BRIDGET DIRRANE: Bridget Dirrane, who died aged 109 in 2003 was Ireland’s second oldest woman.
In a life that spanned three centuries, the Cumann na mBan veteran met Padraig Pearse, went on hunger-strike in Mountjoy, worked in John F. Kennedy’s election campaigns, and was the oldest recipient of an honorary university degree.
The latter distinction earned her a place in The Guinness Book of Records. Her memoir, A Woman of Aran, published in 1998, was a best-seller.
On the occasion of her 105th birthday, when asked if she had expected to live so long, Bridget Dirrane replied, “not really, but my sister Julia did live to be a 100”. She attributed her longevity to a strong religious faith, a good upbringing and a healthy diet. Last February she was highly amused to hear her death reported on Today with Pat Kenny and promptly despatched a correction.
Éamon de Valera was the Irish political leader she admired above all others.
To the end, she maintained a keen interest in current affairs and was an enthusiastic supporter of the peace process, and she earnestly wished for a permanent peace. Of today’s IRA, she said: “They don’t know what they’re fighting for. I wouldn’t approve of all they do, but it’s up to them. They’ll have to answer for their misdeeds.”
Bridget Dirrane was born Bridget Gillan, the youngest of the eight children of Joseph Gillan and his wife, Margaret (née Walsh), at Oatquarter, Inis Mór. Her father was a weaver and wove the cloth for the clothes worn by the young Liam O Flaherty.
She encountered tragedy early in life. Her brother, Patrick, died shortly after she began attending school and her father died when she was eight. On the whole, however, her childhood was happy and she shared the family love of music and dancing.
From an early age, she wanted to be a nurse. “I had the knack of it. I knew the cures, as my mother had.” She left school at 14 and worked intermittently as a childminder.
Among the visitors to Inis Mór whom she met were Padraig Pearse, Thomas Ashe, Eamonn Ceannt, and Joseph Mary Plunkett.
Bridget Dirrane left Inis Mór to work as a childminder in Tuam, Co Galway, and later moved to Knockavilla, Co Tipperary, where she became housekeeper to Father Matt Ryan, a Land League veteran and republican supporter. There she joined Cumann na mBan.
In 1919 she began training as a nurse at St Ultan’s Children’s Hospital, Ballsbridge, Dublin. Part of her duties entailed nursing patients in their homes. On one such occasion, the house was raided by the Black and Tans, and Bridget Dirrane was arrested. Taken to the Bridewell, she infuriated her captors by dancing and singing in Irish. On her transfer to Mountjoy Prison, she embarked on a hunger strike. After nine days she was released without charge.
One of her most abiding memories of the War of Independence was the execution of Kevin Barry. She took part in a Cumann na mBan vigil outside Mountjoy on the morning that he was hanged. “We heard the death bell and then there was silence.”
Dirrane opposed the Treaty, and the Civil War caused her great anguish. Nevertheless, she later took a job caring for the family of Gen Richard Mulcahy, the bête noire of anti-Treatyites.
She retained fond memories of the family to the end of her days, particularly of Risteárd who became one of Ireland’s leading heart specialists.
In 1927, at the age of 33, she emigrated to the US and found work nursing in Boston. Shortly after her arrival, she met Edward (Ned) Dirrane, an island neighbour; they married in 1932. During the Depression, the Dirranes worked long and hard to make ends meet. Roosevelt’s New Deal brought some relief, but before the couple could enjoy the benefits of economic recovery, Ned Dirrane died suddenly in 1940.
When the US entered the second World War, Dirrane worked for two years as plant nurse in a munitions factory and later tended soldiers at the Biloxi military base in Mississippi. On her return to south Boston, she became an active Democratic supporter, canvassing for John F. Kennedy in many elections.
In 1966, after 39 years in the US and now retired, she decided that it was time to return to Aran. She moved in with her brother-in-law, Patrick Dirrane, a widower whose three sons were then living abroad. To show good example, the couple married.
At the age of 73, Dirrane oversaw the renovation of her new home, Cliff Edge Cottage, mixing cement and helping to slate the roof. She also planted the flowers and trees around the cottage. Her greatest joy was to help in the rearing of the children of her step-son Coleman and his wife, Margaret.
Dirrane was quick to embrace change and flew on Aer Aran’s inaugural flight to the islands. She welcomed the growth of tourism and the employment it generated. But she bemoaned the stress of modern life. “Today, unfortunately, people don’t have the time to bid each other the time of day. Everybody seems to be rushing to the graveyard!”
Among the visitors to her home were Senator Edward Kennedy and the former US ambassador Ms Jean Kennedy-Smith. When Ms Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first Freewoman of the City of Galway in 1999, Bridget Dirrane was on hand to meet her. By then, she was a resident in a Galway nursing home, her husband having died in 1990. She had been awarded the Master of Arts honoris causa by NUI Galway in 1998 in recognition of her rich and varied life and her service to others.
Bridget Dirrane was a devout Catholic and, to mark her 100th birthday, she purchased a stone statue of Our Lady which was erected at the Well of The Four Beauties, Inis Mór. In her memoir, she intimated that she would leave no fortune behind her. “What I will leave is 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.”
Bridget Dirrane is survived by her step-sons, Stephen, John, and Coleman. Bridget Dirrane: born 1894; died December 31st, 2003.
With many thanks to: Easter Rising War of Independence and Irish Civil War History.