Bridget Dirrane, who was imprisoned with Kevin Barry and who canvassed for John F. Kennedy in the United States, celebrates her 104th birthday on November 15, 1998 with news that she is to be featured in the new edition of the Guinness Book of Records. Earlier in the year, she receives a Master of Arts honorary degree from NUI Galway which makes her the oldest person in the world to be awarded a degree.
Dirrane is born in Oatquarter in the townland of Kilmurvey on Inishmore, Aran Islands, County Galway on November 15, 1894. She is the youngest child of Joseph Gillan and Maggie (née Walsh). Her father is a weaver of flannel cloth and has a small farm. She has four brothers and three sisters. Her oldest brother is a fisherman, who dies at age 21 in 1901, and her father dies before 1911. Despite this hardship, all of the children go to school, with one of her brothers becoming an Irish teacher, and later an Irish inspector. The family speaks Irish at home, but they are all bilingual with English. She is schooled at the national school in Oatquarter until the age of 14. She leaves to work in local homes, looking after children. When she writes her memoirs late in life, she claims to have met Joseph Plunkett, Éamonn Ceannt, Thomas MacDonagh, Thomas Ashe and Patrick Pearse when they visited the island, visiting a house where she looked after the children, discussing politics and plans for the Easter Rising with them. She is a republican, becoming a member of Cumann na mBan in 1918 while she is working for Fr. Matthew Ryan as a housekeeper. She is involved in drilling and assisting fugitives from the authorities. Because of their known republican sympathies, the Black and Tans raid the Gillan family homes.
Dirrane moves to Dublin in 1919 to train in Saint Ultan’s Children’s Hospital as a nurse. She is still under surveillance, being arrested alongside her employer, Claude Chavasse, when she is working as a nurse in his house. She is held in Dublin’s Bridewell Garda Station for two days before being transferred to Mountjoy Prison. In the time of her imprisonment, she is not charged or put on trial. Her refusal to speak English angers the guards, culminating in her going on hunger strike for a number of days in 1920 until she is released. She takes part in the Cumann na mBan vigil outside of Mountjoy Prison in November 1920, when Kevin Barry is hanged.
Dirrane works in Richard Mulcahy‘s house for two years, before emigrating to the United States in 1927 to continue her career as a nurse. She works in Boston where she is an active member of the Irish emigrant community alongside former neighbours from the Aran Islands and some relatives. She works in a hotel for a time, but returns to nursing after her marriage to Edward ‘Ned’ Dirrane in November 1932 in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. Ned, a labourer in Boston and also from Inishmore, dies from heart failure in 1940. Dirrane continues her career nursing in hospitals and as a district nurse. On May 13, 1940, she naturalises as U.S. citizen. During World War II, she works as a nurse in a munitions factory, and at a U.S. Army Air Forces bomber base in Mississippi. She canvases for John F. Kennedy in the Irish community in South Boston when he runs for president in 1960. Jean Kennedy Smith visits Dirrane in 1997 in Galway to acknowledge her contribution. She also meets Senator Edward Kennedy.
Following her retirement, Dirrane lives with her nephew, but she returns to the Aran Islands in 1966 at age 72. There she lives with her brother-in-law, Pat Dirrane, a widower with three grown sons. They marry in a private ceremony on April 27, 1966. She continues to live on the island after Pat’s death on February 28, 1990, living with her stepson. She eventually moves into a nursing home in Newcastle in the suburbs of Galway. When she celebrates her 100th birthday, she funds a statue of Our Lady Mary at a holy well in Corough on Inishmore. At age 103, the matron of her nursing home arranges for a local writer, Jack Mahon, to record her memories and collate the information into a book. The book, A Woman of Aran, is published in 1997 and is a bestseller for several weeks. She is awarded an honorary degree, an MA honoris causa, from NUI Galway in May 1998, the oldest person to ever receive one.
Dirrane dies at age 109 on December 31, 2003, in Galway. She is buried on Inishmore.