The Celtic Tiger saw thousands of new families move to the town of Portlaoise and surrounding areas.
Mary O’Shea and her husband Peter were among those who made the move when they relocated from Dublin to Portlaoise five years ago. The couple struggled to put down roots at first, but that all changed when they joined the 55+ Age Active Club.
“We had one daughter in Cork and a son and daughter in Dublin, we decided to move to Portlaoise because it was on the M7, handy for getting to both places and it also had rail links to both counties. We actually fell in love with the house online and that decided it for us,” Mary told the Leinster Express.
Initially, Mary said she felt almost lost in a town where she knew no one.
“I found it very lonely that when you’re downtown or in the shops that there was no one to say hello to,” she said.
They had joined their local residents association in Fairgreen and Peter joined a local walking club, but Mary was still feeling lonely.
Their daughter Michelle, who had moved from Dublin in the meantime was pushing her parents to integrate in the community more.
They thought about joining the 55+ Age Action Group, but by her own admission, Mary felt that it would be “old people sitting around playing bingo.”
But the reality for the O’Sheas could not have been further from their perception,
“We were gobsmacked with the friendliness of the members. When we arrived on the first day, everyone said ‘hello and welcome’ and they really meant welcome.
“There’s a great mixture of people, everyone is very nice and up for the craic. It’s only €3 per week and that includes the rent for the room in that parish centre and a cup of tea.
“It’s changed our lives, we’re so busy now that I haven’t even time for my garden anymore.”
The group meet every Wednesday from 3pm, and many stay on in the Parish Centre, chatting after the meeting.
“It’s made a huge difference to both of us. The atmosphere is so nice and very vibrant. Now when I go into town, I know people to say hello to. They’re real friends, I know I could ring any of them if I wanted or needed something,” she says.
They are looking forward to an overnight trip to Belfast next month to visit the Titanic Visitors Centre and cannot wait for a trip to France, later in the year. Mary, along with another member of the group are teaching the others some basic French to get by on the trip. While Peter brings along his guitar some afternoons for a group sing-song.
Michelle was in a similar position to her parents, when she moved to Portlaoise from the big smoke. But an interest in photography led to her joining the local camera club.
“Ciara Drennan invited me to come along, but it took me months before I actually went. It’s the fear of the unknown that holds you back, but everyone was so friendly.”
Already, Michelle has taken part in her first exhibition with the club and her social life has taken on a new dimension also and, at the time of the interview, was looking forward to a weekend trip to the Saltee Islands with the group.
“I’ve being doing photography for a few years, but had never exhibited before. In the pop up gallery we each exhibited our favourite photos. The exhibition was free to walk into and €5 from every print sold went to LOFFA.
“The club is great because it’s a mixture of amateurs and more experienced photographers, there’s a wealth of knowledge there. We’ll be taking a break over the summer, but we’re already trying to fill the schedule for September.”