Catherine Garvin setting out on one her overseas trips.
By Peter McDermott
“A life well lived.”
That’s how grandniece Bernadette Bento summed up one her favorite people, Catherine Garvin, who turns 100 on this Sunday.
“She was my maternal grandmother’s sister and my mother was one of her favorites,” said Bento of the Brooklyn resident who was born in the village of Shrataggle, Co. Mayo, on Oct. 20, 1919.
Bento’s mother asked Garvin to be Bernadette’s godmother and, being quite low in the birth order, it proved to be a big break for her.
“She has always made me feel special,” the grandniece said.
“I’ve had 57 years of that. When others in my family didn’t,” the Long Islander Bento added, “Catherine always stood by me in the choices I made — whether she agreed with them or not.”
Nephew Des Garvin’s close bond with her was forged in her frequent trips back to Shrataggle — 22 of them after she flew on the first ever Aer Lingus (or Aer Linte) transatlantic flight in 1958, with all manner of celebrities, including Mayor Wagner of New York. Said Garvin, a long-time resident of Dublin, “She and my father were the two youngest in the family and very close.
“There was great excitement to see someone coming back from the States,” he recalled.
Catherine Garvin photographed in her early 90s.
Catherine Garvin first left home to work as a nanny in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim. Her employers, the Flynns, were a family of solicitors, while her sister Mary worked with a related family, the Gilvarrys. Catherine’s dream was to study nursing in England, joining her best friend Kathleen O’Boyle, who was from the next village, Laughmurragha. But war and circumstances intervened.
In the late 1930s, the Flynns decided to join the Gilvarrys, who’d relocated to New York. They told Catherine they needed her to help with the children in both families and that she could return in six months. But when it emerged that her employers hadn’t even informed her parents back in Shrataggle, there was considerable distress on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Even if there hadn't been a war,” Des Garvin said. “Communication would have been very difficult.”
But the Flynns were well connected and through their contacts – and secretarial training acquired along the way – she got jobs in New York first in the travel business and later in the legal profession. When Catherine Garvin’s boss in the former industry turned down the opportunity to fly across the Atlantic for Aer Linte’s inaugural flight on April 26, 1958, she got the trip in his stead. She was the only person on the flight who was not a travel agency owner or a celebrity or a cabin crew member.
The flight quickly developed engine trouble and was forced to land in Newfoundland, which wouldn’t have bothered Garvin, according to her nephew. She was past 80, he remembered, when she traveled to attend the Oberammergau Passion Play, in Bavaria, Germany.
“She was very adventurous,” he said.
Des Garvin wrote a book about the village and runs this website about it. The old people liked to talk and, he said, “I was unusual in that I listened.”
He was pleased to see his aunt on every visit to Mayo and now he visits her once or twice a year in New York. “She was very knowledgeable and still has a great memory,” he said.
“She never regretted not getting married,” Bento said. “God and her family are what always kept her going.”
There were other enthusiasms along the way. “Catherine loved John F. Kennedy and she loved Jackie,” Bento said.
“She was very precocious, and got a lot out of life,” her grandniece said. “She was a free spirit.”