Meet the saucy centenarian who wrote a steamy novel in her 70s and hosted wild parties for Behan, Kavanagh and Donleavy

Countess Joan de Frenay says she didn’t drink much as she ‘didn’t want to get old and ugly’

Joan de Frenay, who is set to celebrate turning 103 in June, in her Rathmines home. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Allison Bray

You wouldn’t expect to find the steamy Fifty Shades trilogy on the bookshelves of a 102-year-old woman – but there is nothing conventional about Countess Joan de Frenay.

The Dubliner will celebrate her 103rd birthday at the end of June with friends and some of the staff from the Alone charity who keep tabs on her and her three Pekinese dogs.

The former painter, writer and self-described “rebel” married a French count and hosted raucous parties, with the likes of Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and JP Donleavy gate-crashing her flat above the notorious “Catacombs” shebeen located on leafy Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin’s bohemian heyday in the 1940s.

It is a period she once told that was “fun – everyone was drunk all the time”.

She was also a noted tarot card reader and in her 80s published her own steamy novel Love in the Fast Lane, a memoir of her wild youth set in Dublin’s artistic and literary gilded age that she started writing while well into her 70s.

She also wrote a novella called The Valley of the Bride following a successful career as a columnist and writer for the Christian Science Monitor and other publications and magazines.

Asked what she attributes to her longevity, she said first and foremost was her love of writing.

“I was a compulsive writer,” she told recently.

“I couldn’t stop writing. They [her parents] wanted me to go into the civil service but I rebelled and said ‘no way’. I’ve always been a rebel.”

Sadly her failing eyesight means she can no longer read nor write, but that didn’t stop her from devouring Prince Harry’s controversial memoir, Spare, in an audiobook format.

She is also keen to revisit Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War epic Gone with the Wind, but laments that she hasn’t come across an audio version yet.

Born June Furlong in Co Waterford in 1920 to a mother who was a Shakespearean actress, she was raised by her grandparents in an old Georgian house there before she was sent to boarding school in England and grew up in the upmarket Chelsea and Kensington enclaves of London before returning to Ireland and moving to Dublin as a young woman during the war years of the 1940s.

“The war years were very interesting,” she said.

“It was very cosmopolitan. I’d go to garden and dinner parties. I went to a lot of embassy parties,” she said.

Yet despite the antics of some of her contemporaries, she said her relative “temperance” has stood in her good stead over the years.

“I’m very temperate. I didn’t eat much, I didn’t drink much, I didn’t want to get old and ugly,” she said.

She became a countess after meeting her future husband, Count Pierre Henry Hubert de Frenay, in Dublin, whom she described as “a bit of a rolling stone” and penniless but the love of her life who sadly died in 1985.

And even though that was almost 40 years ago, the countess said she has no intention of going gentle into that good night just yet.

“I just keep going,” she says with a cheeky smile.