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An old lives’ tale

As the Donnellys from Armagh celebrate becoming record holders for being the world’s oldest family, Shauna Rahman reveals the secrets of their longevity lifestyle.

So, what is the real secret to a long, healthy life? “Porridge oats,” says Leo Donnelly. The Armagh-based Donnelly family – comprising 13 siblings, eight brothers and five sisters – are aged between 72 and 93, and officially entered the Guinness World Records this year as the world’s oldest family. An alcohol-free lifestyle of hard work, fresh fruit and vegetables, and porridge, twice a day, have all been cited as the ingredients for the family’s longevity.
Peter (an only child) and Ellen (one of 14 children) Donnelly established their family farm in Moy, Co. Armagh, in the early 1920s. There, they raised 16 children in total, 13 of whom are still living. Leo’s twin brother, Austin, who sadly passed away in 2015 at the age of 70, had the original idea – on the occasion of their sister Maureen’s 90th birthday – of putting the family forward to see could they be written into history as the world’s oldest family. And for good reason! Although two other brothers are no longer living – Michael died in a car crash aged just 25, and Oliver died of cancer, aged 64 – the combined ages of the 13 remaining siblings is 1,073 years: Sean (93), Maureen (92), Eileen (90), Peter (87), Mairead (86), Rose (85), Anthony (83), Terry (81), Seamus (80), Brian (76), Kathleen (75), Colm (73) and Leo (72).
While their father Peter died at 79, mother, Ellen, lived until the age of 94.

From nature to nurture
Leo says there was never any processed food in the house where they grew up. No pesticides were used on the farm and the family used their own grain thrasher and rolled everything themselves. Such was the quality of the apples and potatoes grown on the Donnellys' 100-acre farm, that Leo’s father became one of the first people to obtain a licence to export to the UK.
“Having grown up on a farm, our diet was always made up of locally sourced ingredients: free-range pigs and chickens for bacon and eggs and vegetables grown in our own backyard. We worked with nature, it was a totally natural cycle of food, everything eaten was either grown or reared by us – by today’s standards our diet would be considered an organic one – and our porridge oats were locally sourced.” The habit of consuming porridge daily at 7am for breakfast and at 10pm for supper has carried on with all the siblings. Leo says some people find the tradition unusual, but, the living proof is here to see. “The key is that you need to get your oats at night. Cooked oats, milk, and perhaps a spot of jam on top.”

Age-old celebrations
The process of seeking recognition from Guinness World Records was a tedious one – gathering all the birth certs, marriage certs for his sisters whose surnames had changed, and proving their identities – but worth all the effort, according to Leo. When word got out about the family trying to obtain the world record, media attention followed, with the BBC documenting the Donnellys for two years on their journey in True North: World’s Oldest Family, a reflective portrait of the family, which was released again this summer, after originally being released in October 2016.
Armagh’s Lord Mayor, Garath Keating, also invited the brothers and sisters and their extended family to a reception in their honour in May, and porridge-oat producers, Flahavan’s, teamed up with them in September to launch National Porridge Week.
Although Austin died before the world record could be verified, Leo says it was a momentous day when they finally received the world record certificate in May, two months after it was officially declared by the Guinness World Records adjudicator. “It was a remarkable day as all the siblings travelled over to the family home for the event. It was a feeling of completion.”