Una O’Farrell, 89, was born in Ireland. Her early childhood revolved around dancing. Her father had hired an old-school teacher, a little old man, to give personal dance lessons to each child in their home. Her family also hosted céilís, Irish social gatherings with Gaelic folk music and dancing, and thus, dancing was always in her life.
“[I do] Irish step dancing, you know, Riverdance,” O’Farrell said. “It’s all footwork. Step dancing [is] individual, like you would do a solo song, you do a solo dance to entertain others. It’s real fancy footwork.”
Growing up in Ireland was family-based, where parents always knew what their children were doing. O’Farrell’s parents, however, were also very trusting of their kids, so when O’Farrell decided to move to California, they supported her.
She had completed her teacher’s training and was in a school separated for cerebral palsy when she wrote to her mother’s friend who went to Mills College in Oakland, asking the friend how she could learn more about cerebral palsy to teach effectively.
“She said, ‘Come on out, we’ll find a place for you in the nursery school to teach and you can take classes on the side,’” O’Farrell said. “Those are amazing opportunities. It was just chance. I was lucky. And then when my husband and I were getting ready to get married… We decided to immigrate.”
It was the perfect chance to escape the economic slump that Ireland was experiencing in the mid-1950’s. O’Farrell would’ve had to retire after marriage in Ireland if she stayed, but she was devoted to teaching. Her husband came to California first, interviewing for a job in San Francisco and then getting sent to Stockton to settle down and establish himself in the country before sending for his wife.
O’Farrell’s husband was a musician, well-versed with various instruments with a specialty of the tin whistle. So when he heard music while staying at the YMCA, he went right downstairs to join in with his instrument. The people he met there became the O’Farrells’ first friends in the U.S.
Once O’Farrell immigrated to the U.S., the couple lived in a little apartment downtown.
“It could’ve been very lonesome, except the Thursday nights there was a folk dance group, and those people that invited us became part of our lives,” O’Farrell said.
Those very same people became O’Farrell’s crutch when she lost her first child. Far away from her parents in a foreign country, the loss was devastating for her. The doctor had said that everything was perfect and that it was one of those freak accidents, like an umbilical cord being tied up at birth.
“One of [dance group members] came and took the baby… and they just gave us amazing support because it was devastating,” O’Farrell said. “I never even saw the baby… They rallied around me in the way of encouraging me.”
After the tragedy, O’Farrell successfully raised six children, her proudest accomplishment. She stressed that they all received a good education — an unlikely opportunity if they had stayed in Dublin.
“That was the opportunity of California for us,” O’Farrell said, noting that only the “well-to-do” were able to send children to college, whereas, “Here you can manage it.”
The O’Farrells came to O’Connor Woods after O’Farrell’s husband suffered a fall and their children convinced them to move into a retirement home. Not wanting to leave their many friends in Stockton, the couple went to O’Connor Woods, hearing that it was a well-run operation. Now O’Farrell lives there without her husband, who passed away a year and a half ago.
At O’Connor Woods, O’Farrell is part of the retirement committee, which is also a way she keeps in touch with the rest of the world. The community is also very welcoming and warm — no assigned tables at meals, so everybody can mingle amongst themselves.
“It seems like I’m always busy,” O’Farrell said. “There’s always something to do. I like to read, and I like to join others in activities.”
Una O’Farrell’s best piece of advice comes from her very own parents, paving her future and encouraging her to make the best decisions.
“You can do anything you really want to do if you set your mind to do it,” O’Farrell said. “They would’ve done anything to get the opportunity to teach like I did in special ed. I taught special ed, I taught dancing, I had a very successful life and raising a family.”