As former curator of the Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum, and an avid traveller, Eileen O’Brien’s life hasn’t so much been a tale of two cities, but of many.
Portsmouth-born Eileen, who turned 100 on September 1, was treated to a Downton Abbey-themed tea party at her home in Buckland – complete with entertainment by The Vintage Bluebirds – as well as birthday celebrations with fellow churchgoers Cathedral of St John the Evangelist.
As was expected she received a card from the Queen, but the devout catholic was also stunned to receive a framed letter of congratulations from Pope Francis.
‘I felt honoured because not many people receive them,’ says Eileen, who has visited Vatican City countless times. ‘The birthday celebrations were very pleasant, I’ve been very fortunate.’
She chuckles: ‘Life’s gone on very smoothly. I’ve enjoyed my life.’
Born in Waltham Street, Portsmouth, Eileen’s father John served in the Royal Navy while her mother Dorothea was a housewife.
I didn’t go travelling to lie by the sea, I always went for cultureEileen O’Brien
The centenarian has fond memories of playing outside with her two brothers, remarking that the youth of today ‘don’t know how to play’ properly.
‘We grew up with age, but I used to love to read,’ she added.
It was a passion for books that led her to getting her first jobs in several of Portsmouth’s libraries and museums, before becoming an auxiliary nurse for around 10 years.
But her dream job came around some years later in the late 1940s, when she landed a prestigious position as curator of the Dickens Birthplace Museum.
‘It was marvellous,’ says Eileen of her 17-year tenure as curator, during which she actually lived in the museum. ‘You got to meet all sorts of people, they came from all over the world.
‘Sometimes you would meet the young actors who were playing Oliver Twist in a play, and people like that.’
Eileen eventually moved out of the museum before its refurbishment in the mid-1960s, moving just a stone’s throw away to Barkis House.
She never married nor had any children, but remains very close to her niece, Elaine Noble and her husband Rodney.
With no husband or children to hold her back, Eileen has travelled the world, venturing out to America, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Russia, and around Europe – to name just a few destinations.
‘I enjoyed going to the holy land very much,’ says Eileen, who is particularly reminiscent of her trips to Palestine and the Hellenic Islands.
‘I didn’t go travelling to lay by the sea, I always went for the culture.’
To coin a familiar phrase, Eileen believes that ‘there’s no place like home’ and eventually returned to Portsmouth, and she has lived in Barkis House for 49 years.
As well as regularly completing wordsearches and crosswords to ‘keep the brain working’, Eileen’s passion for books has never dwindled. She gets visits from a library volunteer once a fortnight, bringing 10-12 books with them every time.
So what is the secret to Eileen being as spritely and high-spirited as she is at 100?
She replies nonchalantly: ‘Being happy, being sociable, and helping people. As long as you’re contented and happy, what more do you want?’
And what about the greatest lesson that she’s ever learned?
She laughs: ‘To be tolerant, and not to be presumptious!’