Gardening and dancing keep him fit and active, says Bill at age of 90
Dapper Bill Dunne has an agility of body and mind that belies his years. Gardening and dancing have kept him fit and mentally alert, he says.
Bill recently celebrated his 90th birthday at a surprise party organised by his family in The Greville Arms Hotel, Mullingar.
When he arrived, Bill thought he must have been in the wrong place, there were so many people, but then they all started singing ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ and faces came into focus. They had travelled from England and many parts of Ireland.
Bill was “charmed, couldn’t believe it”. He is grateful to his family for all the work they put into organising the party and to his loyal friends who “kept the secret”.
There was a meal and “a massive cake” and then they all sat back to enjoy a video compilation of old photographs and memorabilia of Bill’s life, compiled by Sean Lynch, manager of Mullingar Arts Centre, who is married to Bill’s daughter Irene.
Bill also has two sons, Adrian and Trevor, and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Music on the night was by Sean Doran and Jack Weymes.
Born in Hightown, Coralstown, to Michael and Mary, née O’Neill of Gibbonstown, Bill was the youngest of 13 and is the only one living. “We had a farm and we were a happy family,” he recalls.
Bill was born during the “big snow” of 1933. His father rode on horseback to get the “jubilee nurse” and then had to venture out again in the snow to fetch the priest for Bill’s grandmother, who was dying. “So, Granny Dunne died just after I was born.”
During World War II, the Dunnes had their own butter and vegetables and killed a pig or lamb now and then to sustain them.
Bill attended Coralstown NS and later St Mary’s CBS in Mullingar, but he was not fond of school and left early. He spent nine months in England, where some of his siblings lived, but he was a “home bird” and came back to work on the farm, until he joined the army.
He recalls the threshing and how he lost the top of his index finger in the thrashing mill. Every autumn, when the harvest was in, they had a thrashing dance and card games. Local musicians would play, sitting on top of the mill, and there would be dancing and card games for turkeys, geese and hens.
Bill’s mother and sisters would dole out sandwiches and sweet cake. “All the neighbours would come, it was the highlight of the year,” he said.
When he joined the army, Bill was posted to Athlone for recruitment training. He was courting Lily Kiernan from Patrick Street, where he had bought a house.
He transferred back to Mullingar and, having done several courses, was promoted to corporal, later sergeant, quartermaster sergeant, and finally, regimental sergeant major.
By the time Bill and Lily married, they had their home in Patrick Street paid for and they lived there until they built their bungalow on the Dublin Road, where Bill still lives 60 years later. The couple shared a passion for ballroom dancing, foxtrot, waltzes and tangos, and won hundreds of trophies – the house was so full of them that a lot had to be stored in the attic.
Eventually, they were asked to judge dancing competitions all over the country. When Lily died in 2002, Bill was devastated. Later, a friend persuaded him to go dancing again and dancing brought him back into the world. “Dancing is a great way to make friends,” he said.
Bill has also won many prizes for his fruit, vegetables and flowers in horticultural shows across Ireland.
During his time in the army he had a 60 foot by 50 foot greenhouse in his garden and supplied tomatoes and bedding plants to local supermarkets and nurseries. “I’d spend an hour in the greenhouse and do a few runs down town with stuff before going to my job in the barracks,” he said.
He still gardens, but on a smaller scale, concentrating on cultivating new varieties of roses, searching for “a real good scent”.
Before retiring from the army, Bill was head-hunted by Fr William Cleary to serve as sacristan in the Cathedral of Christ the King, a position he held for more than 20 years, having replaced Phil Mullally who “had been sacristan for 30 years or so”.
Nowadays, Bill lives for his family and friends. He loves, in particular, watching the rugby matches with his sons and grandchildren.
As we left him, Bill was heading off to meet a friend for lunch. That was his second social engagement of the day, having met friends for coffee after Mass, and it was still only 1pm.