To mark the 29th International Day of Older Persons on 1st October 2019, the following collection of mini biographies by Eugene Dunphy will show that Ireland has had its fair share of centenarians and supercentenarians who lived long and interesting lives.
That Clear Sligo Air
In February 1898, Michael McGuinness, aged 107, wrapped up well against the elements and left his home in Kilmacshalgan, County Sligo. Taking with him his trusted donkey and an iron bucket to light a fire in case of cold, the sprightly supercentenarian ‘took the Sligo boat’ to Liverpool to visit his son and daughter-in-law who lived in Gerard Street.
While out for a leisurely stroll in a Liverpool park, he was resting on a bench when approached by a photographer who snapped his photograph, a drawing of which was replicated in the Irish papers. Attributing his longevity to ‘the excellent air of the Sligo hills’, Michael lamented the fact that his donkey had just died, but was proud to state that his grandfather reached the grand old age of 111.
Walking a mule will keep you fit
Born 27 July, 1795, in County Westmeath, Catherine Dillin emigrated to America in 1848 and settled in Bristol, Pennsylvania. Interviewed in 1898, she said she had five children living, and fifteen grandchildren: ‘I’m feeling as spry as I did fifty years ago. I walk a mule regularly every Sunday to go to church.’
Tales of caves and smugglers
William Petrie of Point Street, Larne, County Antrim, was born on 5 June, 1800. Receiving a carriage clock and a selection of pipes for his 100th, he was looking forward to enjoying many more years with his family, friends and neighbours. He had vivid recollections of how the caves at Islandmagee were used by smugglers to store illicit cargo such as tobacco, alcohol and snuff. Twice married, William had 13 children and 50 grandchildren. He died on 3 January, 1902, within five months of his 102nd birthday.
Breaking stones and herding cattle
Aged 109 in 1901, Bridget McIvor (nee Cannon) was born in Springtown, near Derry, in December 1792. She was twice married. When her first husband (named Breslin) died in their sixth year of marriage, she remained a widow for nine years. Bizarrely, her second husband (McIvor) also died after six years of marriage – both died ‘three and four days short of the six years’. As a very young girl, she remembered the sound of women crying for their husbands and sons who had fallen in the 1798 rebellion. A strong, hearty woman with hands calloused by manual labour, during the Famine she broke stones in a quarry and spoke with pride at how she made £20 within a five-year period. For years she watched cattle for the traders of Derry outside the city, during which time she lived in a tent made of roughly sewn sacks which were placed across two rickety posts.
Known to sing while sewing and mending, it was not unusual for the centenarian to do her washing at 5am on a summer’s morning and have it dried on a hedge well before any inquisitive neighbours surfaced from their beds. A reporter who visited her remarked, ‘She lives on ‘outdoor relief’ and what the neighbours give her, and also keeps a few hens. Tea is the only thing she cares for now, except the pipe, which she dearly loves and produces on all occasions’.