Michael O’Sullivan from Rosscarbery, who was the recent recipient of the overall West Cork Hero Award 2016, speaks to Emma Connolly about the importance of community spirit and why it’s up to us all to do our part for the greater good
‘WE live in a pressurised world, and we need to slow down and connect with people. We have to go with change, but we hardly have time to salute each other anymore, and that’s a big loss to the community.’ These are the words of father of seven and grandfather of 17 Michael O’Sullivan from Rosscarbery, who was recently honoured with the inaugural West Cork Hero Award for his outstanding service to his community, by The Southern Star and Celtic Ross Hotel. Now, as he moves into his 80s, he is as committed as ever to making his beloved West Cork a better place.
To date Michael’s lifetime of voluntary service includes involvement in: Reenascreena Group Water Scheme; Rosscarbery Community Council; the West Cork Disadvantaged Area Extension; Rosscarbery Social Housing for the Elderly; West Cork Bowling Association; Carbery Rangers GAA Club; Cork County GAA Scor competition; Mount Saint Michael Secondary School board of management; centenary celebrations of the Sisters of Mercy in 1994 as well as their departure from the town in 2015.
Certainly this reads as an impressive list, but in no way does it paint a true picture of the change that Michael, a retired garda, has brought about – and continues to bring about.
And seniority in years isn’t changing his work ethic either – without a second thought he drove to Belfast in recent weeks for a Scór competition and is currently involved in a new nine-unit social housing development in Rosscarbery that is soon to get underway.
But he’s quick to point out that ‘working with any of these organisations is not a one-man show. I have worked with some extraordinary men and women in these areas, all devoted and dedicated to the shared aims and goals of us all. I gained great satisfaction from working alongside such marvellous people and great friendships were formed along the way.’
Born in Reenascreena, Michael joined An Garda Siochana in 1956. He worked in the clerical side of the organisation and was based in Dublin, Cobh, Blarney, Bishopstown, Union Quay, Bandon and Clonakilty before retiring in 1995.
‘Ireland was a different place when I joined, compared to today. Crime was low and it’s fair to say there was a good relationship between the gardaí and the people, which is very important – after all gardai do not solve crime on their own but only through the good relationship with the people they serve. There’s an absence of that more today than in my time I think.
‘It was also a time that discretion was used, again there’s not so much of that today. I think there should be more of an emphasis on discretion given in the training centre in Templemore, because a good rapport with the community is vital for gardaí in their every day work.’
Recent events that have made the headlines within the organisation have left Michael feeling ‘frustrated and embarrassed.’
‘Having been out of the job for 21 years I have no intention of pointing the finger at whoever was wrong but it hasn’t done An Garda Siochana any good whatsoever. Things could, and should, have been solved within the organisation by the Garda authorities without ever having reached the steps of Leinster House.’
However he feels it’s not easy being a garda today with the level of assaults, murder and drugs posing a very real danger, and he has mixed views about the closure of rural garda stations.
‘The presence of gardai, especially in rural areas, is so important to act as a deterrant. A station may not be regarded as very active, but their very presence could prevent a major crime – even a murder. There’s no point having a station and it being locked up. If I had my way stations would be manned by at least two members of the force – especially in maritime areas where drugs may be coming in.’
And the garda station is part of the community after all, he says, along with the local shop, post office and pub. ‘Ireland would be a much poorer place if all of these community services were taken away. I think successive governments have only paid lip service to this situation and as a result, rural Ireland, I’m sad to say, is becoming denuded of people.’
Thanks in no small way to Michael’s tireless work with local committees and communities, Rosscarbery and its surrounds continue to thrive. ‘It’s a very vibrant community – a good mix of young and old, natives and outsiders – all who see it as a great place to live. The quality of life is great and it’s a wonderful place to bring up a family.’
Michael and his wife Mary (a retired teacher, originally from Leap) lived in Cork city when they first married, but were always keen to move back home to their native place. When they were rearing their children in the city, they longed for the peace and quiet of West Cork and found themselves travelling ‘home’ every weekend. They missed the close-knit communities of Reenascreena and Leap. Within their jobs, Mary and Michael were lucky to get transfers westwards and Rosscarbery, with its secondary school, was a great attraction for a young family. Although Michael laments the departure of the nuns from the town in recent years, he is keen to emphasise the great work being done both now and in the past in Mount St Michael secondary school.
‘From my many interactions with Mount Saint Michael staff, parents and students, as a parent myself and as a member of the board of management for 25 years, I was always so impressed by the high standard of education achieved there – academic, sporting and holistic. Community building starts at a very young age. Friendships that last a lifetime are formed in schools. Local schools are a vital part of our community and have been for over 100 years in Rosscarbery. We salute the Sisters of Mercy for their visionary foresight and admire them for their courage in being pioneers of conferring education upon a community – both primary and secondary, in an era when school was more of a luxury than a fact of life. Therefore, it is essential that as a community we support these places which foster community spirit and a pride of place.’
Michael has seen a lot of change in society throughout his lifetime. ‘Old guys like me were lucky to grow up at a time where community living was the norm. Houses were unlocked, children wandered freely from house to house and neighbours were thought of as extended family. Communities were networks of people who didn’t travel far beyond their boundaries but could sustain themselves easily. We grew up in rich communities where help wasn’t given or exchanged in monetary terms – it was in the name of friendship that good turns were handed out.
‘We depend upon each other. We must be conscious of this as we move forward in Ireland and as we progress and develop. We must remember that no man is an island and that no matter how far we move with technology etc there is no computer that can care and feel and love in the way that we humans can. We must look after each other. And what we give out to the world we get back tenfold.’
He also feels that communication ‘is very important in family life. Children and parents should be able to come to each other. If there was more communication between them, I think there would be less family problems. The day children can’t talk to their parents and vice versa is a very sad day.’
Michael and his wife Mary have a very strong connection with all seven of their children – all of whom live within an hour of their home. ‘It is very gratifying to know that we can call any one of them and they can be there for us.’
He is keen to point out the vital and unwavering role his wife Mary (who is celebrating her 80th birthday this week) has played in his community work.
‘I wouldn’t be here today without her cooperation. She is a great woman and has always been fully supportive and encouraging of me. Mary too is a very community-minded person, who always went about her work in a more silent way than yours truly, but was just as committed.’
Michael enjoys good health which he puts down to moderation, when it comes to exercise and food. He enjoys a social drink, has never smoked, played basketball and football, is not a man for the sun and enjoys holidays in Ireland. Being actively involved in the community has always served Michael and Mary well as regards physical and mental activity and friendships.
‘It’s good for the body and soul to be involved – I get happiness from helping people,’ Michael concludes. ‘I’m proud of all my achievements – they all gave satisfaction and a positive result.’