Máirín Hughes obituary: Ireland’s oldest woman lived to 109 and did not waste a moment

Maryfield nursing home said Hughes was ‘an inspirational lady who taught us so much about life’

Máirín Hughes, who has died at the age of 109, at Maryfield Nursing Home, Chapelizod, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Born: May 22nd, 1914

Died: September 5th, 2023

Máirín Hughes, who was widely held to be Ireland’s oldest person, has died at the age of 109 in the Maryfield nursing home in Chapelizod, Dublin.

Born in Belfast, the third child and only daughter of William (Liam) Sheehan and Annie (née Dineen), Máirín soon moved with her family to Killarney where her father continued his work as a customs and excise officer. Her parents had met in London through the Gaelic League/Conradh na Gaeilge, a cultural and social organisation that promoted fluency in the Irish language.

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As a young girl growing up in Kerry, she witnessed the Spanish Flu in Ireland in 1918 and later recalled being with her mother when she took food to ill people who had to self-isolate to prevent further spread of the disease. She also remembered patrols by the Black and Tans police, the mainly British soldiers who were brought in as reinforcements for the Royal Irish Constabulary during the War of Independence. She also bore witness to the arrival of members of the army of the Irish Free State in 1922.

Following her father’s transfer to Cork city, She completed her secondary school education in Cork. Inspired by the head girl of her school, she opted to study science at University College Cork (UCC), which was then still a male-dominated academic discipline. She graduated in 1935, after which she completed a Higher Diploma in Education. She worked as a chemist in UCC’s pathology laboratory for 16 years, giving occasional talks and presentations to students as part of her job.

She met her husband-to-be, Sligo-born Frank Hughes, while on holidays. When they married, they moved to live in the north Dublin suburb of Palmerstown. Frank was a clerical officer in Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ), the State transport company. Both avid walkers, the couple – who didn’t have any children – enjoyed many holidays around Ireland. When Frank became ill in the late 1960s (he subsequently died in 1971), Máirín got a job teaching science at the vocational school in Ballyfermot. She remained teaching there until her retirement in the early 1980s.

Throughout her long life, she had a great love of the Irish language and made several visits to Dún Chaoin and the Blasket Islands. She even met Peig Sayers, whose tragic life story many Irish people of a certain vintage will recall studying in secondary school.

Máirín Hughes celebrated her 109 birthday at Maryfield Nursing Home in Chapelizod, Dublin with a trip on the Vintage Tea Trips bus along with fellow residents.

A woman of deep faith, she was a member of the secular Franciscan Order since her late teens. She was also a terrific seamstress. She made all her own clothes, curtains for her home and altar cloths and vestments for use in the church in Palmerstown.

At the age of 71, she decided to sell her home and move into a flat in Maryfield nursing home in Chapelizod. She immediately made friends and fully embraced the life of the community while maintaining contact with friends and family and other interests outside the nursing home.

“She always said that not having the worry of a house to maintain gave her a lot more freedom and time to do things she enjoyed – including going on birdwatching trips abroad,” her niece, Nuala Sheehan, said. Describing her aunt as a keen walker and very independent, she added, “she was a great believer in positive thinking and making the most of life”.

The staff at Maryfield nursing home said that Máirín was “an inspirational lady who taught us so much about life”.

“She was full of knowledge and kindness. She cared deeply about nature, giving back to her local community and religion played a large part of her life.”

Latterly, she enjoyed reading historical novels and the daily newspaper, listening to music, doing crosswords and Sudoku and playing Scrabble. When asked what the secret to a long life was, she said, “to live life to the full ... not to waste any time”. She put her longevity down to “God’s plan”. “I have nothing to do with it. But I remember being asked before about whether I drink. I have the odd glass of wine – everything in moderation.”

Máirín Hughes is survived by her niece, Nuala, nephew, Michael, her cousins and all her friends at the Maryfield nursing home in Chapelizod, Dublin. Her husband Frank predeceased her.