Well-known Athlone resident Jim Byrne celebrates a very special birthday this week.
The ex-Army man who has had a hand in setting up many of Athlone's voluntary initiatives turns 90, and is looking forward to celebrating with his wife Agnes, children Rosemary, Michael, Seamus and Brian, eight grandchildren and friends.
Until the time Jim became a Commissioned Officer in 1962 he had always thought his birthday fell on June 14. However on receiving his birth certificate he found out he was actually a day older than he had thought, with his birthday actually recorded as June 13. Birthday celebrations and cake will feature this week on both dates, which fall today (Wednesday) and tomorrow, before Jim celebrates at his official birthday party on June 23.
Born in 1922 in Wicklow, Jim came to call Athlone home thanks to the Irish Army. Just as his final hometown fell to chance, so too did his lengthy and successful career in the Army.
Speaking to the Westmeath Independent this week Jim revealed he never had plans for an Army career. Instead, a summer spent in the then equivalent of the FCA in 1939 led to a longer-than-planned spell serving.
"I joined with the intention of getting a summer training out of it and returning to civilian life," he explained. "I was called in the end of July, which meant I served in August and September and was due to return on release in early October. I was called to McKee Barracks in Dublin and I served there as a recruit before being transferred to Collins Barracks. I was serving there on September 29 when Churchill declared war. Within a week we were handed a form, which called us out on permanent service. "
Jim said he took to soldiering with gusto. "Like all the rest of the young lads at first I accepted it to see what soldiering generally would be like," he said. "I immersed myself totally into the service." After training Jim joined the cavalry unit of the second motor squadron, which was in time transferred from Dublin to Collins Barracks in Cork.
Remembering those war years in the Army, Jim said they were unlike anything today. "Looking back on them I suppose at the time we enjoyed the thing because we were young people and we were prepared to put up with anything, any type of soldiering," he said. "Having said that it would be far removed from present day soldiering because it was very tough, and very rough."
Over the next few years Jim rose to the rank of Sergeant. Further training followed, including motorcycle training under then world motor cycling champion Stanley Woods, and in 1949 Jim was posted to Birr - the most extreme point of the Southern Command. It was here his path was to cross with wife Agnes, from Bornacoola in Leitrim.
"I arrived in Birr and I met a certain lady who happened to be down there on holiday," he reminisced.
The two married in 1953, and settled in the south Offaly town that was to be the birthplace of three of the couple's four children.
Though Jim presumed Birr was to be his final career move, he found himself once more in the Curragh after being successful in an interview for what was at the time called First Potential Officer.
In 1962 he was commissioned, which led directly to his move to Athlone. "On commission there was one condition: that you would not serve back in your own Command," he explained. "Consequently people from Cork and Limerick and so on had to go to the Curragh and Dublin and so on." However the condition wasn't to prove so disruptive for Jim. "I conveniently opted for the Western Command," he said.
In November 1963 Jim, Agnes and their children moved to Athlone's Deerpark Road. During his time in Athlone until his retirement in 1982, Jim held the distinction of being the longest serving Quarter Master in Custume Barracks.
"I suppose my biggest undertaking during my service as QM was taking a battalion to the aerodrome at Baldonnell and providing security for English politician, Ted Heath when he visited the Taoiseach," Jim said. "That took some doing."
Of course Jim's contribution to Athlone was much more than just his work at Custume Barracks, and both he and his Army colleagues were involved with many local voluntary organisations.
After initially becoming involved with St Vincent de Paul, he went on to contribute and head up a variety of additional worthy initiatives. During his time with St Vincent de Paul the idea of founding the Athlone Community Services Council was mooted.
With an initial aim of employing a social worker, the movement has grown to what it is today from a seed planted more than 30 years ago. That initiative led to the setting up of a community information centre (later citizen's information centre) at St Mary's Place. Today Jim is the only surviving founder member of that organisation.
Jim was also involved for a time with the Midland Health Board, serving as the community representative on the health board from the late 1970s. On retiring in 1982, Jim said it just meant there was more time available for his voluntary efforts, which he continued well up into the 1990s.
"I was always interested mainly in personal services to the community," he said, explaining his motivation. "I've never went away from my roots in St Vincent de Paul. My belief is to go to the person and give them the service, even if that meant getting down on your knees and putting down a slip of lino or carrying a food parcel. Personal service remained my priority at all times."
A hobby that has remained strong for both Jim and Agnes through the years is attending the All Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone. "Both of us have a slight flair for drama," Jim explained. "We like to see people on stage."
When the couple's children were young they took it in turns to attend the drama festival, but both have taken their seats every year since their children were old enough to allow them to do so. "They would have the kettle boiling at the interval and we'd go down and get a cup of tea in our own house and see they were alright before getting back up for the second half," he explained.
Home has changed since just over two years ago, with Jim and Agnes forced to move from Deerpark Road because of local flooding. After spending some time with family members, the couple found a place of their own in the Sonas independent living retirement village in Cloghanboy.
"I must say anybody who arrives here has arrived home," Jim said. "The care and attention and reception you get in Sonas is unbelievable. They look after you in every way."
No doubt everyone who knows Jim will be looking after him this week, celebrating the latest milestone in his full and interesting life.