Legendary ‘Woman of Aran’ dies, aged 109
THE original ‘Woman of Aran’ died yesterday in a nursing home in Galway, aged 109. Brigid Dirrane passed away peacefully in the early hours of yesterday morning, according to staff in the home. She was the second-oldest woman in Ireland.
Ms Dirrane, who was born in November 1894, saw some of the most turbulent moments in recent history. She was imprisoned during the War of Independence, and spent time in Mountjoy Prison, where she witnessed the hangings of both Kevin Barry and Thomas Whelan. She emigrated to the US in 1927, and canvassed for John F Kennedy during her time in Boston. In 1996, Ms Dirrane became the oldest person in the world to be awarded an honorary degree. She wrote her autobiography, called Woman of Aran, at the age of 103.
“She lived a very fruitful, eventful and effective life, and left a great legacy,” said Rose O’Connor, matron of St Francis’ Nursing Home, Newcastle, Galway, where Ms Dirrane lived for the last eight years. “The Kennedys were very appreciative of her work for them, and they never forgot her. They wrote to her often, and she was visited regularly by Jean Kennedy Smith.”
In 1966, after the death of her first husband, Ned Dirrane, Ms Dirrane returned to the Aran Islands to live with his brother, who she later married. When her second husband died, Ms Dirrane had her two wedding rings moulded together to symbolise her love for the two brothers. There were no children from the first marriage, but her second husband had three children when she married him. Ms O’Connor said they were “as close to her as if they were her own children”.
She was visited by Pat Kenny, Daniel O’Donnell and President Mary McAleese among many others over the last few years, and features on the leaving and junior certificate syllabi. In her autobiography, Ms Dirrane wrote that she did not leave any fortune for her descendants, only “the sunshine to the flowers, honey to the bees, the moon above in the heavens for all those in love, and my beloved Aran Islands to the seas”.
Funeral of Bríd Dirrane, who was 109
Friday, 2 January 2004 19:51
The funeral of Ireland’s second oldest woman, Bríd Dirrane, aged 109, took place today on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, where Bríd was originally from.
She passed away peacefully on New Year’s Eve, at St Francis Nursing Home in Newcastle, Galway city, where she had been living for the last eight years.
Born in 1894, Ms Dirrane lived a very eventful life. She was imprisoned during the War of Independence; she canvassed for John F. Kennedy, after emigrating to Boston; and in 1996 her name was entered into the Guinness Book of Records after she became the oldest person in the world to be awarded an honorary degree, which she received from NUI, Galway.
Concelebrating her funeral mass today, Fr Connla Delaney spoke of the endless memories of her which will be treasured always by the many people who met and loved her throughout her long life.
The ‘Woman of Aran’, who wrote an autobiography at the age of 103, was finally laid to rest at Cill Éanna cemetery on Inis Mór, Árann, this afternoon.
When I was a schoolboy at the Jes, an odd looking man in a green and yellow kilt, bare knees and jacket was on occasions paraded from classroom to classroom where he addressed us all in Irish but with an accent like the late Sean McBride. His visits always caused a bit of a stir; and when he walked around the town people usually stared. He was Claude Chevasse, a French professor of languages who lived at the old Martin home Ross House, near Rosscahill.
The house looked a draughty and leaky old place then before its magnificent refurbishment by the welcoming O’Loughlin family in recent years. I had forgotten all about Chevasse until I read a few years ago the biography of Bridget Dirrane and learnt with interest that she had once nursed Chevasse’s wife after a difficult childbirth in his Dublin home.
This was shortly after the 1916 Rising when the War of Independence was at full throttle. Chevesse, despite his European origins, was a fierce Irish nationalist. Bridget was a lively young woman in her early 20s, and a nurse which gave her an independence not enjoyed by all women at the time.
She was also a member of Cumann na mBan (a self-styled women’s corps to the Irish Volunteers set up in 1914, but not universally popular because of the many feminists within its ranks). The Chevasses’ was a busy household known locally for its rebel opinions. One day there was a knock on the door and when Bridget opened it a “whole swarm of Black and Tans” fell in on top of her “like a pack of locusts”.
Bridget remembered an incriminating letter back in the kitchen so she raced ahead of the soldiers and managed to throw the letter in the fire. The officer in charge began to question her but she cheekily began to dance about and answered all his questions tri ghaeilge.
