Generations: what we learned from a year of interviews with people aged 7-103

The Irish Times Generations project, which has spoken to 50 people of different ages around Ireland, concludes today. Its central finding? We live in an ageist society


Generations: 10 Decades of Irish Life began in April 2014. In January that year my editor and I decided that I would interview people in Ireland from different age groups, from children to centenarians. It was an exciting idea. There would be five people per decade – 50 in all – and they would share their experiences and views on Irish life past and present. They would collectively offer a snapshot of Irish society, and we would publish the series over a year.

The first person I interviewed was Emer Cosgrave, a 93-year-old. I went to her house, in Blackrock in Co Dublin, and sat enthralled in her kitchen for a couple of hours. As she explained why she considered young women in 2014 not to be independent at all I realised that the value of the series was going to be in its contrasting life experiences.

Over those 15 months I drank a lot of tea in kitchens and living rooms around the country. As my interviewees got younger I met them at work, or in restaurants or cafes or hotel foyers between work and college. As their ages dropped to single figures formal interviews turned into chats.

Dexter Comerford, who is nine, bounced on his parents’ bed while he talked to me. Eva Flaherty, who is eight, brought a framed photograph of her hamster, Ellie, to show me, because we met at a hotel, and she was determined I was going to see her beloved pet, one way or another.

I learned a lot while reporting for this series. I learned that, no matter what age they are, what people value most is honesty in others. “What is life without it?” Dervla Murphy, who was 82 at the time, told me.

I heard that sentiment so often that usually I did not include it in the articles, because of the risk of fatiguing readers with the repetition, but it went all the way down the decades. Claire Cullen, another interviewee, told me, “What’s most important to me in other people is trust, respect and honesty, but there’s not an awful lot to hide when you’re 17.”

I was also reminded that Ireland is ageist. Eilish Cullen, a 75-year-old, said, “Ageism in society is very destructive. When you look at the courses that are being given by the powers that be to older people, they are often so patronising. Please don’t sit us in a corner and teach us how to knit. Recognise our wisdom and experience and talent instead.”

“I quite enjoy getting older, but I think Ireland has always been an ageist society,” said Moya Doherty, the Riverdance producer, a 56-year-old. “I know a lot of people in their 70s and 80s who won’t say what age they are, not out of coyness but out of the fact that people will view them differently. We are going to have to address that.”

Education was another theme. Many of the first people I interviewed – those aged over 80 and over 90 – had left school early. Paddy O’Connell, a 91-year-old, had left at 14. So had Michael Parkinson, an 88-year-old, who would have liked to stay on. “I was well able to learn,” he said. “I was gifted that way, but I left at 14. You were wanted at home to work.”

What those people in their 90s, 80s and 70s most wanted for their children and the generation following them was a chance to have the full school education that had been denied them. As I went down the decades it became the norm for interviewees to have completed secondary education, to have achieved what their parents and grandparents had not.

What they wanted in turn for their children was a third-level education – a desire the next generation seems to have accepted with some foreboding. “The idea of not getting into college, that’s really scary. The Leaving Cert is really scary; everyone is so scared of it,” Cullen said.

Frank Miller, the Irish Times photographer and joint Picture Editor, decided to commission all the portraits in black and white. This provided visual continuity to a series that appeared periodically and resulted in many outstanding photographs that captured the essence of the person in front of the camera.

The person I travelled farthest to meet was Siobhán Jutika Healy, a 48-year-old who lives on the Beara peninsula. If ever a long journey to a tentative interviewee has rewarded me with an extraordinary story, it was hers. The tale she told in her Eyeries kitchen was a gripping story of abandonment, bravery and survival.

She was not the only person who revealed things that many people usually keep private. Cathal Cullen, a 65-year-old, spoke about his son Cormac, who had died of an overdose just before his 30th birthday. “The only thing that makes sense to us is the absolute belief that he is in a good place now. He had found living too difficult.”

Brian McIntyre, a 49-year-old, spoke about the difficulty of growing up gay. “It was quite traumatic to be forced to hide part of my essence. Irish society would have had me believe being gay was the worst thing that could have happened to me. I still harbour some anger towards Irish society in the way it treated children like me.”

The youngest person I have interviewed for Generations is Gabriella Martins, a seven-year-old from Drogheda, in Co Louth, whose father is Nigerian and whose mother is Polish. The oldest was Lucy Carty, a 103-year-old from Cork who looked me in the eye and said, “You have to get up and go. You have to keep going. That’s the main thing in life I’ve learned: keep going.” There is nothing like talking to a centenarian for making you feel instantly, magically young.

The second-oldest person I interviewed was the redoubtable economist TK Whitaker, who was then 97. My colleague David Sleator, Frank Miller’s fellow joint Picture Editor, photographed Whitaker. His arresting portrait was the main picture on the front of Weekend Review to launch the series.

Four months later Dave died suddenly, at the age of 54. He is mourned and missed by many, most especially his wife, Judith, and daughter, Judith Eileen. I never would have thought that the man who took the portrait of someone almost twice his age would be the one to go first. As I continued with the series I often thought about Dave photographing Ken, and the unsolvable conundrum of life. I am still thinking about it.

All of the Generations photographs and stories will be published as an Irish Times book in September

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