March 17, 2005

Michael's memories of Ireland

Last evening, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, the residents of a Boston-area senior housing complex took a one-hour trip to Ireland. Their guide was 91-year-old Michael Saparoff, and their mode of transport was Michael’s travel slide collection. For the past five years, Michael has treated fellow residents to a monthly travelogue, taking his friends to far-off places most have never seen and now, surely never will, except through Michael’s words and pictures.

I wrote a newspaper story about Michael as part of a series about vibrant, giving seniors who prove wrong the notion that growing old means growing less useful, less alive. When I interviewed him last summer, I learned about the hours of preparation and practice Michael invests in each travelogue evening. He does this, he told me, “because it’s very good for the mind.” He also does it for Delphine.

Michael and his wife came to the senior community together, some half-dozen years ago, but an infection left Delphine needing permanent physical care, so she moved to a nursing home. Michael visits her twice daily, “at eleven, and again at four.”

When Michael presents a travelogue, Delphine is in the audience, and last evening she traveled to Ireland again with her husband. “I bring my wife over every time,” Michael told me. “She comes for dinner, and people make a big to-do about her. She’s the good-looking girl in the slides.” Pausing, he added, “She’s ninety, and she’s still a good-looking girl.”

Much about Ireland has changed since Michael’s visit. The Celtic Tiger has created a robust, technology-based economy with a GDP envied by the traditional European powerhouses. Rather than leave, young Irish stay, in droves, because there’s work. Today’s visitors see fewer picturesque thatched-roof cottages, increasingly demolished in favor of modern housing, and they see sights Michael didn’t see, like the stainless steel spike, a new monument to Ireland’s vigor, that towers over O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main boulevard.

But Ireland’s an ancient place, and Michael’s photographs are, today, as valid a record of Irish culture, history and architecture as they were when he made them. A few decades haven’t changed the magnificent gray stonework of Dublin’s thousand-year-old Christchurch Cathedral; the venerable quadrangle of Trinity College, whose soaring library houses the Book of Kells, an illuminated medieval manuscript that is a wonder to look upon; the 27 Dublin acres of blooms and lawns and historic buildings that are St. Stephen’s Green; the romantic, roofless late Gothic remains of 15th-century Muckross Abbey (photo above) floating on green grass above purple-misted Lower Killarney Lake; the powerful ruins of Donegal Castle, built astride the River Eske by a 16th-century O’Donnell family chieftain.

Like Michael and his memories, timeless.