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These Irish eyes have seen it all

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103-year-old Bessie Nolan in “Older Than Ireland.”Snackbox Films

With its ancient history, Ireland would seem an ageless nation. In fact, it only just celebrates its centenary as an independent republic on Sunday. On April 24, 1916, the Easter Rising in Dublin started the rebellion that would ultimately free the southern counties from British rule.

So, at 100 years old or more, each of the 29 subjects of Alex Fegan's charming, wry, bittersweet documentary "Older Than Ireland" is indeed older than Ireland. For them, the years of rebellion and civil war are a handful of moments in a lifetime of memories. Some recollections bring laughter and delight; others convey only pain, engraved on the faces of their tellers.


As with his previous documentary, "The Irish Pub" (2013), another portfolio of images of fading history, Fegan draws on the wealth of Irish beauty: fairyland landscapes, quaint interiors, gaily painted doors and windows and the people who live there. He puts these snapshots together with a puckish wit, as when Bessie Nolan, an impeccably put-together 103, descends a staircase in her well-appointed cottage, takes a seat, and elegantly lights a cigarette.

There aren't many vegans in this cast of characters — as one says proudly, she's never eaten a vegetable in her life. That is in answer to one of the unspoken questions that structures the film — presumably something to the effect of "what is your secret to longevity?" One of the respondents, Kathleen Snavely, the world's oldest living Irish person at 113, who immigrated to New York at the age of 19 and recently donated a million dollars to Syracuse University, says she rebuffs that query by claiming that she worked as a prostitute.

There is a fair share of such Betty White-ish feistiness on display, but the pathos creeps in unexpectedly, as when 100-year-old Dolly Atley recalls what seems a sentimental memory of her first pair of shoes, bought by her father while he was on a trip to town. But then she relates how when her father returned, "the pony was a little wild," the cart overturned, and her father died. The shoes were in his pocket, and Fegan cuts to a close-up of them — tiny, gnarled things held tenderly in Atley's hands.


The darkness deepens when 103-year-old Jimmy Barry recalls the death of his wife.

"When she died," he says, "I died."

That is a sorrow that is older than memory itself.


Directed by Alex Fegan. At Kendall Square. 78 minutes. Unrated (suggestions of injustice, tragic memories, intimations of mortality).

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.