Older Than Ireland – Interview with director Alex Fegan

Having tackled a dying Irish pasttime with The Irish Pub, Alex Fegan takes on the Irish pasttime of slowly dying in Older Than Ireland. Nice.

As with his 2013 documentary The Irish Pub, there’s always a danger with Alex Fegan’s Older Than Ireland – talking to 30 Irish people who have hit the 100-years-old mark and beyond – of stepping in something a little too twee.

Sure and begorrah, aren’t the Irish mad little hoors altogether, altogether? Flat caps, crooked teeth and conspiratorial cackles at every turn, and once you throw in our world-famous wry and dry turn of phrase, sure, it’s enough to make John Hinde stick his foot through a stained glass window.

It’s a danger that Fegan seems to be very much aware of though, keen with both of his documentaries to play it straight when it comes to the edit. A little snip here, a little snip there, and it’s easy to turn a sad old tragedy into a chucklesome slice of comedy with just about any wide-eyed interviewee.

We caught up with young Fegan as he prepares his next film – “a return to period drama; will give the documentaries a rest for a little while” – to talk about keeping it real in the land of the fairies.

Watch the OLDER THAN IRELAND trailer below 

MOVIES.ie : There’s a relief to discover that never everyone here is young at heart – some feel very old, and some feel too old… “You can live too long,” one flatly states.

ALEX FEGAN: To be honest, we were just trying to be honest as possible. So, if someone said they weren’t crazy about being over 100, we’d leave them to it. There was no editorial policy here, other than letting people tell their truth. So, there were quite a few who just weren’t happy about being this old, and it didn’t take long for my early belief that everyone who got over 100 got there largely through positivity took a kicking. Just because you can continue doesn’t mean that you want to. One woman told us that she actually prayed each and every night that she wouldn’t wake up the next day.

Where did the idea come from…?

I met a friend going to a 100-year-old birthday party, and it got me thinking – as we approach the centenary of 1916, and you look back on the amount of change over the last 100 years, this just seemed like a great way to examine that century in Ireland through these people. This was all before The Irish Pub came into existence, so, I’ve been mulling it over for quite some time.


We all return to childhood eventually – everyone here talks like an out-of-breath toddler…

One of our initial ideas was to look at the four seasons, and suggest how life comes full circle. I think that is the case. Although there were a few people who were afraid of the next world, most people seemed quite content. Even in the regrets section, everyone had made peace with their regrets. One man said that everyone he had done something bad to was now dead. So, he was happy.


Any favourites? Bessie Nolan was such a perfect Dublin wit, I began to think she might just be Al Porter in drag. And New York millionaire Kathleen Snavely – who passed aged 113 in July, the oldest Irish person alive until then – was just a diamond. Both sadly no longer with us, in fact…

When we went to interview Bessie, we had no idea what to expect. And she just knocked us out with her old Dublin wit. And her way of telling a story was so to the point. When you’re trying to find 30 people over 100, it’s not easy. There’s the case of finding the people, and then whether they want to be involved is another thing. With Kathleen, she didn’t want to do it initially, and I was over in Syracuse for a screening of The Irish Pub, and when I told this lady there about my wish to talk with Kathleen, she just kept calling into her over six months – and eventually won the day. And I didn’t know what to expect with Kathleen because she’s nowhere online. And this really funny, involved woman greets us, and, straight away, she took no prisoners with her humour. You could see why she was so successful.


There’s always a degree of urgency with film, but, did you ever feel that you were literally in a race against time here? The fading of the light takes on a whole new meaning when any one of your leads could be dead by teatime…

We did want to capture something that was fading, that needed to be caught on film before the light was fully gone. So, yeah, we had limited time, and a limited number of people to talk to. Afterwards, we became aware of the fact that history isn’t all that important compared to the universal turns, such as that first kiss, first shoes, etc. So, you end up with an impressionistic view of that time, and there wasn’t a lot of jumping up and down about Ireland and its history. It was their personal experiences that matter – especially loved ones gone.


There’s a strong sense of Aardman’s Creature Comforts here, but then, any documentary where everyday people are left to wax lyrical has that crossover. It’s all in the edit for the laughs or the tears, right…?

There’s a million ways you can skin a cat, absolutely, but the hope was that there would be an integrity with this. Number one – we weren’t making a fool out of everyone. And then the humour was important. We’re dealing with people who couldn’t care less about what people think of them. There’s an innocence too to people of this generation – they’re not as social media conscious.

It starts off with their earliest memories and works its way up to the here and now, and then the hereafter. The big one is the first pair of shoes, and seeing one woman recall how her father died bringing back her new shoes – and she’s still got them. That’s a first memory that really knocks you down. And that was just by chance; it just seemed like the logical place to start then.

There were never any major sad memories of childhood – that all comes with becoming adults. When I was at the Galway Film Fleadh screening, there’s a scene where a guy simply forgot something in the middle of the supermarket, and this lady started bawling. I wouldn’t have read it that way, but it would suggest that everyone will bring something to these scenes. We all know someone who’s growing old. If it’s not us, of course. When Jimmy Barry from Waterford said that when his wife died, he died, I was taken aback by that. You don’t expect a man at 103 to talk about his true love – they first met when he was four years old – and come to that conclusion.


As you left each interview, you must have known that you may never see them again…

That was tough. There were a few who got very honest with us, and you’d have to give them a hug when you’re going. There were stories that were told to us that had never been told before. Family members would come into the room afterwards and be amazed at what their mother or father had told us. So, there was an intimacy there, a connection, that almost instantly ran very deep.


The Irish Pub did well around the world – I’m guessing Older Than Ireland has strong commercial potential too…?

After The Irish Pub was released, I had no idea what road that film was going to take. When I was initially telling people about The Irish Pub, they’d tell me that it was the worst idea ever, and people were a little skeptical about this one too. But, if you’re truly interested in the story yourself, you’ll press on. The Film Board were great here – they got it straight away. So, we got lucky, and then The Irish Pub was released, its success helped a lot.

In Ireland, The Irish Pub was a slow burner – a word-of-mouth film – and the same pretty much happened in the States. Once you got it in front of people, they tended to recommend it. It wasn’t exactly blockbuster, but it has played all over the world.


It’s sad to think that, by the time this comes out on DVD, many of your stars will have taken the Stena Stairlift to heaven…

Everyone of them that has passed leaves a mark. You definitely get attached, even if it’s just a day you spent with them. It’s definitely surreal. Already, over 10 of these wonderful people have passed, and that’s just over the space of six months.


At least they’ve left something behind for their families, who must be delighted to have this documentary…?

Thrilled. We promised them all the footage. Just so they have a concentrated block of an interview with their loved one. And to have those questions asked that you may not have gotten around to – the first kiss, the dances – that would mean a lot to them too, I’m sure. It is all about these people, at the end of the day, and to have been a small part of it has been a pretty amazing experience.


Older Than Ireland hits Irish cinemas Sept 25th

 Words – Paul Byrne