World's Oldest Family


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World's Oldest Family

Documentary. Angela Scanlon meets the Donnelly family from County Armagh, thought to be the oldest group of siblings in the world, with a collective age of 1,064 years.


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Collegelands, a quiet village in County Armagh, Northern Ireland

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is, to the outside eye, pretty unremarkable.

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Surrounded by these rolling orchards for which this part of the world is

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famous, there are only 42 family names.

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But in amongst these apple trees, one family has really blossomed.

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A County Armagh family are celebrating a birthday party

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with a difference today.

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The Donnelly family were marking one member's 90th, but in total,

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the 14 surviving siblings' ages come to 1,117 years,

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making them, they believe, the oldest living siblings in the world.

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There were 16 Donnelly children in total.

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11 boys and five girls.

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Of the remaining 14, Austin, the youngest at 70, and a twin,

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was the first to realise they may be an extraordinary family.

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I just rung around and checked the date of birth

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and we are just short of 1,200 years between us.

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And, I don't know, I think that we have learned a lot

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in 1,200 years of life.

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Ireland has a history of large families.

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My own dad was one of 14 brothers and sisters,

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and I grew up with stories of how they were all brought up together

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under one roof.

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The 16 Donnellys must have a story to tell,

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and also some advice for the rest of us.

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The idea that this large family may be the oldest in the world is

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fascinating to me, because I am obsessed with longevity.

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I think our generation are,

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and we look towards how we can extend life

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and make our lives better and how we can stay healthier.

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So I just want to know how they have done it.

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Is there a magic secret? Is it where they live?

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Is it what they eat? Is it a social thing?

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Is it because they're not lonely?

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I have no idea what they all have in common,

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or even if it is a common thread that binds them,

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or it's just sheer luck.

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There are 14 of us, and all as healthy as we were,

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I'd say 50s and 60s, and some even 20-year-olds that haven't changed.

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We don't change.

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We're in the land of youth.

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Who knew the land of youth was a tiny corner of Northern Ireland?

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So, what is the secret?

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There was always plenty of work.

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We are going to replace the crankshaft in this engine here.

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I think caring about one another.

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The drink was never seen amongst us at all.

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I would attend the game four or five nights a week.

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There was never a fat Donnelly reared.

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When you are young, if you get good food,

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then it's built into your bones and it's built into you.

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That is what will give you longevity.

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70-year-old Austin is convinced he and his brothers and sisters

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will claim the world record for the oldest group of living siblings.

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In a life experience, what must we have between us?

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Jesus was here 2,000 years ago.

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We were here the half of that.

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That must be some kind of a record.

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Done some research. The nearest family I could find

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was 200 or 300 years less. Aye, well, this is interesting.

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There had been some of them in Coventry, I think,

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and they were around a thousand years.

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But then some of them had died.

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As the brothers in Coventry know only too well,

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time waits for no man.

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It's important for us to get this Guinness world record registered.

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If we lose one of my family, that takes almost 100 years off it.

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One of the elder brothers then, when it was mentioned earlier,

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he says it's all right, but he says when we start going,

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he says, you may keep on your good suits.

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Collegelands graveyard.

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If you are born in the village,

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it's fairly certain this is where you will be buried.

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Deep into an Irish winter, Austin,

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who first contemplated a world record, was laid to rest.

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Austin and I were the twins.

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We shared the same pram together.

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We grew up together.

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And Mammy dressed us just the same when she was out walking with us.

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Austin and I were two, and everyone else was one.

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So if anybody tackled us, they were tackling the two of us.

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The siblings who once numbered 16 are now 13.

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But through the grief, Leo thinks a world record

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is still within their reach.

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Now that Austin is gone, the baton has been handed to myself

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and Terry and we are going to do this.

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And we will be in the Guinness Book Of Records as the oldest family

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in the world.

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The Donnelly family from Collegelands.

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Having taken the baton from Austin,

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Terry and Leo must piece together long forgotten family documents

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in order to apply for the world record.

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I believe the oldest family in the world, somewhere around 1,000.

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Well, I think we could beat that, Terry.

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What do you think? Well, that is to be seen. Start counting.

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So you have Brian typed here, Terry.

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So, what age is Brian, Terry?

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Hello. I think I have a Guinness World Record.

