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Kathleen Snavely. nee Hayes, with her first husband, RoxyRollins.

Life and times of Ireland’s longest living person

THE secret to a long life may lie somewhere in East Clare as this past week saw a Feakle woman make the headlines, both in Ireland and in the United States, having made history by being named the Republic of Ireland’s oldest ever person.

Kathleen with her first husband, Roxie Rollins.
Kathleen with her first husband, Roxie Rollins.

East Clare has had its share of title holders in this regard, with Ireland’s oldest living residents often being from the region, including Mary Kelly, née McNamara (108) from Scariff, who also lived in New York; Annie Kett (108) from Kilkshen and Paddy Gleeson (106) from O’Callaghan’s Mills.

Kathleen Snavely, née Hayes, hails from Garraun, Feakle, with her homestead not far from Pepper’s pub in the village. Last week, she overtook Ireland’s longest living person, Katherine Plunkett, who lived to be 111 and 327 days.

Kathleen was born to parents Patrick and Ellen (neé Moroney) Hayes on February 16, 1902. Her father was a publican and farmer in the village. She had two sisters, Lena (known as Eileen) and Anna May, and two brothers, Martin and Pat.

She left Ireland’s shores as a young woman of 19 in September 1921, departing from Queenstown, now Cobh, aboard the Scythia.
She arrived on Ellis Island on September 30, 1921, according to the ship’s manifest. She was travelling over to her uncle, Jeremiah Moroney, who lived in Marcellus Street, Syracuse, New York. At the time of her arrival in Ellis Island, she was recorded as being 5’ 6”, with fair hair and blue eyes. It is understood that she travelled with another person from Feakle, whose name is not known, but that person was going to America to their brother, Denis Tuohy, who had a Bronx address in New York.

While in Syracuse, she met and married Roxie Rollins and together they set up Seneca Dairy, a successful retail business specialising in dairy products, such as milk, cream and ice-cream. They didn’t have any children and Mr Rollins died in 1968, aged 66.

Kathleen remarried a man called Jesse Snavely, when she was 64 or 65, who owned a big lumber business in Pennsylvania. Although she has no children of her own, Jesse had three children from his first marriage and it is understood that Kathleen maintained a connection with them over the years.

Following the death of her second husband, it appears Kathleen returned to Syracuse in 2000 and remained living independently until she was 104. She now lives in a healthcare facility, the Centres at St Camillus, in Syracuse.

Her closest living relatives are still on home soil and the nearest relative to the homestead is Kathleen’s nephew Gerard Hayes, who lives in Limerick. Gerard’s father was Kathleen’s brother, Martin.

She also has nephews and nieces still in Ireland. Gerard’s brother, Paddy, lives in Meath and his sister, Helen, lives in Dublin. Meanwhile, his late uncle, Pat, also had three children; his son Ken lives in Dundalk, son Frank is in Dublin and daughter Patricia lives in Carrick-on-Shannon.

Kathleen’s birth certificate.
Kathleen’s birth certificate.

Former mayor of Clare Councillor Pat Hayes, renowned fiddle player Martin Hayes and their sister Helen Hayes are also related to Kathleen, as their father, P Joe Hayes, was a first cousin. The family homestead in Feakle was sold many years ago.

Gerard said his aunt is in good health and is in regular contact with her by letter. “Prior to her going into a nursing home, which was maybe seven years ago, you could ring her up and she would have a normal conversation with you. But now since she has been in the nursing home, it has been more difficult to keep in touch. Her last comment to me over the phone was, ‘I still read letters, so please continue to write’. People of Kathleen’s generation would have been great letter writers, so I do correspond with her by letter.”

He said Kathleen would often discuss politics with him and said his father travelled over to visit her many times, while she herself has been home a number of times. Following her second marriage, she travelled back to Ireland with Jesse to show him where she came from.

She, as a businesswoman together with her first husband Roxie, “worked very hard”.

“She is a non-drinker and non-smoker. She was a very tall, striking woman in her day. I met Jesse Snavely twice and he was an absolute gentleman. She was married to Roxie for about 40 years and to Jesse for about 20 years. Jesse was president of Pennsylvannia Rotary. I believe around Pennsylvania there were a lot of Amish people and my late brother was interested in that. Jesse bought my brother a book on the Amish people because my brother had enquired about it. They came over once and my father went over to them also,” Gerard said.

Kathleen kept in great contact with Jesse’s children and their wives, as did Gerard’s father, Martin.
Kathleen is also a very charitable woman and on separate dates in 1999, she donated money to two universities. She donated €1 million to Syracuse University, New York in memory of her first husband, Roxie Rollins. The funds were used towards the construction of a new university building in 2000.

Upon making the donation, Kathleen was described as someone who had played a “key role in the development of entrepreneurship” in Syracuse city and was commended for her gift, which would “support the ventures of others” with the same spirit.

She also pledged €500,000 to the University of Findlay in Ohio. Syracuse was the place where she lived and built her business with Mr Rollins, while Jesse had an association with Findlay University.

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