Bessie Nolan proves that life need not be such a drag

A new documentary about people aged 100 and over challenges our beliefs about the aged, says Margaret Jennings.

Bessie Nolan proves that life need not be such a drag

MEET Bessie Nolan – the 103 year-old Dubliner , who enjoys a couple of Superkings cigarettes a day and walks everywhere, including from her home into town every Saturday to meet friends.

The great-grandmother loves her style — putting on her lipstick and getting her hair done — but also well remembers being a tomboy as a child, robbing orchards. That would have back in the earlier years of the 20th century of course – a lifetime ago.

Bessie is among a number of centenarians featuring in a documentary called Older Than Ireland – its title taken from a phrase coined by one of the interviewees, to describe himself.

For film director Alex Fegan, who with cameraman Colm Nicell has so far recorded 25 men and women countrywide — ranging in age from 100 to 109 — the experience has been poignant and uplifting, with laughter and tears along the way.

And they are still on the look-out for more people to share their stories, before the film — which is fully funded by An Bord Scannán, is launched in cinemas later this year.

The idea for the project came from Fegan, who says: “Ireland’s centenarians are the last generation who have witnessed the bloody birth of Ireland as a nation and its development into a mature European State.

"They are living history and this is a homage to their memories and captures the wisdom they have gained through a century of life.”

As for Bessie: “She told us she was a bad influence on the family,” laughs Fegan. “She thought she would never reach 100 and said ‘I think God forgot all about me. I’m not on the [death] register’.

Another man from Tipperary who is 101 and still drives — collecting and dropping his home helper, gave them a lovely quote when he said ‘I was 99.

Then one day I woke up and I figured out I was 100 and I said to myself ‘Get up. Get up… keep going!’ In many respects that positive attitude has been the prevailing one – though not universal, among those sharing their stories so far.

“I also interviewed some people who were confined to a chair and not very mobile and who said they felt like a beached whale… the poignancy to that,” says Fegan.

“I definitely think mobility — from what we have seen so far — is the greatest factor in people’s wellbeing – in terms of positive outlook.”

Neverthless everyone was unflinchingly delighted to share their memories and all of them had Black and Tan stories to tell – putting a personal stamp on our history.

“We look at their earliest memories all the way up to the next step of their journey. We look at what their schooldays were like and we focus on the universal subjects that people would be interested in,” says Fegan.

“Sometimes the small things bring such a reaction – like, ‘can you remember your first kiss?’”

They also are asked about their own relationships.

“Some people never married and others married the love of their life, and after the passing of their wife or husband, it was absolutely the end of their world. Whereas we also interviewed one lady who said ‘God it was a blessed relief’, when her husband died!”

Anyone who blandly generalises about older people — especially about those who have reached such a great age — will get an eye opener; that spirit and variety of character does need not wane.

They met with people who lived at home alone and those with family around; with people in nursing homes and those in rural or urban set-ups.

So what has Fegan, who at 35 is 70 years younger than some of those with whom he conversed — learnt so far?

“I think I’m left with the sense of there’s nothing to fear – I think as you get older you’re naturally resigned and that’s a lovely thing to take away.

It’s a lesson on how important it is to talk to older people because they have so many stories and so much wisdom.

“They all loved to share and it renewed a sense of what an asset they are to society – their unbelievable spirit and determination. Colm and myself gained so much from each encounter. We would come out from each person and we would just stand there and say ‘Wow!’”

If you know someone 100 years or older who might be interested in taking part in the film email  or ring 01-4100500.

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