98-Year-Old Student Proves You’re Never Too Old to Learn

March 16, 2022

+9-year-old student and daughter in Irish Songs class

Lifelong learning is alive and well at Hudson Valley Community College.

Just ask 98-year-old Helen Griffiths, who was one of a dozen students in a recent class offered by the college’s Office of Community and Professional Education. Decked out in a shamrock green scarf and “Erin Go Bragh” cap, Helen was on campus for “Irish Songs of Love, Humor, Happiness and Freedom” with “Irish” Don Kelly.

The class, held a week before Saint Patrick’s Day, was a mixture of history, stories and song, with a little bit of encouragement from Kelly to “sing along on the chorus.” Kelly, a folklorist and guitarist, has been offering his Irish songs course for a decade as part of the college’s Center for Creative Retirement. The Center offers credit-free classes, workshops and trips for retirees.

Helen arrived a little early to class with her daughter, Mary, and settled in for a few hours of song and story. As a proud second-generation Irish American, she has some great stories of her own, many centered on how her Irish immigrant parents met in Portland, Maine, in the early 20th century and built a family and a life together.

Her father, a longshoreman, built the family home from cast-off materials and lumber with help from a few relatives. This was no thrown-together shack, though. The home in South Portland stands today some 100 years later and is still owned by a member of the family! Margaret’s brother, Eddie, was one of the most well-known Irishmen in Portland. Eddie owned and operated the Griffin Club, a legendary South Portland tavern that often hosted players from the Boston Celtics as well as the famous Irish band, the Clancy Brothers, throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Eddie should have been the one at an Irish Songs class such as this, Helen said. “My brother had a beautiful voice, like Don Kelly. He could break out in any Irish song. I have a terrible voice,” she said, with a quick smile.

As the class got started, Helen tapped her feet (sheathed in Notre Dame leprechaun socks, by the way) to the beat of “A Nation Once Again,” and “God Save Ireland.” A few of her classmates sang along to the classic “Isle of Innisfree” and “Carrickfergus.” Kelly added a little history before each tune, so the class could better appreciate each song’s origin and significance.

This spring was the fourth time Mary and Helen have taken Don Kelly’s Irish Songs class, and it likely won’t be the last. When the course is offered again next fall, you’ll likely see Helen there again, proudly sporting her green garb. Just don’t ask her to sing out loud.

“When I sing, everyone disappears, so maybe I should keep quiet,” she said, with a laugh.

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