Alex Fegan (The Irish Pub, Man Made Men) returns to the big (indie) screen circuit with his latest project, Older Than Ireland, a fascinating feature documentary on the lives of 29 Irish centenarians, aged 100 to 113. For many, their earliest memories were simple, happy recollections—such as wearing their first pair of shoes; school days and first loves—which they cheerfully delve into before broaching more personal, painful accounts. The name of the film itself is a reference point: All of the individuals profiled lived through some of the most tumultuous years in Ireland’s complicated history, including the 1916 Easter Rising, the Civil War and the eventual declaration of the nation as a Republic in 1949.
Fegan takes his time with each interview, giving subjects plenty of space to pause as they relive the past and its pangs of joy or regret. At times, the viewer simply watches the silence, and the film has a tendency to drag, but the filmmaker’s choice in this is understandable, as it appears to be both a nod of respect and a touch of human fascination with mortality.
Though the film starts slowly in its gentle probe for pleasant memories from the elderly folks, it is the latter half, when the tougher reminiscences are revealed, that time, ironically, seems to stop for the listener. At this stage, the centenarians hold very little back, several admitting they wish they had not lived to such a great age. They miss their loved ones and the solitary and even bedridden lives they now live are poor replacements for the lives they remember.
They soldier on, as the Irish tend to do, complaining and chuckling and making do. Bessie Nolan, 103, still makes trips to the local shop and lights up her cigarettes with ease as she laughs over her past. Una Reid, 100, enjoys chatting while in the beauty parlor and doesn’t seem to know what all the fuss is about. But the truth of their altered existences in many cases feels tragic, as though they are the real-life equivalents of the family from Tuck Everlasting, outliving everything in life that used to matter most. It is heartbreaking to watch, particularly in the cases of some who have lost spouses, such as Jimmy Barry, 103, or Dr. Flann Brennan, 101, two people who very clearly show the camera the pain of being “left behind.” Others, like Luke Dolan, 108, lie in a stark nursing home beds and utter phrases so garbled that the provided subtitles are an absolute necessity.
But perhaps it is this uncomfortable glimpse at life’s end, during which the filmmaker orchestrates a delicate balance between candor and dignity, that is the film’s true value. In some viewers, it may generate a protective response, or a moment of thanks to these remarkable individuals. In others, it may elicit a profound sadness. Fegan and his centenarians have tried to create a film that will transcend age—but they’ve succeeded with Older Than Ireland in assembling a humorous, honest and grave social archive. That is more than enough.
Director: Alex Fegan
Writer: Alex Fegan
Release Date: April 29, 2016
After spending several years in Ireland, Maryann Koopman Kelly now lives with her husband, kids and border collie in California, where she continues to write freelance and blog about life as she knows it. You can follow her on Twitter.