Today, Kathleen Hayes Snavely, 111 years and 328 days-old becomes the longest-living Irish-born person in history. She is originally from Feakle, County Clare.
She surpasses the previous record holder, Katherine Plunkett (November 22, 1820 – October 14, 1932), an Irish aristocrat born in County Louth who was a highly regarded botanical illustrator, and whose story is equally fascinating, though extremely different.
Hard of hearing but clear of mind, Kathleen Snavely is a resident of The Centers at St. Camillus in Syracuse, NY where she immigrated to in 1921.
With a distaste for sensationalizing her age, she is, to date, opposed to talking to the press. The snippets of information that could be gleaned over the phone from the staff of St. Camillus create a portrait of a woman who is remarkably lucid: participating in daily activities from her wheelchair and still receiving visits from friends in the Syracuse area.
Strange as it must seem to Kathleen to be famous for simply being alive, she is already something of a celebrity on Internet message boards. Members of the 110 Club, a group dedicated to super centenarians, have been researching Snavely and her ancestry for months, unearthing her birth certificate and further biographical information.
Her nearest kin in the U.S. is the family of her step-children in Lancaster, PA from her second marriage, to a man named Jesse Snavely, Jr., whom she survives by a number of years. Her first husband and long-time business partner, Roxie E. Rollins, passed away in 1968 at the age of 66.
In Ireland, in her native town of Feakle, Co. Clare, she is still remembered by relatives. Peggy Hayes, whose late husband, Patrick Joseph, was related to Kathleen (making her also related to the famed Irish fiddler Martin Hayes of the same family), recalls hearing that she “left young and did well, and that she was from a long-living family.”
Kathleen Hayes was born on February 16, 1902 to Patrick and Ellen Hayes (née Moroney) in Feakle, Co. Clare. Her birth certificate lists her father as a “Farmer and Publican,” though local memory indicates he was more of the latter. Kathleen was the second of three girls. Her older sister, Mary Anne, was born in 1901, and her younger sister, Ellen, in 1909. The 1911 Census (which lists her sisters’ names as Anna May and Lena), states that the family was Catholic and that all members, aside from one-year-old Ellen, could read and write.
She may also have had a younger brother, though he has yet to be found in the local records. In the only known interview with Kathleen, a 2000 press release by Syracuse University announcing her donation of $1 million in memory of her first husband, Kathleen refers to an 88-year-old brother still living in Ireland.
It is not uncommon for people’s personal histories and memories to sometimes clash with the official record. A further example: in the same article from the Syracuse archive, Kathleen recalls working as a business apprentice in Limerick and Dublin before emigrating, while the manifest for the ship on which she traveled lists her as a “Domestic”.
On September 22, 1921, she boarded a ship called the Scythia in Cobh, Co. Cork. Even though the harbor city’s name had officially been returned in the year before, the manifest still lists it as Queenstown.
Nineteen-years-old, she left the Ireland of Michael Collins and the Irish War of Independence for America at the dawn of the Roaring 20s. Prohibition was in effect, and the economy was thriving. Warren G. Harding had been voted into office as president one year earlier, in the first national election to include the vote of women
After eight days at sea, Kathleen arrived at Ellis Island on September 30, 1921. According to the arrivals record, she had $25.00 to her name (half the “recommended” amount) and was bound for Syracuse to stay with her maternal uncle, Jeremiah Moroney, who lived at 510 Marcellus Street.
At that point, Syracuse was still a major manufacturing center. Kathleen quickly got a job at E.W. Edwards Department Store, earning, according to the Syracuse University archive, $5.00 for six-day work weeks, before moving up the retail ladder. In Syracuse, she met and married her first husband, Roxie E. Rollins. One of six children of a Canadian father and a mother born in Michigan, Rollins emigrated from Canada in 1907. His mother’s obituary, in the December 6, 1906 edition of the Syracuse Post-Standard, shows that the Rollins family were members of the First Baptist Church of Syracuse.
By the time of the 1925 Census, they were married and living with Roxie’s parents in Syracuse’s 19th Ward. Roxie ran a small but enterprising laundry service with business throughout the region, which afforded them their own residence by the time the census officers came knocking in 1930.
Just as the world economy was bottoming out in 1933, Roxie and Kathleen founded Seneca Dairy, opening their first store on South Salina Street.
With both of them working seven days a week, Seneca Dairy made it through the Great Depression with over 40 employees, two local retail stores and an ice cream fountain. As Kathleen recalled in 2000, “Neither of us had a formal business education…We learned on the job, through experience. If you have a feeling for management and enjoy it, experience will give you the skills.”
Roxie and Kathleen never had children. He died in 1968, at the age of 66. Two years later, at 68, Kathleen married her second husband, Jesse Clark Snavely, Jr., on February 28, 1970 in Rohrerstown, Pennsylvania. A widower, he had three sons, Jesse, Jere and James, with his first wife, Ella.
The Snavelys have solid roots in the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania area, going back to 1878, when Moses Snavely purchased a mill in Paradise Township. His son Jesse, father of the man Kathleen would marry, sold the mill in 1916 and bought a lumber, coal and feed business in Landisville. The company, J.C. Snavely Sons, Inc. is run today by a fifth generation of Snavelys. Calls to the company’s headquarters were not returned.
Given Jesse’s role in the family business and the fact that they wed in Pennsylvania, it can be surmised that Kathleen parted ways with her adopted city for the years of their marriage. The date of his death is unclear, but by 2000 at the latest, Kathleen was back in Syracuse. In December, 2000, she made a gift of $1 million to the Syracuse University School of Management, in memory of Roxie.
“I can’t think of anything that would please him more than supporting a cause that would help other ambitious young people like us,” she said at the time.
Ireland is especially proud of its centenarians, sending a letter from the president, a commemorative coin and a check (currently €2,540) to each of its citizens who reach the century mark, and continuing the letter and coin tradition each birthday thereafter. Last year, 423 centenarians received the bounty.
Ireland’s second-oldest living citizen is also an immigrant: Sister Mary Victor Waters, 109 (b. September 14, 1904), lives in Tenafly, New Jersey, at the retirement home of the Missionary Franciscan nuns. In an interview with NorthJersey.com, she also expressed some unease over the attention she receives for her age, saying “I’d be just as pleased if they forgot about my birthday.”
Kathleen Snavely’s 112th birthday is February 16th, and while her privacy must be respected, there are so many things one would like to know. Did her grandparents ever talk about the famine years? What was it like to come of age in Ireland in the time of the Easter Rising, to leave in the midst of the Civil War? Was she nervous, coming to America, and what was her experience as a woman and an immigrant? Did she and Roxie dance the Charleston at The Palace or any of the other Syracuse dance halls? What was it like to start a business in that time? Did she live in Pennsylvania but miss Syracuse? Did she ever go back to Ireland? And what does it feel like to have witnessed so much history?
Regardless, the fact that she’s lived long enough to know all the answers is incredible in itself.
- – -
Thank you to members of the 110 Club message board for getting the ball rolling on Kathleen Snavely’s ancestry, and to genealogist Megan Smolenyak for her extraordinary insights and research, which produced the Hayes family Census entries, Kathleen’s travel documents, and her further documentation in the U.S. and New York State Census.