Older than Ireland review: the secrets of our centenarians

Ireland’s oldest residents fill the screen with warmth and wisdom in Alex Fegan’s thoughtful new documentary

Taking her time: 105-year-old Dorothea Findlater from Blackrock, Co Dublin

Film Title: Older than Ireland

Director: Alex Fegan

Starring:

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 81 min

Thu, Sep 24, 2015, 16:00

   

When Eason began to stock Happy 100th Birthday cards, it became clear that centenarians were no longer the outlying rarities they had once been. Indeed, they are in danger of becoming a “demographic”.

Nonetheless, Alex Fegan, director of popular documentary The Irish Pub, did not face an enormous pool of potential interviewees when preparing his film on Ireland’s oldest residents.

There are, apparently, just 3,000 centenarians in the country. After placing advertisements throughout Ireland and tracking down further leads, he ended up with close to 10 per cent of that number.

The unavoidable lack of flexibility in selecting candidates proved to be an accidental advantage. With no bias – purposeful or subconscious – moulding the sample, Fegan has ended up with a representational cross-section of the nation.

We meet relatives of warriors for independence. One distinguished lady explains how her father, a senior British officer, took the surrender in 1916. There are middle-class doctors. There are rural farming folk. You could barely imagine a record of the nation that so effectively combined economy with comprehensiveness.

One thing does unite them. They are all, of course, the “sort of people” who live to be 100. That means there are more women than men about the place, but there are few other clues as to what fuels a long life. Virtually the first thing we see is the indomitable Bessie Nolan – always exquisitely dressed in matching wools – adjusting herself before firing-up an apparently delicious cigarette.

Elsewhere, another participant boasts that she “never ate a vegetable” in her life. Doctors need not write in to complain that we are downplaying the importance of eating cabbage and not smoking fags.

Older Than Ireland does, however, press home how significant genetics and plain good luck are in reaching 100. See if you can spot the two sisters in the film.

Some are optimistic. Others seem exhausted by the sheer amount of living they’ve done. But it would be wrong to suggest that no common feeling emerges. We can’t say if Fegan has filleted out any intemperate rants. Perhaps, the forbearing and more gregarious are more likely to agree to such interviews.

There is, however, a stirring degree of tolerance throughout the picture. Regrets that children today seem reluctant to get outside and connect with the real world mingle with an acknowledgment that schools of their own childhoods were often cruel and repressive.

Wider political and martial developments do inevitably make their way into the film. But Older than Ireland is at its most moving when addressing the universal experiences that shape all lives. Fegan is wise to order the reminiscences together in chronological bunches. They all talk about going to school. They muse upon first jobs. They ponder the delights and pressures of raising children. Few sequences in any recent documentary have been quite so moving as the scenes here where the interviewees (almost all of whom are widowed) discuss the loss of their spouses.

One gentleman says that when his wife died, he died too. Another lady – with the honesty that so often attends great age – admits that, whereas she greatly admired her second husband, the first remained her true love. A few wasters receive less warm obituaries.

This film will inevitably attract comparisons with Ken Wardrop’s great His & Hers. Fegan’s film is not quite so technically accomplished, but it is edited with great wit and features some memorably witty compositions.

“The meaning of life: how in the name of God did I get here?” one Michael O’Connor muses while reclining in his car after digging a hole. A question? That will have to do. If there were no mystery to life, it wouldn’t be worth living.