When your birthday is a presidential affair
The number of Irish people who live to over 100 has increased in line with developments in medicine and the decline of disease and war
THIS WEEK, TWO of Ireland’s oldest living citizens died. The first was Bride O’Neill, from Kilbarry outside Fermoy in Co Cork, who died just weeks short of her 108th birthday. She was believed to have been Ireland’s oldest living resident and never smoked, drank or married. After turning 100, she still walked a mile and a half to the local library every day, and maintained a strong interest in current affairs and politics.
On Wednesday, Ireland’s oldest living priest, Fr Tony Cummins, also passed away. Fr Cummins had reached 103 when he died at Kilconnell Nursing Home in Co Galway. He had been ordained in 1932 in Loughrea and served until his retirement in 1987. Colleagues said he retained an active interest in life right to the end.
Recent studies show that the number of Irish people who live to over 100 is increasing, in line with improvements in modern medicine and the decline of disease and war in western society. But how does the Irish State recognise and identify our centenarians? And what is their secret to living a long life?
Information on how many people in Ireland are currently aged over 100 is held by the General Records Office, which recently came under the remit of the Department of Health. This office, coupled with the Department of Social and Family Affairs, has a hand in identifying when a citizen turns 100. Information is then passed to the President’s Office. Every Irish citizen on the occasion of their 100th birthday receives a letter from the president and the payment of the ‘Centenarian’s Bounty’.
This payment was introduced by president Douglas Hyde in 1940, when a payment of £5 was made to those who turned 100. By 1996, the award was the equivalent of £300. The award is usually presented to the centenarian by a member of their local clergy or a friend and the current award is €2,540, having been increased several years ago by President McAleese.
Since 2000, the President has also marked the birthday of each person resident in Ireland over the age of 100 years. On his or her 101st and every subsequent birthday, the person receives a special commemorative coin in a presentation box, along with a congratulatory letter signed by the President. A new coin is designed for each year. In recent years the award was extended to include Irish citizens not currently resident in Ireland.
Writer Turtle Bunbury, who has profiled many of Ireland’s oldest living citizens for his Vanishing Irelandseries, says that the President’s award takes pride of place in the homes of many centenarians he has interviewed. “The letter from the President is on the mantelpiece of anybody of that vintage that I have met,” he says. “My next-door neighbour was a man called Bill Burgess, and he was the second-oldest man in Ireland when he died aged 105. He had collected four or five medals on his mantelpiece.” Bunbury says the common denominator of many of the eldest citizens he has met is their mental fortitude and appetite for life. “What linked them all I would say is that they have a positive outlook on life.
“Also, three of the four of them I know were unmarried. One centenarian, Paddy Gleeson, smoked like a trooper until the end, while Statia Kealy, a life-long pioneer, started having brandy nightcaps when she was 92 or 93 years old. She is 106 now.”