Ireland’s oldest citizen likes nothing more than a cup of tea, a chat in her native Irish and her cat Snowy beside her. Seán Ó Mainín met her at her family home in Sruthán, Carraroe and talked to her family.
“What age are you Sarah?”
The rebuff to an impertinent question is rapier-quick and razor-sharp – “200.”
For years that was Sarah Clancy’s stock answer. It could change. A bank clerk was fixed a stare by the then 90-year-old woman who replied to her question saying solemnly she was 21.
Sarah never celebrated her birthdays. But that couldn’t stop the build-up of curiosity and speculation in the neighbourhood. People couldn’t remember the world without Sarah. But who knew her age?
The State did. A letter from Áras an Uachtaráin dropped through her letterbox. Congratulations from the President and a cheque for €2,500 and a commemorative medal. Sarah was 100.
Nine times now a letter from the Aras has dropped through Sarah’s letterbox. Sarah is the oldest citizen in Ireland.
Sarah Treasa Clancy was born May 2, 1908 in Sruthán, An Cheathrú Rua, in a small house along rocky shores looking across the bay to Ros a’ Mhíl harbour.
At the same time, ten miles back the road in Ros Muc, Pádraig Pearse was scouting for a site for his cottage. It was built in 1909. The Titanic was only a gleam in owner Bruce Ismay’s eye. After it went down in 1912 the pilloried Ismay sought refuge in faraway Casla Lodge and thus became five-year-old Sarah’s neighbour.
She shares her birthday with another Connemara legend, Colm de Bhailís, who lived to 110 years. He died in 1906. But for the two year gap between their lives Sarah and Colm would have provided a living human age chain back to 1796.
A customary wish in Connemara birthdays is to say “Go maire tú aois Choilm” (may you live to Colm’s age). It might need to be amended for Sarah.
Today Sarah sits and has lie-ins at her home, with her nephew Petie Mac Donagh and wife Patricia caring for her. She only gave up walking in February of this year. She has a thick mop of hazel-coloured hair. She has a broad smile, a glint of mischief in her eye and welcomes any visitor in her native Irish language.
A century ago a young Sarah helped her mother, Mary, around the home. She had eight brothers and sisters and two grandparents, Peter and Maggie. Peter was born in 1822. She remembers helping her father Tom, draw seaweed to fertilise their land, and carrying buckets of sand to help build their new home across the road. She also accompanied him to the bog.
They were close although she remembers him as being “ardnósach” (snobby) as he could speak English and Irish in a community that only spoke Gaelic. Apart from farming Tom had a horse and cart and made deliveries. He also bought periwinkles from locals which he sold on in Galway.
Sarah attended school in An Cheathrú Rua where English only was the language of the class. She had sprouted up and was self-conscious and uncomfortable about being taller than other pupils. She was five when Roger Casement visited her school.
Her schooling over, she worked as a “cailín aimsire” or housemaid in the local Cladhnach Lodge. Her brother Patrick was an active Republican and she remembers people coming to the house searching for him.
When Patrick was unavailable the local priest gave a message to young Sarah who put it inside her shoe and delivered it to the priest in the nearby parish of Na Mine. The latter priest was scathing of his colleague for using a young girl as a courier.
She remembers their shed being used as a detention centre for prisoners – Free Staters and suspected informers – during Aimsear na bPúicíní (the Blindfold Period). Prisoners were blindfolded so as not to identify their whereabouts. Patrick emigrated to the United States but died young at 35 from tuberculosis.
Growing up Sarah didn’t think much of marriage as an institution. It was the time when ‘cleamhnas’ or matches were made by the man simply by visiting the home of the potential bride with a bottle of whiskey.
“Níl said ag iarraidh bean ach asal” (“it’s not a woman they want but a donkey”).
She never did marry. At 30 she and her sister Anne did what almost all her family had done, emigrate to America. They lived with her sister Mary in Dorchester, Boston, but would move out with each job.
Sarah worked as a maid and cook, often in the upper class reaches of Brookline. She was shocked to find herself gaining weight in the US and cracked down on her diet and bad eating habits. She was equally meticulous about clothes and neatness which served her well in her work.
She liked shopping and she and her sister Anne took holidays to Maine each year together. Irish was always their first language which is why she retains the “Sruthán blas” to this day.
She kept in regular contact with Sruthán and secreted dollar bills in her letters. She returned to visit after five years and regularly from then on. Petie, her nephew, remembers seeing a radio for the first time ever in her hands.
She returned to Ireland in 1988 after Anne died. She kept house and babysat a new generation of grandchildren. She loved the children and would answer their letters to Santa. She only gave up babysitting at 95.
She still stays at home but often goes into respite care at the local Aras Mhic Dara nursing home. The then 107-year-old’s private comment about her fellow residents was uncompromising. “They’re very old-looking.” Until this year she had refused all wheelchairs.
Today her pleasures are simple: a cup of tea (sometimes the call for such can come at five in the morning) conversation and her big white family cat, “Snowy” stretching himself out on her bed.
“Go nGnothaí Dia dhuit” (God Bless) is the farewell with a smile.
Go maire tú an dá chéad, a Sarah. May you live indeed to 200.