The secret to a long life? Take an interest and have a laugh

In her nineties Granny, who had been gifted with longevity, greeted people with ‘I’m still here!’

Granny always claimed she was sacked for laughing. Born in Derry’s Bogside in 1920, she left school at 14 and went to work in one of the city’s many thriving shirt factories. We never found out what she could possibly have found so funny in there, but it seems she was a repeat offender.

There was no due process for Granny, apparently; she was just put out the door.

Her father was a decent soul but a desperate drinker who pawned her First Communion dress before she even got the day out of it. I wonder did she see another child, perhaps a classmate, wearing her frilly frock, and her in a plain shift run up the night before from a slip of her mother’s when it was clear the original couldn’t be got back.

Did her mother go around and beg another mother for it?


Into her old age, Granny could still name every family in each house along the road where she grew up, but said she couldn’t stay there not earning her keep. There were 13 of them. So she was sent away to look after an elderly aunt who was living by the coast.

Future husband

She soon spotted her future husband in the grocers where he worked in the seaside town of Portush, Co Antrim, and recalled bringing another aunt (not the elderly one) and her closest sister to admire him through the window, looking ever-so-smart in his shop coat.

The youthful pair plotted a way to get away from the old aunt.

It was actually a priest who gave them sanction in the end, telling them they were a young couple with their own lives to lead. She couldn’t believe it. Felt like they’d been given permission by God.

Granda set up his own shop, eventually, and she helped him run it. Minihan’s opened early and closed late. Then on Sundays as well. Some of the Protestants in the town weren’t too pleased about that at first apparently, and a few threatened to take their custom elsewhere, which Granda got very worried about. But Granny said it would turn out alright, and it did.

She did not hold with the mantra that the customer was always right. After one particularly awkward altercation, Granda told her: “The best thing you could do for our business is stay out of the shop!” She didn’t, though.

She outlived her husband by 32 years. In latter years, acknowledging her Prince Philip-style longevity, she had taken to greeting people by saying “I’m still here!”

Smuggling butter

When you think about it, when she was born the first World War wasn’t long over and the Border we are so preoccupied with didn’t exist. She later recalled, laughing again, being invited to stand beside a radiator at a checkpoint hut by uniformed gentlemen who suspected, correctly, that she was “smuggling” packs of butter across that Border inside her coat.

Part of the secret of her long life, I think, was the way in which she stayed interested and engaged in the small details of family matters, as well as somehow being able to keep on top of everything there was to know about the bigger picture of current affairs.

After her closest sister's daughter won the Eurovision, there were undreamt of trips to America with Dana

She had derided the “gogglebox”, as she termed the television, in her younger days, but a late-blooming interest in sports of all sorts meant it became a friend in later years as she became less mobile. Her binoculars were always nearby by if she wanted a closer look.

The radio was another trusty companion. Marian Finucane could not be mentioned without the phrase "Now that's a smart girl", but you can get away with that in your 90s.

She didn’t make a fuss about faith, but holy days of obligation and the like were hardwired into her. A priest who could say Mass quickly enough to allow for a decent game of bingo afterwards would always find favour with Granny. Others felt the lash of her tongue on occasion, though. A few of her younger grandchildren looked on in amazement as she railed against certain priests who, she insisted, were only interested in LSD. She meant the old-fashioned pounds, shillings and pence, of course.


She was musical. Sadly not all of the Minihans inherited her talent, and she would not have been past informing you you were singing out of tune. After her closest sister's daughter won the Eurovision, there were undreamt of trips to America with Dana. She was a fan of Frank Sinatra and got to see him perform in his later years, noting that even he struck a few dud notes.

She’d had four sons to carry her coffin, but it didn’t work out like that.

Her eldest, my dad, died before her, and second son, my beloved uncle who walked me up the aisle, was already ailing by then.

There’s no explaining why some are gifted longevity while others are allowed only a short time here.

We somehow thought the matriarch of the Minihans would be around forever, but she died one month shy of her 99th birthday.

I don’t suppose too many of us will be lucky enough to be able to say that we’ve had a good life and are ready to go, as she did just before she left two years ago this week, the summer before Covid changed everything.