‘Know what you desire’ – Lessons in love from our old romantics

‘I’m not sure the very occasional ‘fling’ matters in a relationship – just don’t tell’

"Love can be hard work," counselled singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, now 78 years old. "A lot of people run at the first sign of trouble . . . but if you can get through it, you get closer and you learn a way of loving that's different from the neurotic love enshrined in movies. It's warmer and has more padding to it."

Roll the clock back 1,000 years and Ireland’s Brehon lawyers took a deeply practical approach to partnerships. Husband and wife retained joint ownership on anything they brought into a marriage, be it a parcel of land or a goat. On the first day of February, a husband or a wife had the right to simply walk away from a marriage, no questions asked, no lawyer required. What’s more, if a husband did not satisfy his wife in her bed, he was required to pay a fine.

Whatever the problem, remember you're both on the same side –  Herbie Brennan (84)

In the present day, the social pressures to find one's life partner are relentless. However, a study by Michigan State University showed there was almost zero difference in happiness between those who have had relationships, and those who remained single for life. And so, whether there's a wedding band on your finger, or a promising line-up of dating-app requests to attend to, panic not.

What’s more, whomever we choose to love, be they straight or gay, non-binary, pansexual or unicorn, there is much to learn from those who have spent many years travelling miles along the multi-routed “Highway of Romance”.


“Always know what you desire and name it.” This is the principle by which the Dublin author and playwright Phyl Herbert, who is 75, lives. “It’s extraordinary that only now, in my mid-70s, I feel emotionally grown up. I finally understand what’s important in relationships, and my advice to the young is to be clear about what you want in life, and to remember that the most important relationship is with yourself. A love of self must be a priority.”

“When I was young, I couldn’t articulate the pleasures I desired because it wasn’t in the zeitgeist for women to speak up about such things. Then we became so busy proving that we were as capable as men, that we sublimated our desires in the process. Now, women have more independence, but with all-consuming careers, the sense of desire can disappear down the priority list.”

Remember to say please and thank you, as behaving in a polite way toward your partner is both respectful and sexy –  Rachael Price (71)

“The whole journey of life is about developing ourselves, and if we try to please others whilst ignoring our own needs, this can’t be good for us. Sometimes we may think we are in a romance, but if a partner doesn’t show respect, it’s a fool’s game to stay and a waste of precious time. Stepping out of a bad relationship can teach us a lot about ourselves. We are reminded that we must tolerate less bad behaviour.”

“Teaming up together for the long haul is a gamble, it has to be worth it. Along with respect, having a shared sense of values with your partner is of upmost importance. Pleasure, of course, can refer to sex, but there are other elements to it. Friendship, adventure and absolute trust can be the binding power, creating a core relationship that is strong enough to endure.”

“And there is nothing more lovely than an enduring love that evolves over time. You must remember that life is short and, as Shakespeare wrote, ‘to thine own self be true’.”

"We rock and roll well together," says 83-year-old poet and novelist Stan Phillips from Co Waterford, "and when it comes to romance, I'm a great believer that laughter is essential." Perhaps that explains why Stan recently tried his hand as a stand-up comic. "One of the great joys of my life is to make my darling laugh."

“When I met Bernadette in 1994, something happened straightaway,” he recalls. “It was something wonderful that I couldn’t put my finger on, but it felt like magic.”

To look for an ideal love is a fool's paradise. I think soulmates do exist, but they are rare –  Virginia Comiskey (82)

Bernadette, a 63-year-old social scientist and humanitarian, concurs. “When Stan and I fell in love, it was a meeting of soulmates and an enhancement for both of our lives.” The couple believe love is something to be worked on at all times.

“Celebrating each other is one of the best things you can do in a relationship,” says Bernadette. “As we develop a better sense of who we are, that gives us a better grounding for a relationship filled with good self-esteem.”

“You’ve got to remember to hold the ladder for the person in your life,” adds Stan. “Respect your differences. Don’t try to have everything your own way. Find the ability to compromise around a situation.”

