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Documentary shines light on Ireland's oldest motorists

John Walsh and his electric car
John Walsh and his electric car

ONE of Ireland’s oldest motorists is still getting behind the wheel at 101, but is driving an electric car to help save the environment for future generations.

The charming new RTE documentary Too Old For The Road? gives a poignant snapshot into the lives of a handful of indomitable pensioners determined to hang on to their lifeline of driving.

It follows the elderly motorists as they open up about their fears over the loss of their licence and their independence due to medical conditions as all over-70s in Ireland have to get doctors’ reports to renew their licence, either yearly or for three years.

Good-humoured Galway mother Joan O’Rourke (86), is full of banter on her way to her first ever court appearance for a speeding ticket.

The show also captures the deep devotion of 83-year-old Kilkenny man Michael Hayes in making the daily 30-mile round-trip to visit Margaret, his wife of 55 years, in a nursing home. He fears he will lose his licence due to his fading eyesight.

John Walsh, from Tipperary, who was running marathons up until his 70th birthday, was around for World War I, but he has the ultimate 21st-century car parked outside his home.

“There is sort of a smoothness about the electric car that is lovely,” he says. “It’s a lovely car to drive. I think the environmental business is dreadfully serious. We are already noticing the storms. I do get great satisfaction out of the knowledge I’m not polluting. That is a real joy to me.

“I’m 101. I’m a bit surprised to be driving now, but I don’t seem to be making mistakes. I am very determined. If I feel I’m dangerous, I’ll stop. I had my eyes checked in the last month and they are really very good.

“I don’t like driving for the sake of driving. I like to be able to come to Mass, to be able to go to the park and walk from there.

“I don’t think of it very much, but I’ll be very, very isolated here, myself and the dogs. The main thing I would hope is when I have to give up the driving that I would die fairly quickly.”

He can remember as far back as the first World War.

“I do remember the end of the war. My mother told me the war was over.”

The active centenarian cycles an exercise bike every day in front of the TV and goes for regular walks, after running marathons right into his 70s.

“I ran three marathons. In Belfast, I broke the four hours, which was fairly good as I was 69. In fact, I was running faster the following year. After that I hurt my Achilles tendon and I wasn’t able to run.

“My walking is getting slower and slower, but, mind you, I can keep going. I did over an hour on Sunday.”

He said he remembered being anxious to reach 80 as other members of his family hadn’t reached the landmark birthday, but now he just lives for the moment.

“When I passed the 80, I said ‘by wishing, I can’t either improve or shorten my life, I’ll leave that to God and I’ll work for the moment’. It has worked well for me.”

The love story between 83-yearold Michael Hayes and his wife Margaret is movingly captured in the scenes of everyday life shot for the documentary.

Michael’s driving licence expires in just a few months. He hates getting behind the wheel with his declining eyesight, but he determinedly drives a 30-mile round trip every day to see his wife and dreads losing his licence due to the worsening condition.

“The old eyesight is getting a bit in the way now for driving,” he says before quipping to the camera crew:

“I can see the road ahead and the car in front of me – lucky enough for you lads.

“It’s called age-related macular degeneration and there is no cure for it.

I don’t think I will be able to drive after September because I wouldn’t be able to pass the test, so that’s it. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I can’t visit my wife.”

He sadly explains how his wife ended up in a nursing home in Thomastown in Kilkenny when she suffered strokes, while he was in hospital recovering from his own operation.

“They wouldn’t let her back here because they said it wasn’t safe for her. We’ll be married 55 years in September. That’s a long time. It’s terrible to be getting old, you know,” he says

“Nobody wants you. Hospitals don’t want you. I bring her out every Sunday for her lunch.”

The documentary shows him gently putting his wife into the car for their outings from the nursing home and lovingly fixing her cardigan.

“She’s not a chatterbox, not like me, but she does converse when she wants to.

She has a bit of dementia, but she knows what’s going on. She loves to get out, that’s why I bring her out.”

As he sits with his arms around her in their sitting room, after bringing her home for six days over Easter, her husband sighs as he contemplates not being able to see his wife every day when he stops driving.

“As far as driving, it will have to stop at some stage, but that’s life. It throws all kinds of things at you.”

Too Old For the Road? RTE One tonight at 9.35pm