Older than Ireland
reviewed by James Mcgovern
When I decided to review Alex Fegan’s documentary exploring the lives of thirty Irish centenarians through their own voices I expected – and was hoping for – a film that would narrate crucial historical events in Irish history from unorthodox points of view. With the vague memory of a 70s RTE documentary on the Civil War in my head I was chomping at the bit for more emotional stories about the Revolutionary period which I could insert into conversation at appropriate times during historical/political arguments. Yet when the film began by focusing almost exclusively on history it lost me almost straightaway. For Older Than Ireland is not really a film about history, or society, or anything else. It’s about people: their lives, their experiences, and their value.
Fegan clearly missteps, then, by opening with talk of historical events. Largely they are delivered through dry narration. One of the thirty centenarians recalls the day the Black and Tans entered Croke Park and killed a lot of innocent people. That should have had me on the edge of my seat but instead the description felt like something from a school textbook. Of course it makes sense that their descriptions of such events be boring. After all, the various versions of history learned by these people have long since suffocated their actual experiences of historic moments.
Once history is left behind the film shows why it won best feature-length documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh. It allows us to enter the lives of the oldest people in the country and their collective three thousand years of experience. The central problem for the director is how to locate the gems of those experiences in order to portray them in 77 minutes. Which questions should the cast be asked so their lives can open up on film? Since each life is unique it is hard to find enlightening general questions but Fegan largely succeeds. There are enough moments where the heart strings of the theatre-goer are firmly pulled, or funny bone tickled. Especially poignant is one man’s discussion of life after his wife’s death. Particularly humorous are the scenes involving a Drimnagh woman who steals the show.
A few of the questions put to the cast are about society but the talk about societal change is, like the historical content, textbook-like. A much easier way to gauge such change is to listen to the openness with which the cast talk about subjects like sex. When the film is showing us the change it is far more engaging than when it tells us of it.
Fittingly, the last question the centenarians are asked is about death. Though they are so full of life, death is a concept which hovers about the whole film. Few of the cast make reference to any living people when descanting on their lives. There is not a standard reaction to the prospect of death amongst them but, interestingly, many of them have reached a stage where they have become indifferent towards it.
The question about death and the deathly air of the film itself bring to mind the slow passing of Countess Rostovna in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The countess gradually winds down to her dignified end in the presence of her family; her mind and body peacefully giving up their functions. Such a natural end presents an alternative to the cult of youth that pervades modern culture. The great success of Older Than Ireland is to do the same. Their great age brings to the centenarians great nobility and great dignity. Though the progression of their lives has largely ended they need not be young for their lives to be of tremendous value.