A conversation with a ninety year-old at any time is a gift, but encountering a pair of nonagenarian brothers still hale and hearty in mind and body, is a real treasure.
Paddy and Jack Brunnock, aged 95 and 91 respectively, who originally hail from Curraghdobbin, Lisadobber, Carrick-on-Suir, may well be the oldest pair of brothers alive in this area. Whether they are or not we can’t say for sure but what is definite is that both have lived full and interesting lives and a chat with either today is like a trip back in time.
There were four children in the family Felix and Statia Brunnock - Paddy, Jack, Jim and Mary, the younger two now deceased. Their mother died when they were young and their father Felix with the help of good neighbours reared them.
Paddy recalls a story about his father Felix who, long before he was married, accompanied his neighbour, Tom ‘Champion’ Kiely to the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, USA where ‘Champion’ won the gold medal in the all-round event. Many Americans mistook Felix Brunnock for Kiely in and around St. Louis, the two being fine athletic men. While ‘Champion’ Kiely returned home to Ireland immediately after the Olympics, Felix Brunnock stayed on in America for a few years.
Both Paddy and Jack similarly recall their early childhood under the shadow of Slievenamon and tough school days of walking through the fields to school in Ballyneale and Kilcash.
Paddy, born in February, 1918, told me about walking four miles every day to Kilcash School and four miles back in all weathers, winter included.
After schooldays Paddy went working in private forestry but continued his education for a number of years and was ahead of his time doing courses in the likes of Business Studies, Typing and Shorthand. Even today you could quickly see the sharpness of recall, exact dates rolling off the tip of his tongue with ease.
He soon joined the Volunteer Force - “the unpaid army,” he described it, “except for when we went on training weekends. The pay at a training weekend was good and better than two or three weeks work at farming.”
“Here’s a date from history,” Paddy recalls matter of factly, “11th July 1938.” It was the day the Irish tricolour was raised for the first time on Spike Island and Paddy Brunnock was part of the Army escort for Eamonn De Valera and the Cabinet out from Cork to Cobh. “And it was a good thing it was raised or we would have been at risk of involvement in the war 14 months later,” he added.
Paddy also recalled another date of historic magnitude, 3rd September 1939 “the day of the Thunder and Lightning All-Ireland Hurling Final and the day Hitler declared War.”
“I was training in the Wicklow Mountains with the Volunteers; but after that day we were all in the Army.”
One of his many recollections of his Army career during the “Emergency” of World War II is of a special mobile shop he operated throughout County Wexford.
“It was a mobile home, stocked up as a shop, and pulled by a van. We went around the length and breadth of County Wexford - Curracloe, New Ross, Enniscorthy, Oylegate, Wexford Town. We were stocked up with everything from food, ale, cigarettes, biscuits, you name it. It was for army personnel only - to keep them where they should be and available for call up at a moment’s notice.”
As far as Paddy could make out it was the only such shop operated by the Irish Army during the Emergency. “If the Germans were going to land in Ireland, Wexford was the most likely place they made out,” he said.
Another day Paddy remembers well (26th August 1940) was the day the Germans bombed Campile in County Wexford. He recounts how the Luftwaffe dropped three bombs on the Shelburne Co-Op and Creamery and how three young women working there died.
“Questionable” was how he recalls as to whether it was accidental or deliberate on the Germans’ behalf, explaining with exact recall why it may have been a lesson for De Valera to stay neutral and out of the war.
Seventy years after the event on the occasion of the unveiling of a new monument and memorial garden at Campile in 2010 Paddy received a written invitation to attend. On his sittingroom wall now hangs a special photograph, proudly displayed, of himself and the German Ambassador to Ireland Brusso von Alvensleben, taken at the official ceremonies.
After the conclusion of World War II Paddy was posted back to McCann Barrack in Templemore. Shortly afterwards he was selected to train the Local Defence Forces soldiers at night, as he was acknowledged as a superb marksman with a rifle. Every evening Paddy would have to head off on his bicycle from his home in Kilcash (where he still lives) to a different location to train soldiers.
He covered the villages of Grangemockler, Mullinahone, Windgap, Kilmoganny, Kells, Piltown, Mooncoin and Kilmeaden and after training would have a cup of tea and cycle home again in the dark. “It was five nights a week and it was poor pay and I gave it one full year but then went back to Templemore for an easier life.”
