For a documentary that focuses solely on the stories of people who’ve lived past 100, Older Than Ireland is an engaging, surprisingly entertaining journey through the lives of people who, as the title suggests, are older than the state of Ireland. Director Alex Fegan is capable of extraordinary empathy, showing his often lively subjects in a carefully composed, respectful light. Scenes of these people putting the kettle on for tea, shopping for groceries, and climbing into their cars for a drive are magnetic when paired with their stories of life today and in the past. It’s often terrifically moving.
If only there was more of the daily life of these centenarians showed. For much of the film, Fegan is content to place a camera in front of his subjects and let them talk. This lets the subjects control the flow of the film, but the film’s most heart-warming and interesting moments are when we see the striking independence of Ireland’s oldest residents. Many of them are perfectly capable of handling their own lives and the scenes of them out of their houses, engaging with the world at large. As you might expect, Older Than Ireland’s 30-strong cast features more women than men, a simple demographic necessity.
While the film spends most of its time on the personal lives of its subject, it does delve into politics when it crosses paths with the characters’ own lives. Bessie Nolan, a fashionable lady who smokes with abandon, met Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins, the leaders on each side of the Irish Civil War; we also meet Jimmy, the last surviving witness to the massacre at Croke Park, where 14 civilians were shot by British auxiliary police during a Gaelic football match. One woman with a distinct English accent mentions that her father, a British officer, accepted the surrender of Irish rebels after the 1916 Easter Rising.
There’s much talk of the way household appliances and social behaviors have changed over the years, but there’s little analysis of how Ireland dramatically changed during the middle of the 20th century. Ireland transformed from a poverty-stricken state inextricably linked to the Catholic Church to a relatively secular member of the first world, but explicit talk of the societal changes that occurred during the 1950s and 60s is limited. We get more tales of first kisses, dances in the music halls of Dublin, and the physical brutality of schoolteachers.
While almost every interviewee laments the lack of community that they see in today’s Ireland, Fegan keeps his subjects on point, avoiding too much “back in my day” talk that would have grown old quickly. Some of this may be due to good editing, and some may have to do with his selection of characters — from Ireland’s around 400 centenarians, only 30 made it into the film. Fegan wisely focuses on the aspects of long lives that will tug on the heartstrings of those much younger.