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Was life easier for the women who are older than Ireland?


Film stars: May Spain (101, far left) and Bessie Nolan (104) appear in Older than Ireland. Picture: Frank McGrath

Film stars: May Spain (101, far left) and Bessie Nolan (104) appear in Older than Ireland. Picture: Frank McGrath

Film stars: May Spain (101, far left) and Bessie Nolan (104) appear in Older than Ireland. Picture: Frank McGrath

'I think there's a lot of pressure on young women these days," says 104-year-old Bessie Nolan from Drimnagh in Dublin.

"I think we had it better back when I was young - we had a great time, free and easy!"

It's an interesting point of view, seeing as nowadays women have a lot more choice and freedom than they did in the early 20th century. However it's fair to say that Bessie's 104 years on the planet have endowed her with a certain wisdom, and she's firm in her beliefs.

Bessie is one of 30 centenarians who have taken part in a new Irish documentary, Older Than Ireland. The name refers to the fact that each participant has been around longer than the Irish State, and it's a poignant look at how things have changed in the last 100 years - and also how much has stayed the same.

Producer Colm Nicell and the team spent months travelling around the country speaking to elderly men and women in their own homes as well as care facilities.

Considering their vintage, and the fact that their own children could also be deemed old, the filmmakers abandoned the modern ways of finding subjects using the internet, and tracked down participants through local newspapers and word of mouth.

I meet Bessie in RTE's Radio Centre, where she's just come off the air with Ray D'Arcy. Incredibly spry for her years and very glamorous, Bessie still takes the bus to town on a regular basis, and takes great pride in her appearance, having worked in the fashion business for many years.

Born in Clane, Co Kildare in 1911, Bessie lives as independent a life now as someone half her age. She grew up in Inchicore in a family of four children, and met her husband Jackie when she was a teenager.

"Ah, he was following me since I was 14," she laughs. "But back then, I daren't go out with a fella, my mother would kill me! He'd send letters to me through another girl. After a while she'd tell me 'for God sake, go out with him cos I'm browned off doing postman!"

Jackie finally got his woman several years later.

"I used to be in a gymnasium class, and a lot of the people that went there went to Cork to work for Ford. I'd go visit them at the weekends with friends, because we could go down for a half a crown.

"One evening we were on our way home on the train, exhausted, and this fella came in to the carriage and tripped over my feet - and it was him, Jackie, the man who'd be my husband."

They settled in Drimnagh, but after seven years and four children, Jackie had to go to England for work. She says in the film: "He was 12 years in England, so I reared the family on my own and I went out and got myself a job and never looked back."

A rarity in her time, when many women didn't work after marriage. Bessie only retired reluctantly from Barclay's Bank when she was 75-years-old. "I was always a worker. I couldn't sit at home doing nothing, it'd drive me mad. I worked everywhere in Dublin - Arnotts, Irish Fashions, Madame Josephine's. I needed to work because I needed the money. I loved working."

She had another daughter after a couple of miscarriages, but sadly lost her to cancer a decade ago.

Bessie thinks life is more difficult for women now. "I think we had a better time; there wasn't so much money but we had a great time. It's sad that mothers have to go out to work now and put their children in a crèche."

Bessie has strong opinions on modern women; in the film she's seen despairing over a young girl she knows who she thinks is ruining herself with fake tan and heavy make up. She's also baffled by the more casual sexual culture.

"I don't believe in sleeping with this fella, that fella and the other fella. Why buy the cow when you can get three ha'pennies worth of milk? I don't mind if people shack up together, but it's the children that suffer."

Jackie died 43 years ago, and Bessie never remarried - despite getting three proposals from keen suitors. "Ah I've had loads of romance since," she laughs. "I was dance mad all my life, danced in every ballroom in Dublin."

Asked what the secret of her longevity is, Bessie shrugs. "I think God forgot all about me. I think you can live too long. But I had a great life when I was young."

May Spain, who is 101, is also featured in the documentary, and was filmed in her Milltown home. She didn't marry until she was 30 years of age, in 1944.

"It was a nice wedding. We didn't have money for hotels back then - it was the church, and then back to the house. I didn't work after I was married - my husband wouldn't let me. Although back then during our time, nobody really did. But I enjoyed my work when I did it. I was a tailoress."

Asked whether she'd have liked to have the option to continue working, she shrugs.

"I was happy with my work in the home. I raised six children. My husband passed away 10 years ago, and I still live in our house. All our children are very good to me; they have a rota - one comes one night, and another comes the next. I have my dinner with them on the weekend."

What does she think of women these days in Ireland, where feminism is booming once again?

"I think things have changed an awful lot, and not really for the good of the country. One man is enough for any woman. I can't understand girls going from one man to the next. The traditional way is best. I don't agree with divorce at all, because it's the children that suffer."

In the documentary, May says that her mother questioned her partnering with her husband Larry as he was so quiet.

"Was it love at first sight? No, not at all," she admits. "He grew on me." She tells of how her social life quietened down once she was married, but that now she's returned to the pastimes she enjoys, singing and playing the piano.

Something many ask of the elderly is if they have any regrets. May is candid and without self-pity. "I look at it like this - I made my bed, so I lay in it."

'Older Than Ireland' is on general release now

Irish Independent