Marking his 70th year with the choir of St Mary's Church in Navan, Tom Fitzsimons says it is one of the greatest contentments of his life. He tells Jimmy Geoghegan how he inherited his love of music from his parents, the passing of his beloved wife Betty and how never drinking or smoking hastened his recovery from a quadruple by-pass.
Libraries of books have been written outlining how people can obtain happiness in a troubled, turbulent world.
Tom Fitzsimons has his very own philosophy; his own take on how contentment can be achieved. It's a philosophy that has been crafted and honed by what he has experienced himself and enhanced by snippets of advice and guidance he has received from others along the way - and for him the journey to joy is straightforward.
“All I would say is that the more you put yourself out for other people, the more you are concerned with other people and their happiness, the more you get back, the more happiness comes into our own life, to live for others rather than just yourself.”
That, he will tell you is it a nutshell. “Do for others rather than yourself then things come to you. That's the way it has been for me,” he adds.
One of the sources of his greatest contentment, he says, is singing hymns in St Mary's Church, Navan, a place he loves; a sacred place, a sanctuary. For him it has always been so.
Tom has enjoyed singing in St Mary's so much that this year marks his 70th year as a member of the local choir - surely something of a record; maybe even a world record. Recently a presentation was made to him to mark that remarkable personal anniversary.
“The choir has shaped me, at the presentation I said that it has made me whoever I am, or whatever I am. I regret what the Catholic Church is going through, the battering its receiving, I'm so sorry for all those excellent priests who are still there, but certainly the choir and the Church has been very important in my life.”
In that quest to help others Tom Fitzsimons has been involved in working with various community groups down the decades. He was involved in the setting up an Age Active Group in Navan. He organised trips, helped along the way by a committee. He has organised pilgrimages to Lough Derg and, back in the day, setting up a singing competition between the various estates in Navan, known as the 'Community of Nights' with money raised going to charity.
He produces a cutting from the Meath Chronicle from December 1980. It includes a picture of him handing over to Rev Fr Andy Farrell, CC, Navan a cheque for £1,100 raised by the 'Nights' competition - a princely sum indeed at the time.
Over the years Tom has put together three CDs made up of songs he sings. The most successful - 'There is a Place' - was made available in local shops. It was much sought after too. The CDs helped to generate more than €25,000 for a variety of charities.
Tom Fitzsimons' achievements in generating funds for the needy have been recognised in the way he was named a 'Melvin Jones Fellow' in 2005 - an honour bestowed on him by the Lions Clubs International Foundation.
Then there was the year he was honoured by the old Navan Town Council for similar efforts. For someone who has lived all his life in Navan that was a little special. There were other awards, other testaments to his community work in the town he loves so well. His singing talents were recognised in the way he once claimed a runners-up place in the RTE Radio 1 All-Ireland Active Age Talent Showcase. That too was a proud moment.
Tom Fitzsimons was the fourth child in a family of eight. The children were reared in a small house on New Lane, just off Flower Hill. There was no grand piano in the corner yet it was still a house of song.
“My father (John) was a labourer and my mother (Margaret) the daughter of a labourer. Both of them had a love of music, that's where my love of music came from I suppose. My mother in particular, was signing day and night going around the house.”
He was asked, at nine, to join the St Mary's choir by Fr Gerard Herbert who was to have a major, positive influence on young Tom. He recalls how, at around 14, he was heartbroken when Fr Herbert told him he was not needed for the choir anymore. Turned out he was getting promoted; no longer required for the youth choir he was been moved up to adult level, although for the first year or so he was told just to listen - and learn.
There are other images filed away in Tom Fitzsimons' memory that suggest a happy childhood. “We were poor but then so was everyone else, we weren't different to anyone else who lived around us - and you shared what you had with those who had less, that's how I remember it.
“I loved going to The Mollies (an area along the Blackwater River in Navan). That was our Ibiza, everyone went down there on sunny Sunday afternoons in the summer. They went down with their families, swam in the river, it was beautiful, I loved it. I have said it to my family if there is one place I would love to be buried it would be The Mollies, lovely happy memories.”
After leaving the De La Salle school (where Scoil Mhuire is now) at 14, Tom landed a job in Geraghty’s furniture factory. Navan was then the furniture capital of Ireland - or at least that's what the locals felt. When that factory closed he got another job practicing his trade as a spray hand polisher.
In the evenings he would sing. He was closely involved in bringing life to productions such as 'Showboat,' 'Carousel' 'Fiddler on the Roof' to local stages. “I was never in a band it was in musical productions and the choir I was focused on,” he says adding that his sister, Margaret Mulvaney, also sang in musicals.
Tom Fitzsimons met a local girl, Betty Whelan, and they married in 1960 and went on to raise a large family. A few years ago Betty, who he describes as an intensely private person, passed away.
Betty's passing is one of the challenges Tom says, he has had to face in life. Another was a major health scare that he was confronted with 15 years ago. “I didn't know there was anything wrong with me until I went to the doctor. I had a very serious cough for a long time and it wouldn't go away. It was then I went to the doctor, he said he wanted me checked over, and they found something wrong with the heart, told me I needed a quadruple by-pass,” he recalls.
“I had to wait and while I was waiting to have the operation I did start to feel that pain in my arm and stress coming into me but the doctor spotted it in time, it never got out of control.”
The medics also told him that because he never drank or smoked his recovery time would be far shorter then might otherwise have been the case. So it proved.
The Catholic Church has always played a major role in Tom Fitzsimons' life and now on the cusp of his 80th birthday (the big day is the 2nd June) it continues to do just that. It saddens, disturbs, upsets him to see the “battering” the Church has received. He gets people's sense of betrayal with the scandals but agrees that the Catholic Church is made up of many people - and only a relatively small number have committed evil acts.
“I find it sad, very hurtful, just when it's getting back on it's feet another scandal shows up and it's back to where we were again. I feel sad mostly for the priests who are struggling to keep going, I feel sorry for them. Here in Navan I think we have a terrific team of priests and always have had, as far as I'm concerned.”
Tom Fitzsimons will certainly stay faithful. The Church - and the singing - has helped him find so much happiness in his life; the kind of true, genuine happiness he derives from helping others.