These Irish centenarians are older than the Republic itself

by Russell Baillie / 06 March, 2018

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The stars of Older Than Ireland must be up for one cinematic record – the documentary with the biggest cumulative age of its participants.

The film interviews some 30 Irish centenarians – their birth predates the founding of the Republic of Ireland – about their long lives and the history they’ve witnessed.  

Dublin director Alex Fegan has won international acclaim for the gentle, affecting film and its portraits of some of Ireland’s most senior citizens.

Before Fegan arrives for a St Patrick’s Festival screening in Auckland on March 8, we asked him about the project.

Where did you find them? Just bowl up to the village old folks’ home and shout: “So who’s a hundred or older then? Do you want to be in my movie?”  

We initially put ads in local newspapers all over Ireland looking for centenarians but that only yielded a few results. Once we had a few however, we discovered that most centenarians happened to know of other centenarians in neighbouring parishes. Therefore, we meandered our way around Ireland via this hidden network.

However, they would be quick to tell us that the neighbouring centenarian wasn't quite as fit as they were. They're quite competitive that way. In all, there are just over 300 centenarians in Ireland and we wanted to film 10% of these in order to get as accurate a picture of that generation as possible. We didn't do any casting. We just filmed the first 30 centenarians that we met along the way.

Were they all happy to talk about personal matters or did some require some persuasion?

They were all very happy to talk, which surprised us initially. I think when you reach 100, you don't care what people think so you just say it as it is. There's something extremely refreshing about that generation. They are all so natural and without pretence. They also didn't fit into the stereotype that I ignorantly had before we began. I assumed they would all be very religious and highly conservative, which was not always the case.

Jackie O'Sullivan from Killarney.

Jackie O'Sullivan from Killarney.

When I asked one lady whether she believed in the afterlife she said she was uncertain because no one can prove it. Others also questioned the existence of God and some said they believed in God but not in dogma. One lady also approved of the gay marriage referendum in Ireland and felt that if people love each other, no matter what their gender, they should be together.

How different is the amount of time you would have spent chatting to your subjects versus what finally ended up in the film?  

That really depended on how they felt while we were filming them. The longest we filmed was about four hours and the shortest was 20 minutes with one lady who unfortunately wasn't feeling too well when we arrived. Still, she had some very worthy contributions in the film, including an incredible story about her first pair of shoes. They were bought by her father on the day he died and had never been worn. She showed them to us during the interview, which was amazing.

They all say they are frequently asked about the secret to their longevity. Having talked to so many of them, do you have any theories?

Not really. Initially I assumed you had to have a very positive outlook on life but then we met various centenarians who had long given up on life. I thought it was diet but we met smokers, drinkers and one lady who said she never ate a vegetable in her life. I thought it was exercise but some hadn't walked in years. I suppose if they all had one thing in common it was that they all loved to talk. They also obviously had good genes and were lucky.

The film started out asking Irish centenarians about their lives. But do you think the resulting film is just about that? If not, what else?

Our intention was that the arc of the film would mirror that of life from their first memories to their perception of the afterlife with all the vagaries of life in between: Childhood, school, first kisses, dances, love, marriage, children, loss and reaching 100. I hope by holding a mirror up to lives this long, as told by them, different people will get different things from it, depending on where they are in their own life.

There is also some political context in that these centenarians were all born before Ireland's major revolution against the British in 1916. They all had stories of the Black and Tans, which was the nickname for British soldiers in Ireland, and the Irish Civil War in 1922. We interviewed a man who witnessed the Croke Park Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1921 and another man who met Michael Collins, who was assassinated in 1922. There are also poignant stories of emigration and poverty, which was huge in Ireland when these centenarians were young. In general, however, the film is much more about the universal journey through life that could be as relevant to centenarian in New Zealand as in Ireland.

Bessie Nolan from Dublin.

Bessie Nolan from Dublin.

A previous doco of yours was about Irish pubs. None of the subjects in Older Than Ireland was interviewed in a pub. Might that be part of a secret to their longevity?

Very true. Although that's not to say they didn't frequent their local when we weren't around!

Is the generous Centennial Bounty [of some $NZ4000] that the Irish government gives people on their 100th birthday is an incentive for some to keep hanging on in there?

Never thought about that, you could well be right! All Irish citizens get €2,540 when they reach 100 and I can tell you that nearly all of them spend this on their 100th birthday party.

You really only had choice of song [When Irish Eyes are Smiling] for the end of the film, didn’t you? Is there a story to that particular recording?

I'm glad you said that because there was a bit of debate about that song and whether it was too on the nose. It's a recording of renowned Irish tenor John McCormack that we discovered was in the public domain and I personally think it works great in the film.

Bette Davis once said “Getting old isn’t for sissies.” Do you and do you think the folks in your film would agree?

I don't think so. Most have the attitude of just getting on with it. One man, John Mitchell still gets the bus to the supermarket every day to get his bread, milk and newspaper. The oldest lady, Kathleen Snavely, who was the oldest Irish citizen on record when we filmed her at 113 didn't want to be famous for just being old and didn't think she was special at all. Another man, Flann Brennan, admitted he had no advice to pass on to anyone. He said, he knows ‘'no more now at 100 than a babe unborn.’'
 
Have you done anything with the interview footage so far as creating an archive of these people’s stories?

Yes, we did a book first of all with their entire interviews but we're also going to do an online video archive with each of the full unedited interviews. We'll put this up  once the film has finished travelling.

Incidentally, we're extremely happy for the film to finally play in Auckland on March 8 and I want to extend my huge gratitude to the St Patrick's Festival Auckland for arranging for me to come for the New Zealand premiere.

Video: Element Pictures Distribution

Older Than Ireland has screenings at Auckland’s Academy Cinema on March 8 and 10 as part of the St Patrick’s Festival.

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