Film Review: Older Than Ireland

Alex Fegan's documentary about centenarians weaves together oral histories to create a moving portrayal of living at the outer edge of mortality—the subjects are Irish, but the subject is life itself.
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How do you live past the 100-year mark... what's the secret? Kathleen Snavely of County Clare, who died in 2015 at the age of 113, tells director Alex Fegan, "I worked a long time, and then I turned prostitute." She's just kidding, of course, in a particularly Irish kind of way, laughing with a sharp edge of “Oh, get on with you then.” And that's the tone that dominates the filmmaker's interviews with 30 Irish men and women born before the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and the proclamation of the Irish Republic.

The film's structure is loosely chronological, beginning with memories of childhood, youth, marriage, parenthood and middle age through the extended old age—dotage is emphatically not the term—of a cross-section of individuals who've defied the actuarial odds without really trying. "I'm not charmed with being a hundred," one says, but she is, and like most of Fegan's subjects, she remembers volumes. Among them, the interviewees saw history unfold through the prism of their daily lives: breakthroughs in medicine, technology from cars and airplanes to washing machines and electric lights (a marvel, says one, except that all of sudden everyone saw the dirt in every corner), science and social attitudes. Concludes one God-fearing lady who admits to having been puzzled when the Pope got to talking about gay men, "If they're both alike, they should stay together, I'd say."

There's nostalgia for the Ireland in which they grew up, where children played outdoors rather than fiddling around with "their machines," and memories of “American wakes”—solemn goodbyes to friends and family who immigrated to the U.S. in search of opportunity and rarely returned home (a scenario familiar to readers of Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn). Many are religious—rosaries and pictures of Jesus abound—but there are also bracingly clear-eyed recollections of the abusive power of the Catholic Church (when asked their schooling, several agree that the best word to describe their teachers was "brutes") and of the good craic (fun) they had out of the sight of prying eyes.

If the movie has a star, it's 103-year-old Bessie Nolan, a Dubliner in a robin's-egg blue sweater set and chic black-framed glasses who smokes, cuts her own hair (quite smartly), has no interest in being an inspiration to other senior citizens, calmly admits that she probably didn't love her husband, and remarks blithely that she's probably not dead because God forgot to collect her.

Older Than Ireland isn't relentlessly upbeat. It's filled with stories of loss, disappointment, tough lessons learned and compromises made, and it's hard not to suspect that the genetic hand you're dealt counts for a lot—my own Irish grandmother smoked, drank, counted the potato as first among vegetables and lived past 100. It also strongly suggests that attitude can't be discounted: However they express it, most of Fegan's subjects betray an awareness that it's better to go with life's flow rather than fight it, because life always wins.

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