Bridget Dirrane is a remarkable person in the history of Ireland. She associated with key figures in the Easter Rising of 1916, including Padraig Pearse and Countess Markievicz. She knew Maud Gonne, the beautiful actress who broke the heart of W B Yeats.
Dirrane later helped President Kennedy’s election campaign in America.
Throughout her life she survived two World Wars, seven Popes and was involved in several significant historical events.
Dirrane was born on 15 November 1894 on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands off Galway. She was the youngest of the eight children and enjoyed a happy childhood with her brothers and sisters.
She was a staunch republican who managed to listen in on a conversation involving Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and other republicans as they planned the Easter Rising. Dirrane was carrying out her household tasks and overheard the men talking. Speaking about the conversation she heard, Dirrane said:
“They were talking about a rebellion, and I knew the way they were talking that they didn’t want anyone to hear them but of course big ears, I heard every word they said. Padraig Pearse was a very nice gentleman. Very nice if you were to listen to him, but I wasn’t supposed to listen.”
While working in Tipperary, she joined the Cumann na mBan, the republican women’s organisation. She went on to train as a nurse in Dublin.
Dirrane was visiting Claude Chevasse, a political campaigner for Irish nationalism, at the same time the British raided his home. She was arrested along with all others present.
Dirrane refused to be intimidated by the British troops. She was told that if she were a man she would be killed, and that she should suffer the same fate. She turned to the official and told him: “Shoot me if you can, because there’s a thousand lives to give for the same cause.” The official didn’t shoot her and she was arrested.
She was put in Mountjoy Gaol and protested by going on hunger strike. She spent her time dancing and singing in Gaelic. When asked by one of the guards why she was so happy Dirrane replied: “I’m so happy because I’m doing a little bit for my country.”
She was released without charge after nine days. She later joked that was too much trouble for them to deal with so they let her go.
Dirrane was part of the Cumann na mBan vigil outside Mountjoy the day that IRA volunteer Kevin Barry was hanged. Barry had been involved in an attack on an army tank in Dublin and arrested. He refused to reveal the names of his comrades to the British, despite being tortured. He was executed on 1st November 1920. Dirrane remembered the moment vividly: “We heard the death bell and then there was silence.”
In 1927 Dirrane emigrated to America where she worked as a nurse in Boston. She met and married a fellow Aran native called Ned Dirrane. During the Second World War she tended to wounded American soldiers in Mississippi. Dirrane was tragically widowed in 1940 when her husband Ned died.
She returned to Boston after the war and embraced the advance in technology by getting a driving licence and buying herself a car. She drove up and down the country in her Chevrolet Bel Air to attend various nursing assignments and do voluntary Catholic work.
During the 1960s, Dirrane was an active canvasser for John F Kennedy’s presidential campaign and made a lasting impression on the party. She was present when Hillary Clinton was made the first free woman of Galway City and former US Ambassador Jean Kennedy-Smith and Senator Edward Kennedy also later visited her in Ireland.
“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.”
Dirrane moved back to Aran in 1966 and married her late husband’s brother Pat. Never one to be afraid of new experiences, she was one of the passengers on the first aeroplane to ever fly to the Aran Islands.
After the death of her second husband Pat in 1990, Dirrane moved to St Francis’ Community Nursing Unit in Newcastle, Galway. She wrote her autobiography, A Woman of Aran with the matron, Rose O’Connor.
In recognition to her life of service to others, Dirrane received an honorary degree from NUI, Galway in 1998 at the age of 103.
It is unclear as to whether Dirrane was ever officially the oldest woman in Ireland, but a nurse at her care home stated she was “certainly in the top two or three”.
The Irish Independent were convinced and celebrated her 108th birthday calling her “Ireland’s oldest woman, Bridget Dirrane”.
She credited her long and active life to her religious faith, a good upbringing and a healthy diet. Bridget Dirrane passed away on New Year’s Eve 2003 at the age of 109.