Ireland’s oldest person recalls Titanic and Roger Casement

Sarah Clancy (108) was five when the ill-fated nationalist visited her Connemara school


For years, Sarah Clancy treated questions about her age with disdain.

When people would inquire about to the number, she would sometimes reply “200” and other times “21”.

As the years rolled on, curiosity and speculation around the matter continued and was deepened by the fact she never celebrated her birthday.

However, the game was given away when a letter from the President of Ireland arrived with a cheque for more than €2,500, marking her centenary. Now aged 108, Ms Clancy is Ireland’s oldest citizen.

Sarah Treasa Clancy was born on May 2nd, 1908 in Sruthán, An Cheathrú Rua in Connemara.

At the same time, 15km away in Ros Muc, Patrick Pearse was scouting for a site for his cottage, which would be built in 1909. The Titanic was no more than a gleam in the eye of its owner Bruce Ismay, who sought refuge in Casla Lodge and became Ms Clancy’s neighbour after the vessel sank in 1912.

Ms Clancy shares her birthday with another Connemara notable, Colm de Bhailís, who died in 1906 at the age of 110. A customary Connemara birthday wish is “Go maire tú aois Choilm” (may you live to Colm’s age). The greeting may eventually need to be amended to take account of Ms Clancy.

Ms Clancy continues to live in her home, where she is cared for by her nephew Petie Mac Donagh and his wife Patricia.

Message in a shoe

A century ago, a young Ms Clancy helped her mother, Mary, around the home, where she lived with her eight brothers and sisters.

She remembers helping her father Tom draw seaweed to fertilise their land, and carrying buckets of sand to help build their new home across the road. She also accompanied him to the bog.

They were close, although she remembers him as being “ardnósach” (snobby) as he could speak English and Irish in a community that spoke only Gaelic. Apart from farming, Tom had a horse and cart and made deliveries. He also bought periwinkles from locals, which he sold on in Galway.

Ms Clancy attended school in An Cheathrú Rua. English was the only language spoken in class. She was five when Roger Casement visited the school.

After finishing school, she worked as a “cailín aimsire”, or housemaid, in the local Cladhnach Lodge. Her brother Patrick was an active Republican and she remembers people coming to the house searching for him. When Patrick was unavailable the local priest gave a message to young Sarah, who put it inside her shoe and delivered it to the priest in the nearby parish of Na Mine.

She remembers the family’s shed being used as a detention centre for prisoners – Free Staters and suspected informers – during Aimsear na bPúicíní (the Blindfold Period). Prisoners were blindfolded so as not to identify their whereabouts. Patrick emigrated to the United States but died at 35 from tuberculosis.

Growing up, she didn’t think much of marriage as an institution. It was the time when ‘cleamhnas’ or matches were made by the man simply by visiting the home of the potential bride with a bottle of whiskey. “Níl said ag iarraidh bean, ach asal” (“it’s not a woman they want, but a donkey”). She never married.

American life

At 30, she and her sister Anne did what almost all her family had done, emigrated to America. They lived with her sister Mary in Dorchester, Boston but would move out with each job.

Sarah worked as a maid and cook, often in the upper class homes of Brookline.

She kept in regular contact with Sruthán and secreted dollar bills in her letters. She returned to visit after five years and regularly from then on. Mr MacDonagh remembers seeing a radio for the first time ever in her hands.

She returned to Ireland in 1988 after Anne died. She kept house and babysat a new generation of grandchildren. She loved the children and would answer their North Pole-bound letters on Santa’s behalf. She only gave up babysitting at 95. She still stays at home, but last year began to occasionally go into respite care at the local Áras Mhic Dara nursing home. Her private remark on seeing her fellow residents for the first time was uncompromising: “They’re very old-looking.”

Until this year she had refused all wheelchairs.

Today her pleasures are simple: a cup of tea (sometimes the call for such can come at 5am), conversation and her big white family cat, Snowy stretching himself out on her bed.