Bridget Dirrane was the oldest native of Ireland’s Aran Islands and the second oldest person in Ireland. Éamon de Valera was the Irish political leader she most admired, but in a life touching three centuries, she met Pádraig Pearse, went on hunger strike in Mountjoy gaol, campaigned for John F Kennedy in Boston, and was the oldest recipient of an honorary degree, which earned her a place in the Guinness Book Of Records.
She was born Bridget Gillan, the youngest of the eight children on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, Co Galway. She had a happy childhood and shared the family love of music and dancing. As well as Pearse, she also met Thomas MacDonagh and other nationalists when they made visits to Inis Mór.
Having worked as a childminder in Galway, she became housekeeper to Father Matt Ryan, a nationalist Land League veteran, in Knockavilla, Co Tipperary, and joined Cumann na mBan.
In 1919 she began training as a nurse at a Dublin children’s hospital. Part of her work entailed nursing patients at home, and she was arrested while on duty at the home of the French-born nationalist sympathiser, Claude Chevasse, during a British raid. Taken to the Bridewell police station, she infuriated her captors by dancing and singing in Irish. On her transfer to Mountjoy gaol, she embarked on a hunger-strike. After nine days she was released without charge.
One of her abiding memories of the Irish war of independence was of taking part in a Cumann na mBan vigil outside Mountjoy on the November morning that 18-year-old IRA volunteer Kevin Barry was hanged. “We heard the death bell and then there was silence.”
In 1927, aged 33, she emigrated to the United States and found work nursing in Boston. In 1932 she married a one-time Aran neighbour, Ned Dirrane, who died in 1940. With the US entry into the second world war in 1941, she worked for two years as a munitions factory nurse and then joined the medical staff at the Biloxi, Mississippi, army camp.
On her return to postwar Boston, she became active in the Democratic party, canvassing for John F Kennedy in many elections. When she knocked on doors, she recalled, it was as if she was at home in Aran or Connemara. She also did Catholic voluntary work, and, having learned to drive, set off on nationwide nursing assignments.
In 1966, she retired to Aran and married her widower brother-in-law, Patrick Dirrane. Quick to embrace change, she flew on Aer Arann’s inaugural flight to the islands. Aged 73, she oversaw the renovation of her new home, where the visitors included Senator Edward Kennedy and his sister, the former US ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy-Smith. When Hillary Clinton became the first freewoman of the City of Galway in 1999, Bridget was on hand to meet her. Bridget also wrote a memoir, A Woman Of Aran.
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 died 31st December 2003.