Apples, early rising and stay local: ‘World’s oldest family’ from Moy reveal secrets of their longevity as they turn 1,064

Austin Donnelly
Austin Donnelly

Fourteen sprightly brothers and sisters from a family celebrated as one of the oldest in the world will be taking TV audiences on an historical journey on Monday night.

The latest edition of the acclaimed BBC NI True North series features Leo Donnelly and his siblings, a resilient farming clan from Moy and Collegeland, and the secrets of their extraordinary longevity.

Although it may well be their genes that make them so healthy, the surviving siblings, who are all extremely robust and active for their ages, put it down to all the apples they ate as children, home-cooking, early rising, and staying local.

The bad news for those of us that love a glass of wine is that in spite of their mother’s fondness for buckfast wine, most of them are life-long teetotal pioneers.

A few years ago at a rare gathering of the entire family group, Leo’s twin brother Austin made a list of their names and ages: Sean (92), Maureen (91), Eileen (89), Peter (86), Mairead (85), Rose (84), Tony (82), Terry (80), Seamus (79), Brian (75), Kathleen (74), Colm (72), and himself and his twin brother Leo (70), and came to the realisation that all their ages added up to a grand total of 1,117.

From then on, Austin was determined to find out if the Donnellys are indeed the oldest group of siblings in the world. Sadly, before being able to complete his world record journey, Austin passed away last Christmas, while working in his garage.

“Because Austin died, it took a number of years off what we needed to make the record,” says his twin, Leo. “But we’ll be able to make up the margin needed to 1,064 very shortly, as long as none of the rest of us dies.”

Leo has since taken up the mantle to complete the family’s world record attempt in his brother’s honour.

He recounted the tragedy of his brother’s accidental death, from which the entire family are still reeling.

“They were giving him morphine for the pain at the same time and his lungs got filled up with toxins. His hands and wrists swelled up to the size of my leg.”

A dialysis machine was brought in treat Austin but he could not be saved. He died at 9am last Christmas morning.

“It was some shock; we’re still reeling from it,” says Leo. “He was my twin brother - he’s dead and I still feel like an 18-year-old. We were near enough identical. Daddy would have confused the two of us. He wouldn’t have had a clue who was who from a distance.

“Austin had had a couple of accidents in his lifetime, but he was in good health, out working away.”

Footage of Austin in True North: The World’s Oldest Family, which will be shown on Monday night at 10.45, shows a fit and agile man cutting a hedge. The programme is narrated affectionately by his and Leo’s old school-friend, Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon who hails from the same area.

A grandfather-of-one, Leo still lives in the large family home - the ‘big house’ of the townland - and brought up his three children there.

“My father was a very successful farmer - he came to this house in 1921 to buy a churn to make butter to sell at the market, with his eggs and potatoes and so on, and went home with the deeds in his pocket.

“He didn’t hang about. He was a handsome man, a cool dude.”

Mr Donnelly installed his 21-year-old bride in the handsome Georgian residence and went on to build up a farm of 100 acres. Tragedy first struck the family when the then youngest, Michael, was killed in 1974.

“He was doing haematology at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Sick Children in London and he crashed his sports car into a lorry,” Leo recalls. “There were no seat belts back then. He was 25.

“Then there was Oliver - he survived leukaemia for 16 or 17 years before he died at 64. So, then when Austin died, that left the 13 of us.”

The remaining siblings are all in good health. Leo attributes their well-being to a healthy diet in their youth, which included plenty of apples from their bountiful orchard. The Donnelly’s produce ended up in Mr Kipling’s famous cakes.

“We’re all great. We always lived off the fat of the land. Always plenty of soft fruits and vegetables, and home baked bread. We never ate that much shop-bought stuff.

“My mother lived to she was 94. She died in 2000. My father lived ‘til’ 79. He was very athletic and my brother Peter took after him. He won five Ulster medals for running and county ones too. He’d get up at 7.30 every morning to milk 20 cows, then go for a run. That has stood to him over the years.”

The majority of the Donnellys - now with around 200 offspring, grandchildren and great-grandchildren between them - have stayed local. Mary travelled from her home in England, and Kathleen drove from hers in Dublin, for the filming of the documentary. The 13 well preserved siblings are seen having afternoon tea and reminiscing about the Buckfast wine their mother sipped as a tonic, after each of her 16 babies was born.

Of the remaining 13 siblings, nine are teetotal pioneers.