Irish golden oldies light up the silver screen

Alex Fegan's entertaining and poignant new documentary Older Than Ireland sees 30 centenarians look back over their remarkably long lives. The Dublin film-maker speaks to Brian Campbell

Jackie O'Sullivan (102) in Older Than Ireland

DIRECTOR Alex Fegan should start telling people that he is responsible for making the oldest film on record. If you combine the age of the interviewees in his documentary Older Than Ireland, it’s approaching 3,000 years. That’s a lot of birthday cake candles.

It is an utterly fascinating film and is Fegan’s follow-up to his 2013 documentary The Irish Pub. His previous film was entertaining but mildly depressing because the ageing publicans all seemed trapped in their job and it featured pub regulars who seemed to spend their lives propping up the bar.

Older Than Ireland is a different proposition, though. Yes, there are some poignant moments when the centenarians open up about the moment their spouses passed away, but on the whole it’s an uplifting film.

Fegan tracked down 30 100-somethings from all corners of Ireland and asked them about their schooldays, their first kisses, their husbands and wives and key moments in Irish history.

But the director had to travel all the way to Syracuse, New York, to meet the oldest Irish citizen on record, Kathleen Snavely, who moved to the US in 1921.

“Kathleen had never done interviews with anybody,” says Fegan. “I was in Syracuse because The Irish Pub was playing there. I knew of her and knew she lived there and I knew she was heading towards being the oldest Irish citizen on record.

“I asked the woman who organised the screening if she could call in with Kathleen to say that we’d be interested in talking to her. So that’s how we got access to her. You can see how fit and alert she was and she told us her life story. She told us how she gave away $1 million [to Syracuse University] when she turned 100.

“Her first husband died and she married again and she spoke candidly and said she was very grateful to have two husbands that she loved.”

Sadly, she passed away earlier this year. Ireland’s oldest man, 108-year-old Luke Dolan, has also died since the film was shot.

“I think 108 was a remarkable age for a man. Luke told us about his first kiss and let out a big yelp. He was in good form when we met him but sadly he died shortly after we interviewed him.

“We found that the contributors weren’t looking back on moments of history; they looked at their relationships and the things that were most important in their lives.”

Most of the interviewees are women and one of the most captivating subjects is Dubliner Bessie Nolan, 103.

“As soon as we met her she was like `Do you mind if I have a smoke?’ and I said, `Do you mind if we film it?’ She turns 104 in November,” says Fegan.

One woman says she never ate a vegetable in her life, so there really doesn’t appear to be any magic formula to making it to three digits.

Belfast woman Ellie Lawther (106) is apparently going along to the Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast next week to see herself on the big screen.

“We were up in Belfast earlier this year and we actually filmed three people there, but only Ellie is in the film,” says the director. “She’s remarkable. She was the third oldest in the film. She puts down her longevity to being active and keeping busy.”

Fegan’s starting point for the film was news of a 100th birthday party. “I met a man who was going to his aunt Rose O’Halloran’s 100th birthday party. He said she was brilliant and had all these memories of historical events and loads of stories.

“I thought it would be good to interview her, because I was finishing with The Irish Pub. I thought it would be great to talk to people of that age all over the country and see what emerges.”

One man in the film, Dr Flann Brennan, looks more 81 than his 101 years and there’s a real sense of sadness in him as he looks back over his life.

“We couldn’t get over how deep he was. There were tragedies in his life, even though he doesn’t articulate what they were, so you have him speaking about his regrets,” says Fegan. “He spoke about not having male friends and how most of his friends were women and here he is at 101 wondering why that was.”

One woman laughs when she recalls the introduction of electricity and how the light showed up dirt in the house that had previously been happily unseen.

“They had no electricity, no cars, no planes, no computers. Of all the generations in history, they probably saw the greatest changes during their lifetime,” says the director.

Fegan asked his subjects about their views on faith and he got a diverse set of answers.

“I suppose we expected them all to have a very conservative outlook on life. One said she had a faith and was brought up a Catholic but she wouldn’t be dogmatic towards that religion.

“The nun, Sister Eileen Doyle, had a very strong faith, obviously, and then one lady was saying, 'Can any one of us prove it?’

“Mary Kilroy spoke about two men 'living together’ and she kind of said `If they do love each other, that’s fine’. You could see her thinking about it on camera. And she had rosary beads in her hand.”

There are some remarkable stories in the film. One man was in Croke Park during the Bloody Sunday killings in 1920 and another knew Michael Collins.

Fegan says he would like people of all ages to see Older than Ireland. “I think young people will gain so much from seeing it. There’s wisdom in it but it’s not in your face,” he says.

“When you hear these people talking from the pinnacle of the mountain of life, you get to realise what’s important. It’s not the little worries you have along the way, it’s the relationships and the loves and the sense of humour; they’re the things that matter.

“And then the older generation will really relate to it, with the talk of dance halls and everything else. Some people might look at the film in a cynical way and think it’s twee, suggesting that these people are in some way contrived. But they’re not; these people have roots going back 100 years and they couldn’t be further from twee. They’re completely unpretentious, authentic and natural.”

:: Older Than Ireland opens at QFT Belfast today and runs until Thursday. The film will have a one-off screening at Newcastle Community Cinema on October 25 at 5pm. See for more information.


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