rathdangan woman who broke records by living to 108 years, passed away peacefully in New York last week.
Margaret Byrne (née Dwyer) was born on August 4 (sic), 1892, and lived most of her life in Queens, New York having emigrated to America in 1925.
Last August on the eve of her 108th birthday, The Nationalist featured an interview with Margaret in Monsignor Fitzpatrick Pavilion Nursing home, where she spent the final two years of her life.
Along with her husband, Denis, a native of Coolinarrig, Baltinglass the family initially lived in the Bronx before moving to Queens with their only child, Irene, in 1933.
Margaret, who bartended and operated a bar business with her husband, said during the interview that tending to the bar was “a lot of fun, I met a lot of people”.
“It was a lot of hard work, but I survived. Hard work doesn’t kill anybody, more or less you take the good with the bad.”
At 108, Margaret was one of Queens’ oldest residents having lived there for 66 years in total and was also heralded as Ireland’s eldest citizen.
People from her native Carrignameil are well known for their longevity, indeed one of Margaret’s best friends from her childhood, Lizzy Byrne, will hit 102 in November and is living in Baltinglass hospital.
On the secret of long life: “I just lived my life as a normal person,” said Margaret, who never smoked and only had the odd tipple on social occasions.
“Sometimes I wonder how I went through all I did.”
U.S. Social Security Death Index for Margaret Byrne
First Name: Margaret
Last Name: Byrne
Birth Date: 15 (sic) August 1892
Social Security Number: 068-38-4895
Place of Issuance: New York
Last Residence: Queens, New York
Zip Code of Last Residence: 11432
Death Date: 11 October 2000
Estimated Age at Death: 108