Married: Brigid Nella Marlin, 27 June 1957,
Children:Benjamin Ervin, b. 29 April 1958, d. July 1979
Photo about 1970.
From The Midland Tribune, 12 July 2012:
Birr man Ben Oakley is 78 years of age and he says he has had a full and interesting life. He talked to Derek Fanning last week about his work as an engineer, his father's bakery in Birr and living for several years in Libya when Gaddafi was in power.
Photo caption: Ben Oakley pictured with his family in 1954. L. to r. Dorothy, Benjamin sr, Mary, Esther, Ben and Muriel. TT2822.
BEN OAKLEY is a Birr man who has enjoyed an intriguing life working on engineering projects in a number of Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya.
For eight years he lived in Tripoli, which is the capital of Libya, and got out only two days before the Americans bombed the place in 1986. His apartment in Tripoli was in one of the areas of the city which was hit by the allied bombs and one of his friends suffered a terrible tragedy because his daughter was killed during the strike.
I told him that I was very interested in what it was like to live under a tyrannical regime and Ben told me that for him it wasn't that tyrannical because the regime left him alone. He said there are similarities between the Irish and Libyans. For example, both peoples are friendly and hospitable.
Talking about his earlier life he told me that he graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1956. 'Young people rightly complain about the lack of jobs nowadays,' said Ben, 'but the situation was much worse in 1956 because there were considerably less jobs.'
He said the Oakley family had been in Birr for a couple of hundred years when he was born on the 24th of August 1933. His father's name was Benjamin as well and his mother was Esther. The family business was a bakery, which was located in Birr. The bakery was called JV Oakley & Sons and was based on Main Street and it extended back to Mill Street. He told me the business was started by his grandmother. It started as a confectioners and his father began the baking side of things. It closed in 1962. In the '50s there were four bakeries in the town and the last to close was Griffin's which closed several years ago.
'We were by a long way the biggest bakery in the town,' recalled Ben, 'and then there was Haslam's and then there was Flynn's and then Griffin's. We were delivering bread to people and a fair bit was sold through the shop. I had no interest in the business but I did work there during the holidays.'
He recalled that at the time there was a lot of home baking, people doing it for their own families. Unfortunately tastes changed after the war and people began to eat a lot less bread.
'My father went off to Canada to learn the business,' explained Ben, 'and he saw what was happening there with the whole trade moving into the supermarkets.' He recalled that back in the '50s it was the boys in families rather than the girls who were expected to inherit the family businesses.
His family also owned a herd of cattle in the Scurragh area and he remembers moving cattle from one area to the next when he was a young boy. So many people back then, he explained, in the '40s and '50s, owned at least a few cattle.
Ben was born in Warrenpoint but grew up in Birr. He had two older sisters, and a younger sister.
After attending the Model School in Birr he went to King's Hospital in Dublin (which was founded in 1669 and is one of the oldest schools in Ireland). 'It wasn't a particularly good education in King's Hospital,' he said. There were 150 boarders and it wasn't co-ed as it is now. My best subject was history. Unfortunately there was no vocational guidance. Looking at life beyond school I realised there were no jobs connected with history which I would want to do, and I didn't want to teach.' He was a good Rugby player and was also pretty handy at hockey. He was 6'2" and his position in Rugby was No 8. 'I had a reasonable degree of speed and in hockey I was left wing. We got into the Rugby final of the Leinster Schools Cup in 1951 which was incredible for a small school and I played on the big pitch in Lansdowne Road and the other finalist team was Belvedere, who won the match. They scored two drop goals and two converted tries.'
'My father died at the age of 55 when I was in my third year in King's Hospital. He died of a very bad heart attack. When I talked to him in hospital he said the bakery business would see me out but there was no future in it.
'Back then they talked about the only jobs being available to girls were teaching and nursing. It seemed to me that engineering was one of the few jobs where you had guaranteed employment and so that's what I decided to study in third level.
'Unfortunately the Trinity Engineering School wasn't that great. The staff were quite old. I got very involved in the social life in Trinity. It was a great place. There were only 2,000 students and we had rooms on campus. It wasn't conducive to doing much work. Being a garrulous sociable type I got involved in all sorts of things. I started rowing. I played rugby briefly with Trinity and played with Birr during the holidays. Regrettably the rugby in Trinity was very cliquey with a lot of the players being from Northern Ireland schools.'
He also recalled that in the '50s the religious divisions were a lot more pronounced than they are now. 'There was no way a Protestant Trinity College graduate was going to get a job in certain sections of Irish society at the time.
'I graduated with not a particularly brilliant degree after five years. At least 80 per cent of the class went to Canada where there were still jobs and they paid you a reasonable wage.' He had already gained some work experience during the holidays working on a dam project in Scotland.
