Sitting by her collection of centenarian bounty awards and photographs of some of her happiest memories, Máirín Hughes, who will become one of Ireland’s oldest women this weekend, says she is looking forward to her birthday celebrations.
Her long life began on May 22nd, 1914, just two months before the beginning of the first World War. This Sunday, she will turn 108-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.
Living in a nursing home throughout the Covid-19 crisis was not her first experience of surviving a pandemic. Vividly recalling the Spanish Flu in Ireland in 1918, she says 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 says.
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 she notes, "I wasn't the first".
A girl from her secondary school had also studied science at UCC, she explains. “I had to copy her. I honestly didn’t know the difference between chemistry and physics,” she jokes. 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.
She puts her longevity down to “God’s plan”.
“It’s God’s plan for you. I have nothing to do with it. But I remember being asked before about whether I drink. I have the odd glass. Everything in moderation,” she says.
Staff at Maryfield nursing home in Chapelizod in Dublin have planned a party for her 108th birthday on Saturday afternoon. The itinerary includes a Mass in the morning, followed by lunch with 10 friends in the nursing home’s activity room. Later in the afternoon, an ice-cream van will be parked outside and a celebration will commence with speeches and music from a local school choir.