Don't sulk in any circumstances – Edwin Balding (89)

Stan, who was in his 50s when he met Bernadette, holds that most arguments between couples are about hypothetical matters. “They’re about all the what ifs and maybes of life and yet, most of the time, those things may not even happen.”

“Some couples can cage themselves in,” says Bernadette. “They try to work things out in a space where the energy is dense. To really discuss things, dilute the tension, get outside and go walking. You’re much more energised when you’re on the move and, as your mind becomes clearer, you can listen better. All of those things add up to a more free-flowing conversation and, no matter what the decision comes to, there will be less anger and more openness.”

“Solvitur ambulando!” declares Stan, referring to the Latin phrase, meaning ‘it is solved by walking’. “If you go walking, the words you need will come to you eventually, and let them work their magic when they do.”

Remember to compromise, otherwise you'll feel like you've lost the war, even if you won the battle –  Alex Butler (75)

“Arguments can sometimes be the catalyst for deepening a relationship,” says Bernadette. “If the love is there somewhere, you can clear the debris and unpack the reasons why you fell in love in the first place.”

“Yes, love grows old,” says Stan, “but it can also be fresh and continually interesting even after years and years. At the end of the day, the value is in the person you are with and in the adventures you have together and the love and the laughter that you share.”

“One of the most wonderful things that can happen to a man is to be loved by a beautiful woman,” says 77-year-old retired businessman JC O’Mahony from Dublin. “I’ve been very lucky in this regard, and have been loved by many. This doesn’t lead to eternal happiness, but I think a magnificent relationship does bring more joy than anything else in life.”

O’Mahony says he loves to love, loves to be loved, and has been married and divorced a couple of times. “I don’t think I suited being a husband,” he concedes. “In fact, I once heard someone say that, ‘JC is a man you would never want to marry but a man you would always want to have as a boyfriend’.” Having recently stepped out of a long term relationship, JC is clear on his advice to those keen to hold on to love.

“I’ve learned that women civilise men. We should treat them as if they are goddesses, as if they are the most wonderful creatures we’ve ever met. It’s one of the golden rules – if you really love somebody, don’t ever take them for granted. You’ve got to give more than you get, and not just sex, although that is also hugely important.” Money is another huge factor. “It’s not impossible for love to blossom in a cold climate, but it’s better to be certain of your future and to be mindful that you can afford to settle down.”

Personally, I think separate bedrooms are a great marriage enhancer after a few years –  Lucy Moore (72)

There are, of course, benefits to being free and single, “and while one may prefer to be in a relationship, if that relationship has come to its natural end, it has to be attended to, otherwise you are living a lie”. O’Mahony firmly advocates the power of love and wants to bring hope to those still searching. “In the blink of an eye your whole life can change. You turn a corner, walk into a room, you’re standing in a cinema queue, love can strike literally anywhere. This is what gives life it’s greatness, it’s what makes it magical.”

Patience, faith and a belief that “true love conquers all” have been vital ingredients in John and Mary Bermingham’s romance.

"We met in the old Wicklow Hotel in Dublin in 1970," says 85-year-old Mary, a beautician and keen swimmer in her younger days. "I was getting married in two weeks, but anyhow he says he fell for me that night."

Beware of thinking that you would be better off with someone else, somewhere else, but if you do leave, remember you take yourself with you –  Ruth Grealy (81)

It took decades before Mary and John, a former showjumper, could realise their wish to marry. They had longed to formalise their relationship but paperwork got in the way, including the fact that there wasn't any divorce in Ireland until 1996, and the Irish State's reluctance to recognise John's American divorce. The devotion Mary and John share is invigorating, and they are clear about what keeps their flame burning brightly. "We don't take each other for granted," says 87-year-old John, "especially now that we are older, we appreciate having one another every day."

I'm not sure the very occasional 'fling' matters in a relationship – just don't tell! – Freda Lewis (86)

“We relish every opportunity to be together,” adds Mary. “Birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day . . . each one is an important little reminder for us all not to forget who and what is really important in our lives.”

The best things in life are often worth waiting for, and when one sees the Bermingham’s together, this is crystal clear. “We have great times,” chuckles Mary, “and I realise we are both so old now, but we are happy out.”