Monday, October 12, 2015

Celebrating ordinary, yet remarkable, lives

My grandmother has just become a movie star ... and she’s aged almost 102!

Mary Kilroy, from Caltra, is one of 30 Irish people aged over 100 who have taken part in a remarkable documentary called ‘Older Than Ireland’.

She jokes that she’s going to sue the film producer, not because he’s put her on the big screen, but because he put a clip of her on RTE’s ‘Late Late Show’.             
Granny Kilroy ... a movie star aged 101!

Her vision has deteriorated in recent years and she’s not up to the effort involved in visiting a cinema 30 miles away, but she’s chuffed by all the attention.

Some family members may be privately mortified that she managed to mention “loads” of ex-boyfriends and told a story on film which involved a priest and a four letter word.

But the great thing is how wonderfully film-maker Alex Fegan captured the remarkable spirit of a lady who has inspired so many people for so many years.

When he began filming, his mission was to ask each of the centenarians about their life experiences through the decades, starting with the Black and Tans and the foundation of the State back in 1922.

He soon realised that the personal had far more resonance than the political for these ordinary, yet remarkable, Irish people who had lived through so much for so long.

‘Older Than Ireland’ is a warm, uplifting tribute to a group of people who sum up all that is wonderful about their native land.

Each and every one of them welcomed Alex into their homes and they all spoke with genuine honesty about the highs and lows they experienced through their lives.

We see an elderly Dublin lady puffing on a cigarette without a care in the world or a 105-year old who still drives a car around the streets of the capital.

My own gran, whose life has become much more difficult over the past couple of years, puts on a brave face as she looks back on an amazing life in which she reared nine children in a two bedroomed house in the West of Ireland.

Alex spent four hours interviewing her in the Caltra home where her brother-in-law’s activities once attracted the wrath of the hated Black and Tans – there are bullet holes on the walls as a reminder of that distant era.

But, like the other amazing people in the film, my granny did not want to dwell on the negative. She spoke of lost loves, her marriage (she has now outlived my grandfather by over 50 years), companionship, and the changes she’s seen over the course of an ordinary – yet also extraordinary – life-time.

Her house used to be a social outlet for people long before the advent of televisions or mobile phones, when people used to drop in for a chat, a drink, and some music.

As a child, I enjoyed some of the best days of my life during summer holidays at her home. Every day brought a new sense of freedom, she also had a wonderful appreciation for Irish literature which was evident in the massive scrap-books (featuring anyone from John McGahern to John B. Keane) she kept around her home.

Granny was a religious lady and always went to Mass every Sunday. But in the dark days of censorship in the 1950s, she'd go out of her way to source those demon "banned" books from England. The priest mightn't have approved, but she'd have to get her hands on an Edna O'Brien or McGahern book to see what all the fuss was about.

In the film, she talks honestly about falling for a young man before she met her husband, only to attract the wrath of her family because he was a Protestant. That was a different, more divided, less tolerant Ireland.

At a special screening of 'Older Than Ireland' in Galway
But Granny Kilroy doesn’t dwell on the past. Like most of the characters in the 90 minute documentary, her focus is firmly on the present.

She revels in the fact that over 450 people sent her cards for her 100th birthday, which her entire extended family celebrated with a wonderful party in a hotel in Athlone.

Her younger sister Margaret Kelly, who celebrated 100 years in January, also features in the film. Margaret passed away a few months after her interview with Alex, which means that the film has since become a wonderful legacy for her immediate family.

On camera, Granny Kilroy discusses this year’s Marriage Equality referendum and the rights of gay people to get married in a candid way which must have been unthinkable to her generation 30 or 40 years ago.

The film would not have been a success without Fegan’s wonderful way of letting his subjects speak, honestly and without interruption, as they looked back on a century of life.

‘Older Than Ireland’ won a prize at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh and recently went on limited release throughout Ireland. 

The final film is completely different from what Fegan envisaged when he began the first few interviews, but it’s all the better for the way in which he let it flow and allowed the 30 interviewees to bring their personalities, hopes, fears, loves and regrets to the big screen.

It was amazing to hear Alex talk about the hospitality he received all over Ireland – not one of the 30 centenarians he approached refused to do an interview which, in its own way, is some sort of tribute to the spirit and sense of fun of the Irish people.

It’s not at all sentimental or overbearing; it’s actually a great laugh and a testament to how amazing ordinary, decent Irish people can be. 

People laughed all through the film when I went to see it at the Eye Cinema in Galway last week and were hugely enthused by a 'Question and Answers' session with Alex Fegan, who drove up from Kerry for the screening. For him, it had clearly become a labour of love.

Catch it if you can!