'Do I feel 100? No, maybe 20,' says Limerick's Bridie as she recalls life in France in WWII

Birthday girl looks back over a storied life from armchair at Athlunkard nursing home

Anne Sheridan


Anne Sheridan

'Do I feel 100? No, maybe 20,' says Limerick's Bridie as she recalls life in France in WWII

Bridie O’Brien who celebrated her 100th birthday in Authlunkard Nursing with Noreen Cusack, and Katie O’Brien Picture: Michael Cowhey

IN THE days leading up to her 100th birthday this week, Bridie O’Brien burst into song.

Fluent in French, the words of ‘J'irai revoir ma Normandie’ came rolling off the tongue, as she entertained staff and fellow residents in the nursing home.

For a few brief moments, Bridie wasn’t sitting in her armchair at Athlunkard nursing home in Corbally, but was transported back to her time in German-occupied France during the second World War.

“I could still go back any time,” she told the Limerick Leader, her eyes sparkling.

Sitting by the fire, with a plate of Mikado biscuits in front of her, the centre’s oldest resident motions me to sit by her right ear, her “good ear”.

Bridie moved to Vire in Normandy in 1933 to follow in the footsteps of her older sister, and join the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mercy.

“Oh, I loved France,” she enthused.

“The French food, they’re masters of cuisine; the French people were great fun, and I was able to speak like a native after being there 12 years.”

For all the ravages and unspeakable horrors of war, Bridie said she enjoyed her time during the war years perhaps moreso than any other period of her life. 

Cloistered somewhat among the sisters from the realities of the war and its atrocities, the only bad thing she can recall about the Nazis is they pillaged a pear tree at the end of the garden in the convent of all its fruit.

“I didn’t mind [the war]. I loved it really. The Germans were all around us, but they never bothered us really, to be honest. They were quite gentle and nice to us.” 

Born on July 5, 1917, a makeshift homage to Bridie has been set up at the entrance of the nursing home.

Adorned with old black and white images of her life, it also notes other legends born that very year.

“Famous people born in 1917 included John F. Kennedy, Ella Fitzgerald, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dean Martin and Bridie O’Brien,” it reads.

A pint of milk cost 1p that year, and one kilogram of potatoes the same sum, it notes.

Inflation aside, Bridie said her life was free of too many peaks and troughs.

“I never married. I never went out with a boy. It was never encouraged and I never thought of it really, of marriage, which was a pity in a way. But I enjoyed my life very much.”

Balloons and bunting decorated one of the rooms for the party, as Bridie attended a private mass with her relative, Fr Laurence Madden in advance of her birthday this Wednesday.

The second of eight children born to James and Mary (May, nee Madden) O’Brien, Bridie was born on the Carey’s Road and later the family moved to Raleighstown, Co Limerick, where they acquired a farm.

She later left the Order and qualified as a nurse, aged 50, which she “simply loved”, only officially retiring at 70.

She drove her own car, a Volvo, up to the age of 93 “no bother”, she says.

She is at a loss to explain the secret to her longevity, except to say that she “never over-stepped it” with regards to consumption of any kind. “But I always finish my meals,” she adds.

She never smoked, but would she have a drink?

“Very seldom. If I was offered it I’d take it. Maybe a whiskey, something fiery. I had a sambuca one time – that was lovely.”

On Wednesday, Bridie is due to receive the centenary bounty of €2,540 from President Michael D. Higgins for reaching her milestone birthday.

“What do I want it for? I have no use for money; none at all. I might donate it to a children’s charity, and find the one that’s most deserving. I have everything I could want. What age do I feel? I don’t know what I feel. Well, I could be 20.”