In April 1916, a small girl called Dorothea stood on top of the Curragh’s Victorian red-brick water tower and watched the dark clouds billowing over Dublin city into the blue Easter skies above. Somewhere in that madness, her father was speeding around the city in a motorcar, with bullets and bombs whizzing all around him.
On September 7th last, that small girl became the oldest woman in Ireland at the remarkable age of 107 and ¾s. She wore the crown comfortably for 74 days before her final departure in the early hours of November 20th at Abilene, the family home in Blackrock, Co Dublin.
Born on December 26th, 1909, Dorothea Findlater was the eldest daughter of Captain Harry de Courcy-Wheeler and his wife, Selina Knox. Her ancestry was rich. Both her grandfather and uncle were presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons; her grandmother was a first cousin of George Bernard Shaw.
Science and literature aside, the sporty gene was arguably the strongest in her blood. Her father won the high stone wall championship at the Dublin Horse Show in 1904. Her mother and two aunts played hockey for Ireland. Her uncle, Jack Knox, played rugby for Ireland, most notably against the All-Blacks in 1906.
Dorothea’s passion for rugby was legendary. Pride of place on her mantelpiece were photographs of herself with stars such as Paul O’Connell and Peter Stringer. “There was no one like Stringer for whipping a ball out of a scrum,” she sighed.
She loved both hockey and golf. An honorary member of Carrickmines Golf Club, she was frequently to be seen on the clubs’ putting green, competing for the Seniors Cup.
Her childhood was spent in Robertstown House on the Bog of Allen in Co Kildare. “There were six of us children so we didn’t really need anyone else. There was always someone to play with, to swim in the canal or ride a horse or play tennis or hockey.”
‘I wasn’t educated’
The nearby village of Robertstown “was very go-ahead in my day. . . It had everything. A tailor, a shoemaker, a bakery, a police station, a post office and a hotel”.
“I didn’t go to school”, she chuckled. “I wasn’t educated.”
That is not entirely true. The family lived at the Curragh Camp for the duration of the first World War where she was taught by a series of governesses and devoured her fathers’ library. “I read all the classics,” she wistfully recalled. In between the pages, she watched thousands of young soldiers being drilled and trained before they headed off to the trenches of the Western Front.
After the war, the family returned to Robertstown and she began cycling to the nearby rectory where Canon Greening helped her to become the first female member of her family to make it into Trinity College Dublin.
In 1932, her final year at Trinity, she married Dermot Findlater, head of the celebrated Dublin wine merchant family and a highly regarded hockey goalkeeper. They had two sons and three daughters.
During the 1930s, she was a director of Bulmers in Clonmel. She played an active role in the second World War with the Foxrock branch of the St John’s Ambulance Corps. “We drove to Westland Row and collected refugees who had been bombed out of their homes in Liverpool. We fed them, washed them and drove them to stay with friends.”
After the war, she became a director of the Belfast Empire, the now defunct theatre once famous for its variety shows and charity performances. One of her roles was to look after the celebrities who were present for Gala performances such as Douglas Fairbanks jnr, Mary Pickford, the Princess Royal and Countess Mountbatten.
The Findlaters’ stylish charity luncheons in the firm’s O’Connell Street headquarters were top of the social agenda for many: Micheál Mac Liammóir, Hilton Edwards and Cyril Cusack were among the “terrific characters” who attended. She also raised a good deal of money for the Adelaide Hospital with her coffee mornings.
The centenary commemorations for the 1916 Rising was something Dorothea took a particular interest in. Captain de Courcy-Wheeler, her father, spent much of the week driving his black Ford through the streets of Dublin. In his passenger seat was nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, the plucky Holles Street midwife who delivered Patrick Pearse’s surrender note. It was he who took the famous photo of Pearse’s surrender, from which nurse O’Farrell was subsequently air-brushed from history.
The duo drove from one Republican stronghold to the next, urging the respective commandants to heed the surrender. Many years later, de Courcy-Wheeler organised a turf-cutting competition in the Bog of Allen which was opened by Éamon de Valera, the only leader who did not surrender directly to him. “I’m a lucky man,” remarked de Valera. “Any leader who surrendered to you was executed.”
“My father hated fighting against his countryman,” said Dorothea. “He was put in charge of [James] Connolly and told to shoot him if he moved. I remember asking him if he would actually have shot him. ‘I would not’ he said, and he meant it.”
Among those who surrendered to him were Constance Markievicz (his wife’s first cousin) and Michael Mallin, commander of the St Stephen’s Green garrison. An acute reminder of the close proximity of our past is that in the very week that Dorothea became Ireland’s oldest woman, Mallin’s son Joseph, a Jesuit priest in Hong Kong, celebrated his 104th birthday.
Dorothea attributed her ever-ready glow and venerable age to good nutrition and a strong sense of humour. She also lived by an evidently fruitful mantra: “I go on the theory that what you did yesterday, you can do today.”
She is survived by her children Alex, Grania, Suzanne and John. Her husband Dermot and daughter Jeanette predeceased her.