Isolde McCullagh obituary: Champion of fitness for Irish women

Tutor and trainer who was committed to Fitness League Ireland for 70 years

Isolde McCullagh

Born: June 19th, 1919

Died: January 22nd, 2019

Isolde McCullagh had a major influence on the health and fitness of many thousands of women in Ireland in her role as principal of the Fitness League Ireland. She died , just five months short of her 100th birthday, her longevity itself a testament to her belief in the value of regular exercise


The Women’s League of Health and Beauty, as it was then known, was established in London in 1930 by another Irish woman, Mary Bagot Stack, who had seen the benefits for women of yoga while living in India before the first World War. The object of the league was to provide affordable exercise classes for women and to teach them about good posture. By giving women the opportunity to exercise together the league was in many ways the forerunner of the modern day gym culture.

McCullagh was born in Dublin on June 19th, 1919, to Percy Whitehead, a singer who is remembered by a trophy in the feis ceoil, and Harriet Dallas, from whom she said she inherited a a stiff-upper-lip and a stoic personality. She was educated in Rathgar Junior School and later in Alexandra School and College, the alma mater of Stack.

Dancing classes

She began dancing classes aged three and did her first solo on stage aged five. As a child she was always teaching her friends dances and acrobatics. McCullagh joined the league at 18 and went to London to train as a league teacher in 1938. When war broke out she completed her training in Dublin, studying theoretical subjects in Trinity College and practical work with Kathleen O’Rourke.

O’Rourke had introduced the league to Ireland in 1934. She went on to co-found the Central Remedial Clinic with Lady Valerie Goulding and started the Dublin College of Physical Education, now at the University of Limerick.

McCullagh was committed to the league for 70 years, even teaching classes while she had both legs in plaster following an operation to extended her Achilles tendons in the late 1960s.

In the 1970s she trained as a tutor, taking over the training of Irish league teachers. Very much the driving force behind the league, she saw it expand to more than 30 centres in counties Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow and Wexford. She was also a vice-president of the league in the UK and an external examiner for student teachers in New Zealand.

McCullagh organised exercise displays in UCD, in the National Concert Hall and in the Basketball Arena. She also prepared many teams of members to perform in the Royal Albert Hall.

As members of the league aged, the positive effect of exercise became obvious, leading to the development of Extend, a system of exercise for the elderly or less able, based on the Fitness League.

Cottage industry

McCullagh introduced this system to Ireland with encouragement from the medical profession, and trained hundreds of Extend teachers who are currently working in nursing homes and day care centres all over the country.

She had several other strings to her bow. In the 1950s she started a knitwear cottage industry, again touching the lives of hundreds of Irish women, giving them the opportunity to earn a small income. This business expanded over the years, supplying many stores in Dublin, the UK and the US. She closed the business in the late 1970s.

In 1969 , with a cousin, she became involved in a Caravan park in Shercock, Co Cavan. She spent every weekend there during the summer months through the 1970s and 80s.

In 2004 she wrote her autobiography, Isolde’s Way, but found she could not squeeze her life in one book and published a second offering , an exercise book called Never Too Late, in 2010. In an interview with The Irish Times, she said she wrote the second book – which raised money for Cystic Fibrosis Ireland – because people kept asking, “How have you lasted so long?”

She was a firm believer in the maxim that your genes determine only 30 per cent of your future and the other 70 per cent is what you make of it. “A cheerful outlook on life is terribly important,” she told The Irish Times. “Nobody will have anything to do with you if you are always moaning. Who likes a moaner?”

Ovarian cancer

In 1988 McCullagh was diagnosed with third stage ovarian cancer, and she had surgery and chemotherapy. The prognosis was a maximum of five years, which she defied, living for another 30 years. She recalled lying in her hospital bed, asking two doctors if there was any hope for her. “One looked up at the ceiling and one looked out the window, and no one said anything.”

A keen swimmer – she was the Irish 400-yards freestyle champion in 1942 – she met her husband, Ken McCullagh, at Pembroke Swimming Club where he was her swimming and lifesaving coach. Ken had brought the Royal Life Saving Society to Ireland. They married in 1943.

They had a daughter, Gillian, and a son, Dallas, and in the 1960s adopted Vanessa. Ken died in 1971. She was also pre-deceased by Dallas and is survived by her two two daughters as well as six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.