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DOROTHEA FINDLATER (1909-2017) – IRELAND’S OLDEST WOMAN

Dorothea Findlater - born on 26 December 1909 - was the oldest woman in Ireland from 7 September 2017 until she passed away at 3am on Monday 20 November 2017, five weeks before her 108th birthday. She received her Centenarian’s medal from President McAleese in December 2009.The following is based on an article that was published in The Irish Times on 3 April 2010 and then reworked as an obituary in November 2017.

In April 1916, a small girl called Dorothea stood on top of the Curragh’s Victorian red-brick water-tower and watched the dark clouds billowing over Dublin City into the blue Easter skies above. Somewhere in that madness, her father was speeding around the city in a motorcar, with bullets and bombs whizzing all around him.

On 7 September last, that small girl became the oldest woman in Ireland at the remarkable age of 107 and ¾s. She wore the crown comfortably for 74 days before her final departure in the early hours of 20 November 2017, at Abilene, the family home in Blackrock, Co Dublin.[1]

Born on December 26th, 1909, Dorothea Findlater was the eldest daughter of Captain Harry de Courcy-Wheeler and his wife, Selina Knox. Her ancestry was rich. Both her grandfather and uncle were Presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons; her grandmother was a first cousin of George Bernard Shaw.[2]

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 and ‘great friend’ Jack Knox played rugby for Ireland, most notably against the All-Blacks in 1906..

Dorothea’s passion for rugby was legendary. Pride of place on her mantelpiece were photographs of herself with stars such as Paul O’Connell and Peter Stringer. ‘There was no one like Stringer for whipping a ball out of a scrum’, she sighed.

She loved both hockey and golf. Hockey became a particularly strong part of her life in the 1930s when she played with Maids of the Mountain but that came to an end, she laughed, with the birth of her son Alex.

In 1981, at the age of 71, she represented Ireland in the finals of the Daily Mail clubs golf championship played in North Wales. An honorary member of Carrickmines Golf Club, she was frequently to be seen on the clubs’ putting green, competing for the Seniors Cup.

Her childhood was spent in Robertstown House on the Bog of Allen in Co. Kildare. ‘It wasn’t what you would call a farm, but we had cows for our milk, and hens, pigs, ducks and lots of dogs.’

‘There were six of us children so we didn’t really need anyone else. There was always someone to play with, to swim in the Canal or ride a horse or play tennis or hockey.’ Aklso on hand was her cousin Elizabeth de Courcy-Wheeler who lived just give miles away in a huge Victorian house at Drummin, near Carbury.

The nearby village of Robertstown ‘was very go-ahead in my day … 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 chuckled. ‘I wasn’t educated!’

That is not entirely true. The family lived at the Clarke Barracks in 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. ‘I read all the classics’, she wistfully recalled. 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.

Her father was a brilliant organizer and administrator, which proved to be the undoing for his own military ambitions. ‘He kept on trying to get the front – why, I don’t know! – but they would haul him back and say “No” because he was too valuable at the Curragh.’

After the war, the family returned to Robertstown (which had been locked up during the war years) 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. She recalled a period of considerable upset when a close friend was obliged to leave the college at the request of Archbishop McQuaid, because she was a Catholic and Trinity was a Protestant institution.

In 1932, her final year at Trinity, she married Dermot Findlater, head of the celebrated Dublin wine merchant family and a highly regarded hockey goalkeeper, lining out for the Three Rock Rovers. They had two sons and three daughters.

During the 1930s, she was a Director of Bulmer’s 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’.

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 once received a tin of biscuits from Findlaters, in which secret documents from one of these planes were concealed; these had been entrusted to Dermot Findlater as head of the local LDF.’

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.[3]

The Findlaters’ stylish charity luncheons in the firm’s O’Connell Street headquarters were top of the social agenda for many; Micheál Mac Liammóir, Hilton Edwards and Cyril Cusack were among the ‘terrific characters’ who attended. She also raised a good deal of money for the Adelaide Hospital with her coffee-mornings.

The centenary commemorations for the 1916 Rising was something Dorothea took a particular interest in. Captain de Courcy-Wheeler, her father, spent much of the week driving his black Ford through the streets of Dublin. ‘Sinn Féin Rising reported in Dublin, he wrote in his diary shortly before he departed for the city.

In his passenger seat was Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, the plucky Holles Street midwife who delivered Pearse’s surrender note. It was he who took the famous photo of Pearse’s surrender, from which Nurse O’Farrell was subsequently air-brushed from history.

The duo drove from one Republican stronghold to the next, urging the respective commandants to heed the surrender.[4] Many years later, de Courcy-Wheeler 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. ‘I’m a lucky man’, remarked Dev. ‘Any leader who surrendered to you was executed!’

‘My father hated fighting against his countryman,’ said Dorothea. ‘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!’

Among those who surrendered to him were Constance Markievicz (his wife’s first cousin) and Michael Mallin, commander of the St Stephen’s Green garrison.[5] An acute reminder of the close proximity of our past is that in the very week that Dorothea became Ireland's oldest woman, Michael Mallin's son Joseph, a Jesuit priest in Hong Kong, celebrated his 104th birthday.

Dorothea attributed her ever-ready glow and venerable age to good nutrition and a strong sense of humour. She also lived by an evidently fruitful mantra: ‘I go on the theory that what you did yesterday, you can do today.’

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

With thanks to Finbarr Connolly, Trish Findlater and Alex Findlater.

 

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FOOTNOTES

[1] The Findlaters moved to Abilene, in 1941. It’s 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 belonged to the Hardman family). At that time there were only five large houses along the road.

[2] 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.

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

[4] 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 Alex 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] 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.

[5] He kept Countess Markievicz’s 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.

 

 

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