Eventually Paddy retired from the Army and joined the State Forestry Board and worked out the remainder of his working life in and around the woods of Kilcash. He officially retired all of 30 years ago in 1983.
As if Paddy hadn’t enough to be doing all his life with rearing a family of four (Tony, Anne, Michael, Eily) with his wife Mae he was a serious market gardener and had an acre of land out the back from which he grew absolutely everything.
“I supplied Jack Somers and Five-Star, one of the very first supermarkets in Clonmel with everything they needed, carrots, parsnips, brussels sprouts, cabbage. I had people calling to the door all the time looking to purchase vegetables and anything I had.” But when I retired I decided I had “enough done” and finished with the gardening too.
When asked what he put his longevity down to he retorted “Not the faintest idea. I gave up smoking in 1953 because I couldn’t afford them. They were 11 old pence for a packet of 20 - a penny back from a shilling.”
“Good health you can’t buy it,” he said. “I have no regrets, I don’t owe anyone anything and no one owes me anything.”
Relaxation now is newspapers and listening to country music and he especially loves Tipp FM radio every night.
Paddy’s younger brother is 91 year-old Jack who has lived nearly all his life in Kilcash but is now a resident at Rathkeevan Nursing Home, outside Clonmel.
Jack’s first job after his schooling was farm work locally in Ballyneale for a brother of the famous Tom Kiely.
Like Paddy, Jack was blessed with a good work ethic and also gifted with his hands. He left the farm labouring to train as a blocklayer and “after a few years of working for other builders decided to branch out on his own.”
He built houses all around the region including “a hexagonal shaped house, six-sided, and also a square house with a round roof for a Jewish family.”
When asked about how difficult that was - “It was tough and you had to get all the angles right, but we could do it.”
Jack was also involved in the building of Ronans factory at Castleblake and recalls the late Louis Ronan as “always a gentleman to do work for.”
Jack stayed small in building terms but always had a staff of five or six and “we always had plenty of work to keep us going. We built everything, you name it, we built it.”
“It was a lot of responsibility always working for yourself, finding the work, paying the men, but I preferred it that way. I was always reasonable with my fellows (employees), we worked five days a week, and they were good to me.”
Jack Brunnock owned a car from the time he was a young man too, when cars were few and far between on the roads of Ireland. He drove all his life right up into his eighties and he never once had an accident. He knew the road to Shannon Airport like that back of his hand with all the trips he made to and fro with his children.
Besides work, and no doubt he worked very hard rearing a family of six, Jack recalls what he did outside of work down the years. “I hurled for Ballyneale when I was young, when it was tough with timber flying up in the sky. You can only imagine what it was like back then.” (And his big hand reaching up to catch an imaginary sliothar as he tells you this).
“Greyhounds I loved too. I would go to the dogs in Clonmel on Mondays and Thursday and I would often go to Waterford and Kilkenny.”
Jack and his wife Josephine had six children John, Bridget (deceased), Statia, Mary, Joanie and Teresa. Daughters Mary Boyle and Teresa Egan live locally while the other four children went to America. John now lives outside Boston, Massachusetts, while Statia and Joanie are in Dallas, Texas.
Jack fondly recalls two trips he made to the States over the years visiting Dallas, Boston, New York City and Chicago. He loved Texas and visiting South Fork “where JR lived” and loved Boston too and the trip around the city and all the sites of historical interest. “I might even go again,” he said.
When I asked Jack what he put his many years down to he said, quick as lightning and with a rogueish smile “Hard work is the only thing that would kill you. I am smoking 72 years and am still smoking but I gave up the drink 10 years back.”
Had he any advice for the young people of today in Ireland? “Get the hell out of this place (Ireland)” - not the least impressed with the way the country has gone in the past few years.
“The two best men this place ever had were De Valera and Sean Lemass. Lemass did a great job for this country,” he said.
Jack told me his family still lived in his old house in Kilcash and when I told him the scaffolding was still up around the castle. “Still up, what’s going on out there? I’d finish it off myself if I was younger. It’s taking way too long.”
Finally, after chatting with the two Brunnock Boys one might be none the wiser as to what is the secret of their longevity, but whatever they are doing it is right and it works. May they both be blessed with happiness and health for many more years to come.