Turtle Bunbury

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(Published in The Irish Times, 3 April 2010)

NB: With the sad passing of Margaret Boland, aged 108, on 7 September 2017, Dorothea Findlater - born on 26 December 1909 - became the oldest woman in Ireland at the age of 107 and 3/4s.

Standing on the summit of the Curragh’s Victorian red-brick water-tower with her mother and nanny, the seven-year-old girl stared north across the plains of Kildare and watched the dark clouds billowing over Dublin City into the blue Easter skies above. She was perhaps too young to understand what was happening. Then again, who did? ‘Sinn Féin Rising reported in Dublin’ were the chilling words her father wrote in his diary shortly before he departed for the city.

And now her father, Captain Harry de Courcy-Wheeler was somewhere in the thick of it. In fact, even as Dorothea watched, the Captain was driving his black Ford car through the streets of Dublin, with bullets and bombs whizzing all around him.

In his passenger seat was Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, the Holles Street midwife who delivered Pearse’s surrender note. The duo drove from one Republican stronghold to the next, urging the Commandants within to heed the surrender.[i]

Many years later, the Captain organized a turf-cutting competition in the Bog of Allen which was opened by Eamon de Valera, the only leader who did not surrender directly to him that day. ‘I’m a lucky man’, Dev told him. ‘Any leader who surrendered to you was executed!

[NB Among them was Michael Mallin and it is truly remarkabke that when Dorothea became Ireland's oldest woman in September 2017, Michael Mallin's son Fr Joseph Mallin was also stil alive]

Perhaps the most awkward arrest Wheeler made was Countess Markievicz, his wife’s first cousin. He kept her Mauser as a trophy, along with various other rebel handguns and a Singer sewing machine used to make Volunteer uniforms in Liberty Hall. The family gifted the whole lot to the State on the 50th anniversary of the Rising in 1966 and they are now on display in the National Museum.

Fast forward ninety-four Easters and Dorothea Findlater chuckles sweetly at the immensity of that week. ‘He hated fighting against his countryman’ she insists.[ii] ‘He was put in charge of [James] Connolly and told to shoot him if he moved. I remember asking him if he would actually have shot him. ‘I would not’ he said and he meant it!

There is no doubt that Dorothea is one of the very last links between the present century and that remarkably ordered but lop-sided society which prevailed in the latter days of British-run Ireland.

Her ancestry is rich.[iii] Both her grandfather and uncle were Presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons. Her grandmother was a first cousin of George Bernard Shaw.

Science and literature aside, the sporty gene was arguably the strongest in her blood. Her father won the high stone wall championship at the Dublin Horse Show in 1904. Her mother and two aunts played hockey for Ireland. Her uncle Jack Knox played rugby for Ireland, most notably against the All-Blacks in 1906.[iv]

Dorothea’s passion for rugby is legendary. Pride of place on her mantelpiece is a large signed photo of Peter Stringer which the Munster man sent her as a birthday present. ‘There was no one like Stringer for whipping a ball out of a scrum’, she sighs.

Dorothea represented Ireland in both hockey and golf and was recently made an honorary member of Carrickmines Golf Club and is frequently to be seen on the clubs’ putting green, competing for the Seniors Cup.[v]

Her childhood was spent in Robertstown House on the Bog of Allen in Co. Kildare. ‘There were six of us [children] so we didn’t really need anyone else’, she recalls. ‘There was always someone to play with, to swim in the Canal or ride a horse or play tennis or hockey.’[vi]

The nearby village of Robertstown ‘was very go-ahead in my day’, she says. ‘It had everything. A tailor, a shoemaker, a bakery, a police station, a post office and a hotel.’

‘I didn’t go to school’, she says. ‘I wasn’t educated!.’ That is not entirely true. The family lived at the Curragh Camp for the duration of the First World War where she was taught by a series of governesses and devoured her fathers’ library.[vii] ‘I read all the classics’, she wistfully recalls. In between the pages, she watched thousands of young soldiers being drilled and trained before they headed off to the trenches of the Western Front. A few years ago, she journeyed back to see the Curragh Camp. ‘The place where we lived hadn’t changed at all’, she marvels.

After the war, the family returned to Roberstown and she began cycling to the nearby Rectory where Canon Greening helped her to become the first female member of her family to make it into Trinity College Dublin. [viii]

In 1932, her last year at Trinity, she married Dermot Findlater, head of the celebrated Dublin merchant family and a highly regarded hockey goalkeeper to boot. They had two sons and three daughters.