As a Design Engineer he worked on some very interesting stuff in Canada. 'They were mainly into power supplies. We did dams, diesel generation stations. But Canada wasn't me somehow. I don't know why.' One of the nice memories he has from Canada is outings on a sailing boat with a friend on lakes. 'I was living in Montreal and I became fed up with the job.'
He went to London where he studied in the London School of Economics. He left the Economics course here halfway through because he got a good job.
After the School of Economics he worked with Laing O'Rourke which is a big construction company.
In his career he moved from company to company, 'because I was curious. I wanted to see the inside of other businesses. In the late '60s I wrote to KPMG. There was no ad or anything. They invited me for an interview. I got the job and they sent me to Kuwait because the client wanted a qualified engineer. I was also asked to design a cement plant in Saudi Arabia.
'In 1974 I began working as a Construction Manager for Occidental Petroleum, which is an American oil company. I went with them up to the Orkney Islands to a gas oil separation plant. This was a big job. There was plenty of work in that field at the time. It was hard work, 14 hours a day.
'Afterwards Occidental sent me out to Libya, for 9 months initially. The pay was very good. They needed to develop this oil field in Libya as quickly as they could because they were running out of money. But the nine months was extended and I stayed there nearly eight years from 1978 until 1986.'
Ben pointed out that the west has many misconceptions about the Middle East and can be quite ignorant in its assessment of Middle Eastern countries. 'All Arab countries are different,' he commented, 'but we lump them all together. It's like someone from China saying people from Sweden and Finland are the same because they are Europeans. But the characteristics are very different. People in the west often get it all wrong. Irish people get on very well with Arabs generally. There are a lot of reasons for that. The Irish have the same rules of hospitality as the Libyans and we don't stand on ceremony. We have the same sense of humour, this cynical agin the government humour. We are used to living with hypocrisy in Ireland. This is in contrast with the Anglo-Saxons who want everything precise and drawn up.
'The average Libyan on the street can size you up very quickly. As a friend of mine said, they all have feminine intuition.'
He enjoyed the work in Libya. 'It was pretty much a standard thing: You get a few oilwells going, pipe it to the sea and then it's shipped out by sea. The problem they got into was they had this Libyanisation programme, but a lot of the Libyan employees were unfortunately incompetent. As construction manager I was responsible for all of the nine fields we had including the terminal which was at a place called Zuwetina.'
There were many different security groups operating in the country, some with uniforms and some without. All heavily armed with kalashnikovs, etc. Ben and his fellow employees were often stopped by road-blocks.
He recalled that Gaddafi did deals with certain countries, 'and then we were supposed to like Iranians and be brothers with Black Africans, when in fact Libyans didn't like either!'
He never felt endangered at any time. He pointed out that the Libyans wanted to be left in peace, 'and Gaddafi had a knack of knowing when to give in on certain issues. However he restricted travelling which hit them hard because they love travelling.
'Tripoli was a pleasant place to live in and I liked the Islamic atmosphere. It was pleasant waking in the morning in this exotic place and hearing the muezzin's call to prayer. I also liked the Libyans' sense of humour.'
He said that eventually Gaddafi became impatient with any opposition at all. He remembered Gaddafi introducing conditions to prevent workers from sneaking off for siestas. He said that Gaddafi was doing ok until he became too greedy. He squirrelled away 90 billion dollars in a Swiss account.
'He also wrote the green books which were absolute rubbish. However he left the oil business alone and there were some advantages of living in a dictatorship. For example major and important projects couldn't be blocked by protestors.'
He made many trips into the desert and was based for the entire eight years in Tripoli.
Because the money was so good, from his eight years in Libya he was able to retire at the age of 52.
After Libya he lived several years in an attractive house near Scarriff in County Clare which he lovingly restored. In 2000 he moved back to Birr because he wanted to be near his mother and he has been living here ever since in a house near Whiteford Cross in Crinkle.
Ben married twice during his life. The first time was back in 1957 to an American woman, Brigid Marlin with whom he had three children. Sadly the eldest died at the age of 21 due to complications with epilepsy. His other two sons are now in their 50s. Chris is working in stocks and shares and Desmond is an accountant. His other wife was a Canadian called Ann Ballantyne whom he married in 1982.
During his life his hobbies have included antique cars and sailing. His sailing took him on some great trips including circumnavigating Britain and sailing to the Channel Islands. Inspired by 'The Riddle of the Sands' he sailed to the Frisian Islands.
In 2008 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. 'Until that moment I had never been unhealthy.' He recovered from that and went on a wonderful holiday examining Greek and Roman ruins, a subject he is fascinated in. Unfortunately the cancer has returned and Ben is facing his illness with courageousness and calm. 'I have had a very good and interesting life,' he said. 'I can honestly say that I have never been bored in my life.' He added that he has a beautiful 1973 MGB car for sale if anyone is interested!
Tribute by son Christopher Oakley at his funeral on 6 August 2012.