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Mummy was the youngest of 11 and her oldest brother died at 99 years of

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age. And then Mummy died at 94 years of age.

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And, in between, the other ones all lived long lives.

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James Patrick. That's Seamus.

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That's Seamus.

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I know they need birth certificates, they need photographs,

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they need different bits of paper.

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There's a birth certificate.

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That is William Anthony. That's Tony's.

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It seems the Donnellys aren't the only ones hoping to be recognised

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for their longevity.

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The world's oldest family have lived until a grand old age.

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Originally, there were 16, and they are now down to 12.

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We're absolutely beating them hands down.

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We are 40 years ahead of them.

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It's nice to be part of a big family.

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You feel you have someone to call on if ever you are in trouble

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or in need.

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Leo is looking for this.

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At last, I've got it.

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Rosie, and Eileen, and Peter.

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Sean is the eldest in the family, Terry.

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Five boys below me and then her and then four boys below her.

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And there was... Ten below me.

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Mairead, Maureen, Tony, Terry...

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I've said Tony twice.

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89 years old!

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You do not look 89, Eileen.

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Well, I feel it!

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Kathleen, Colm and myself.

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What Austin has started, I do not know where we're going to stop.

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This is definitely going to be a Guinness book of records.

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This is College Hall, the big house,

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the grandest residence in the village.

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It was a house that was fit for 18, and Leo still lives here today.

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This is the main room in College Hall here.

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Right. This is where all the parties were.

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Daddy came down in 1921 to buy a churn, and before Daddy went home,

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he had the deeds of the place in his back pocket.

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This was 1921, and Daddy was married in 1923.

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And the first baby, Sean, was born in 1925.

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Well, he obviously had big plans when he bought a place like this

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as a single man. It looked like it.

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Well, he did a good job of filling it up, didn't he? Absolutely!

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Thankfully no TVs and no electric!

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Is that what it was?

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So the entertainment happened the old-fashioned way.

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I would say so.

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This is the master bedroom here.

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It was the master bedroom for Daddy and Mummy.

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This is where all the babies were conceived and born.

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Except for the few at the bottom.

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Right. And what is the range?

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So it, like, every year, one a year?

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I'd say every year, there had been a baby every year.

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16 children.

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Did your mother have any mechanisms,

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anything that she used to cope with the general craziness?

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Well, in later days, I found out that she liked a wee tipple

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of Buckfast to get her energy back.

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Or tonic wine or some of those things.

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Mrs Donnelly may have used tonic wine for medicinal purposes,

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but alcohol was rarely seen amongst the family.

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There is not a single drinker in this family.

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And you think that is part of the reason why you have all

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lived so long? It would certainly help.

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So, it is a big house, but 16 bodies is a lot to contain.

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Absolutely.

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I mean, there was five girls on this side and 11 boys on this side.

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A lot of bodies. And a lot of bodies in the bathroom at the one time.

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Somebody would be washing themselves in the bath and others in the sink,

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but you got it done anyway.

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You just had to, didn't you? We had to do it.

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Like most families in Collegelands, the Donnellys were of farming stock.

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As far as we can see way down, if you can see a bank rising a wee bit,

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there is a field on the far side of it.

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The land on the way there, there is over 100 acres of it.

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And yet, they were hard times.

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You know, land was cheap but money was scarce.

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As soon as the Donnelly kids were deemed old enough,

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they worked the family land.

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It's something they are still doing today.

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The job we need to do here is going to take you a couple of weeks.

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I don't know if I have that long.

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To pull all of these... To pull all of the fruit...

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80-year-old Seamus is still farming and showing no signs

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of slowing down.

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You will always find on a farm,

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you'll always find a thousand jobs to do.

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Yeah. And there is always 100 jobs that's never done.

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Are you are not afraid of hard work?

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I love it. That's what keeps you fit.

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Is that it? It keeps the wee muscles in your arm here.

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Yeah. Show me again. Oh, there is not many now, but...

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They are all right. It helps to build them up.

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Hey, look at this bee here. Do you see the bee? Yeah.

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That should turn into the strawberries.

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That's what his job is. And he's doing it.

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You see the way he is going right round? Yeah. The stamen there.

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That will be a beautiful red strawberry when he leaves.

