Don O'Hara

Article written for West Kerry Live Magazine

Within five minutes of me sitting down to talk to Don O’Hara in his home in Annascaul, he’s lifting himself up from his seat to get something from his desk in the corner of the room: an invite to his birthday party. “As a matter of fact, I’m 37 days short of my 91st birthday, you got yourself an invite to the party!” He tells me this with great pride, his strong Lancashire accent making it all the more friendly. It sounds like his birthday is an occasion he looks forward to. “Every year we usually have a party the Friday before my birthday, god knows how many people turn up and we have a bit of a session!”

Originally from Rossendale in England, Don moved to Kerry shortly after his marriage to his second wife Alma back in 1974. “I wanted to move to Spain but she said ‘No we won’t, I don’t like Spain’ so I told her we had a bit of land in Ireland and we came over to check it out.”

The move to Ireland followed an extensive career in the Marines. “I didn’t have to join the marines, I did it because I had a falling out session with the Father.” The falling out being over wanting to take a girl to the cinema on a Saturday night, and his father wanting him to do work instead. “I joined the Marines because they were the only ones that would take me at 17 and a half, I wanted to join the RAF but you had to be 18 to join.” 

With that he left home, straight into World War II, not returning until after the D-Day landings in Normandy. “In France, they made some very small units of us. About 20 - 22 blokes in a group and we each landed to do a certain job. I was just short of my 20th birthday on D-Day. They told us that 90% of us wouldn’t come back.” After D-Day they were given two weeks annual leave, after which they were to go to Japan to repeat what happened in Normandy with the Japanese. 

During his time on leave, he married the girl who he wanted to take to the cinema all those years ago - Gwen. “I got shanghaied you see! They told us that 97% of us wouldn’t make it back, so the wife said ‘well if you’re going to get knocked off I’ll take your house and your pension.’ She were laughing!” The invasion of Japan was called off while he was in the Far East, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima. 

O’Hara was sent to Holland to clean up after the war for a year before returning back to England. Following that he left the marines and went back to college as per his father's orders to get his degree in joinery. “What they do in 3-4 years nowadays, you had to cram into 6 months back then!” But the income of a joiner wasn’t quite that of a Marine and after a few months Don returned deep sea diving until his retirement in 1973. “You name the place, I probably went there. I would be gone for months at a time which suited the wife fine. She were happy out!” Gwen passed away from parkinson's and cancer in 1973. 

Shortly after that he met Alma, recently retired from the RAF, who was a friend of some friends. “That were a bit of a laugh with regards to Alma. She said ‘How are you fixed for getting married?’ I said ‘I’m not!’ But before the week was up she’d arranged a wedding!” He chuckles as he remember this time and coming to Ireland to build the house. “She were great she was actually! She loved animals, we had all sorts in the house! She died in 2003 from cancer, and I’ve been on my own since then.” 

Although living on his he own, he’s a man with plenty of visitors. As well as being well known in Annascaul, he recently got back in touch with the family of his brother, some of whom he has never met. “I was always away, so I haven’t seen two of them since they were children, the others I’ve never met.” He hasn’t been back to Rossendale in nearly 40 years. “When I went to England I went down south to see my daughter. I had no reason to go back to Rossendale.” His daughter, his only blood relative left, will also come over for his birthday in September.

As well as all the visitors, Don keeps himself busy with his workshop out the back where he makes all sorts from rocking horses to clocks and wooden boats. The workshop is full of tools and machinery along with works in progress. “I come out here when I’m able and feeling up for it and make little canons for the boats.” Although he has his stick for walking, he has no problem dropping it to turn on a machine to give me a glimpse of him at work. “I’ll hollow that out now and it’ll make a fruit bowl or something like that for someone,” he says referring to the piece he’s currently working on. In his living room alone he has two clocks and two boats, one of which is the Titanic, which he has made himself, but he doesn’t sell anything. “I’ve not sold one item. I either trade it for something or give them as a donation.” 

Also hanging with pride of place in his living room, is his skydive certificate which he got back in 2010. “The Irish Parachute Club wanted to have the record for the oldest person to do a skydive. So I told them if they paid for me to do it I’d do it. They wanted me to do training over 3 days but I told them they could do it in an afternoon. They even had a plane come down and collect me!” He passes it off as not a big deal, but the articles on his desk from that occasion say otherwise. “All the papers wanted to print about me then! Silly really!” He’s certainly quite modest when it comes to his achievements.

As I prepare to leave, he looks out at the rain and points over to the A-Team boxset beside his TV. “My daughter sent me that for my birthday, so I think I’ll spend the afternoon watching that. I won’t be going out anyway.” He walks me to the door and as I say goodbye he reminds me “You’ve got your ticket to the party now, so you can get back in.” I feel like I’ve been welcomed to a pretty exclusive club.

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