‘Live life to the full,’ says Ireland’s oldest woman on her 109th birthday

Máirín Hughes remembers the Spanish Flu in 1918 and Black and Tans patrolling in Dublin during War of Indpendence

Celebrating her 109th birthday on Monday, Máirín Hughes, one of Ireland’s oldest women, said the secret to a long life is to “live life to the full” and “not to waste any time”.

Her long life began on May 22nd, 1914, just two months before the beginning of the first World War. This week, she turns turn 109-years-old.

Born in Belfast, she spent her early years in Dublin where her father worked as a customs officer. Her parents met in London some years before and were both members of the Gaelic League. The family soon moved to Killarney in Co Kerry where she grew up.

Now living in Maryfield nursing home in Chapelizod, Dublin, Máirín celebrated her birthday surrounded by fellow residents and friends, and the staff at Maryfield, who provided cake and balloons.


A member of staff presented Máirín with the latest addition to her collection of medals, which she has received every year since she turned 100.

Reading aloud to the other residents from the letter accompanying the medal, Máirín said: “You have lived through remarkable times in the history of Ireland and the world. You have witnessed remarkable changes, unimaginable at the time of your birth in 1914″.

The collection of her medals were “precious,” she said.

After singing happy birthday and playing her favourite song, Óró Sé Do Bheatha ´Bhaile, the residents joined Máirín on board a Vintage Tea Bus, which the staff had organised to take the group on a tour of Phoenix Park with afternoon tea.

Before departing for their hour-long trip around the locality, Máirín recalled seeing the nursing home she now lives in being built fifty years ago.

“We lived in Palmerstown, and my mother and I came down to Chapelizod to do a bit of shopping, and coming back this place was being built. Mammy asked a little boy on the road, ‘what’s that?’. He said ‘Oh that’s where the rich auld ones are going to live,’ she laughed, adding: “I suppose I am ... I’m rich in the company that I have”.

Máirín can vividly recall the Spanish Flu in Ireland in 1918, explaining that her mother “used to look after people” who became ill in the neighbourhood at the time.

“She used to go over to an elderly couple and I would go with her to help carry food and things for them but I was made to stay outside the gate to avoid getting the flu,” she said.

Other standout memories of her years in Killarney include the Black and Tans patrolling her area in 1921. She can remember them “driving around the road” and soon after, the Free State soldiers arriving in 1922.

In the early 1930s, Hughes moved to Cork to study science in University College Cork, something which she acknowledges was “unusual” for women at the time, though in a previous interview with The Irish Times, for her 108th birthday last year, she noted: “I wasn’t the first”.

She graduated with a BSc in 1935 and is UCC’s oldest known science graduate. Her time there made her some “very happy memories”. She also recalls attending the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 with her family.

She went on to work as a chemist in UCC’s medical laboratory for 16 years, observing first-hand the changes and advances in medicine at the time, and occasionally lecturing. Remaining there until she married her husband Frank in 1950, the couple then went to Dublin, where she became a teacher. Her husband was a clerical officer in what was Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ), the State transport company. The couple did not have children.

Speaking to The Irish Times on Monday, Máirín said she “never thought about” whether she would make it to age 109.

“I never thought about it. One doesn’t go around wondering what age will I be,” she said. But the secret to a long life was to “live life to the full ... Not to waste any time, I think, is important,” she said, to which some of her friends on the Vintage Tea Bus nodded in agreement.

“I like reading a lot. I always make sure I have something to read. I like listening to music. I just like living,” she said.

“And playing scrabble,” one of her friends interjected. “Yes, I like scrabble. I do get a daily newspaper, and I like history. I like historical novels,” Máirín said.

The Garda band and Lucan gospel choir also joined the celebrations on Monday.

Jade Wilson

Jade Wilson

Jade Wilson is a reporter for The Irish Times