Frustrated, the officer had her arrested along with Chevasse and another house guest, David O’Leary. At first she was imprisoned in the Bridewell and then transferred to Mountjoy. Again Bridget drove everyone crazy by dancing and singing rebel songs and generally being a nuisance. Countess Markievicz was also in “residence” at the time.
Along with two other women Bridget went on hunger strike. Again the authorities were furious, and a doctor ordered two quarts of milk to be delivered to the hunger strikers every evening. Bridget gave hers away, and was beginning to feel the effects of prolonged hunger when the Mayor of Dublin appealed directly to the young women to end their hunger strike. They agreed and he sent in a “good meal to all of us”.
Shortly afterwards, Bridget was released. She went back to St Ultan’s Hospital, where she continued her training. But all her adventures frayed her nerves. Returning to the hospital one night she was caught in cross fire and became very frightened. But to her surprise Countess Markievicz recognised her and escorted her back to St Ultan’s where she persuaded the matron to look upon the young woman as a patient.
Bridget was given a bed. She was exhausted. But she continued to support the rebellion even if it was only by saying the rosary among the vast crowds who had gathered outside Mountjoy gaol on the mornings of the hanging of Kevin Barry, November 1 1920, and a week later, as the young Clifden man Tom Whelan, probably totally innocent of any crime, was also hanged.
Seven years later Bridget emigrated to Boston, where she began a whole new life marrying her first husband, Ned Dirrane who, like her, was reared on Inishmor and went to school at Onaght just six miles from Bridget’s school at Oatquarter. She had met him previously by chance in Dublin, and they met again in Boston at the famous Galway Middle Club, which opened every Saturday night for music, step-dancing and tea.
She was born Bridget Gillan, the youngest of eight children, in the townland of Oatquarter, Innishmor, on November 15 1894 and died December 31 2003 at the astonishing age of 109 years.
There was always music in the Gillan house. Her cousin Michael Wallace, taught her the fiddle and the accordion. Her sister Margaret and her brother Joe also played and there was “dancing in the house till after midnight”.
There was plenty of simple food. “Fish and potatoes were always very plentiful on Aran and food was never scarce. Every family killed their own sheep. They kept their own ducks and hens who kept them supplied with eggs. There plenty of rabbits there too. All these foods provided the necessary ingredients for a healthy life.”
Despite its distance from the Galway coast, in her book A Woman of Aran, Bridget never gives a feeling that the islands languished in some backwater. Although the Gillans never owned a boat themselves “there were plenty of boats on the island and we could go to Galway whenever we needed to”.
As a young girl working in homes that kept guests she served tea to Padraig Pearse, leader of the 1916 Rising, Thomas Ashe, who died Mountjoy gaol September 17 1917, Eamonn Ceannt, a signatory of the 1916 proclamation and Joseph Mary Plunkett also executed in Mountjoy 1916.
She remembered all these men after she heard about the rebellion in Dublin. In a life that spanned three centuries Bridget saw amazing changes on the islands that she always loved, and returned to live there after 39 years in Boston. Always quick to embrace change she flew on Aer Arann’s inaugural flight.
She returned to Aran a widow in 1966, and later married her brother-in-law, Pat, who was the father of three children and a widower. Bridget had her two wedding rings bonded together as a symbol of her love for the two brothers, Ned and Pat.
While in Boston she became active in the Democratic Party and campaigned for John F Kennedy in many elections. When she knocked on doors, she recalled, it was as if she was at home in Aran or in Connemara. She obviously made a difference because the Kennedy’s never forgot her.
One day at her attractive Cliff Edge Cottage, in Oatquarter 40 years later, a young man knocked at her door. With a distinctive American accident he asked if this was the house of Bridget Dirrane? When he was told that it was, he said that his mother Jean Kennedy Smith, the American ambassador, would be here in a minute. She was coming by bicycle! Senator Ted Kennedy also visited her on Aran.
When the years began to take their toll, Bridget moved to the mainland, taking up residence in St Francis Home, Newcastle, Galway. It says a lot for the care at St Francis’ that the matron Rose O’Connor recognised that Bridget was an exceptional women and invited Jack Mahon, a distinguished author and sportsman, to record her story which was published in 1997 when Bridget was 103 years of age.
The book received a lot of publicity and was recognised as a vivid record of a long life lived through interesting times. Bridget received an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland Galway in 1998. She was the oldest woman in the world to receive such an honour. A Woman of Aran, – the life and times of Bridget Dirrane, as told to Rose O’Connor and Jack Mahon, published Blackwater Press, paperback, and still on sale.