During the 1930s, she was a Director of Bulmers in Clonmel. She played an active role in the Second World War with the Foxrock branch of the St John’s Ambulance Corps. ‘We drove to Westland Row and collected refugees who had been bombed out of their homes in Liverpool. We fed them, washed them and drove them to stay with friends’.[ix]

After the war, she became a Director of the Belfast Empire, the now defunct theatre once famous for its variety shows and charity performances. One of her roles was to look after the celebrities who were present for Gala performances such as Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Mary Pickford, the Princess Royal and Countess Mountbatten. [X]

The Findlaters’ stylish charity luncheons in the firms head quarters in O’Connell Street were top of the social agenda for many; Michael McLiammor, Hilton Edwards and Cyril Cusack being amongst the ‘terrific characters’ who attended. She also raised a good deal of money for the Adelaide Hospital with her coffee-mornings.

Last December, Dorothea received her Centenarian’s medal from President McAleese. She attributes her ever-ready glow and venerable age to nutrition. ‘I have always had fresh fruit and vegetables in the garden’. She ventures out to her garden virtually every day and, as her Alex son puts it, ‘she’ll still tell the gardener to hold the ladder while she goes up it’. Shrugging modestly, she adds ‘I go on the theory that what you did yesterday, you can do today.’

Alex Findlater’s book 'Findlaters: The Story of a Dublin Merchant Family' was published by A.& A.Farmar in 2001.

Dorothea Findlater reached her 107th birthday on 26 December 2014.

With thanks to Finbarr Connolly and Alex Findlater.


[i] The Captain recorded the names of the rebels he arrested outside the GPO in his field notebook. The list reads like a who’s who of Irish cabinets for decades to come - Michael Collins, Seán Lemass, Seán T O’Kelly, Seán McEntee and so on. [see Findalter’s book for illustration page 280. He started to record Sean as Ch.. and then reverted to all in English! Obviously not a celtic scholar]

[ii] The Captain’s blow-by-blow account was written in field notebooks and presented to the National Museum but were found to be missing (c 1999). Fortunately his grandson Alex Findlater found a transcript, which is now reproduced into his own book. (Alex has been collating information ever since his father cut out the announcement of his birth from The Irish Times and stuck it in a scrapbook.) ‘[Harry] was a barrister by profession but he hated defending criminals’, says Dorothea. ‘He was a classical scholar who did everything by the book’, adds Alex. He won the high stone wall championship at the Horse Show in 1904.

[iii] Her mother’s family were the Knox’s of Rappa Castle, Co. Mayo. Her father’s family were the Wheelers of Robertstown House, Co. Kildare. Her Knox grandfather had six children but his wife died during the birth of Dorothea’s mother, Selina, and so he moved to Dublin.

[iv] ‘We were great friends’, says his niece who continues to follow rugby, particularly Munster.

[v] Hockey became her life in the 1930s as she played with Maids of the Mountain. Her husband played for Three Rock Rovers. They were each secretary of their respective clubs. She played for Ireland in the 1936 international hockey championships in Philadelphia (‘I think we lost everything’). Her son Alex was born the next year and ‘that put a stop to the hockey’, she laughs.

In 1981, at the age of 71, she represented Ireland in the finals of the Daily Mail clubs golf championship played in North Wales. ‘We had great fun’, she says.

[vi] It wasn’t what you would call a farm but we had cows for our milk, and hens, pigs, ducks and lots of dogs.’ They also had cousins 5 miles away at Drummin, Carbury, a huge Victorian house where Grattan de Courcy-Wheeler lives now. She was particularly friendly with her cousin Elizabeth).

[vii] Upon the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the family locked up Robertsown and, with the staff waving on, proceeded 12 miles to the Clarke Barracks at the Curragh Camp. And there they remained for the duration of the war. Her father was an administrator and far too good for it. ‘He kept on trying to get the front – why, I don’t know! – but they’d haul him back and say ‘No, he’s too valuable at the Curragh’.’ Never went to the Front. He was a brilliant organizer.

[viii] She hated history even though she is now part of it. ‘All I knew was ‘1066 and All That’. There were plenty of women at Trinity by day (but only until 6pm) then, mainly Doctors, but Trinity was Protestant only. One close friend was removed by request of Archbishop [McQuaid?] because she was Catholic. ‘We were both very upset by it’.

[ix] Occasionally Allied and German planes would make an emergency landing at Leopardstown. ‘The British and Germans were then interned at the Curragh. The funny thing was that the British always managed to escape and the Germans never did’. The British Ambassador’s wife was once delivered a tin of biscuits from Findlaters in which were concealed secret documents from one of these planes which had been entrusted to her husband as head of the local LDF.’ (This story is in Alex’s book).

In 1941, she moved to Abilene, a lovely green 19th century house in Blackrock, with a veranda looking out across Dublin Bay to the Pigeon House and Howth. They bought it from a Mr Jolly for £100 – but with £40 unpaid rates they only paid £60! (Before that it had been the Hardman family). At that time there were only five large houses along the road but she is now the only surviving resident of that era.

[X] The Princess Royal was over in 1945 for the War Fund, Countess Mountbatten in 1955 for the Royal College of Nursing.