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A lot of men now who are over 80

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might be thinking they'll kick their feet up

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and watch a bit of golf on telly and take it easy.

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Have you any inclination towards...?

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I find that my friends that have retired, a day and they are gone.

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Yeah. So they retire and then they give up?

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They just seem to fade away.

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Right. Whereas if you do this, if you are doing something

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to keep your brain going and something to keep your muscles

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going, something to give you an appetite everyday,

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it seems to keep you...

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It just keeps you going.

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Even though Seamus kept himself busy on the farm,

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he still found time to raise a large family of his own.

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You have 11 children.

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You weren't put off having a big family

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by being from one, were you not? No. Not really, no.

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I don't know why. It just happened.

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It just happened? Right. It was a good craic.

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Seamus will never retire because he's not interested.

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The thing is, I don't think he is working because he thinks

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that's good for his health.

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I think he just doesn't imagine himself in any other way.

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And like he said, he has seen people around him that have retired and who

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have died. And so, for him, it's just, it is not an option.

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All the Donnellys are still working in some capacity.

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It is just what they are used to.

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One of the big reasons for the success of this family

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is the fact we are playing together, we work together,

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we enjoy the successes together and fix the failures.

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As the workload on the land increased,

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the family invested in the very first tractor in the county.

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When we got a tractor, nobody could drive them.

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We could all go frontwards, the same as riding a horse,

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sitting on its back.

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Our horse died.

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We went for a mechanical horse.

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I can remember the first day it came home and the neighbours were all

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gathered round. Nine or ten of the neighbours

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came round to see this new tractor.

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They said, "That tractor will destroy your ground.

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"The wheels will destroy your ground."

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They said, "You will be going back to the horse."

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They would never return to the horse,

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and in late 1930s County Armagh,

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it was a serious case of keeping up with the Donnellys.

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Well, if you were married to a good-looking girl

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and she buys a lovely dress, and her neighbour has more money,

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and she buys a better one, does she be happy?

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Do know what I'm saying now?

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I hear you. Aye. Wee bit jealous.

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As the oldest son, Sean was always destined to work the family land.

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But world events would keep him and the new Ford Ferguson

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in constant demand.

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NEWSREEL: Northern Ireland is making a superb war effort.

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In 1940, she plans to place a quarter of a million more

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acres under the plough for food production.

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As war took a grip of continental Europe,

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and Sean ploughed to aid the war effort,

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the population of Collegelands, and surrounding areas,

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doubled with foreign soldiers.

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Stationed close to College Hall was a troop of Belgians.

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There was always four or five of them come to our house

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and come in and had a cup of tea.

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But it wasn't just tea and conversation the Belgians

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were interested in.

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I would say now they had their eyes on some of the female members

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of the family all right.

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Maureen Donnelly, the eldest Donnelly girl,

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caught the roving eye of one young Belgian soldier.

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We were playing Camogie in the field and next thing,

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the ball came shooting past me and I went to get it,

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and there was this fella sitting, you know, in the side of the hedge.

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And I said, "J'vous aime," to him.

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What does "J'vous aime" mean?

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I'm your friend. OK.

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So he didn't, didn't respond and just looked and see me there.

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And off he went.

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Despite being unaware at the time, Maureen had made a major impression

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on a shy young Belgian soldier called Jean.

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So the next time you saw him was on this lane.

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I don't know whether he had been waiting or what.

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But he just stood up and said, asked me, "Would you marry me?"

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I just said, "I don't understand what you mean."

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But you did understand.

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I certainly did.

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Despite an initial rejection, Jean committed his proposal to writing.

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Jean wrote to you saying, will you marry me?

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And you said...? I am hoping to be a nun someday.

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That was it. I didn't say, you know, yes or no or what...

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Kept my options open, you might say.

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Having spent two months in Northern Ireland,

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the Belgians left Collegelands in the winter of 1945,

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and Maureen would never hear from the lovestruck Jean again.

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But it wasn't for his lack of trying.

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The world record bid has unearthed more than just birth certificates.

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The Donnellys' neglected cupboards and drawers have betrayed some

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clandestine family secrets.

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My goodness. After all these years, to get a photograph

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that I never had.

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Unbeknownst to Maureen, Jean never gave up on his unrequited love.

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There.

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That is Jean.

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From Belgium. He is a good-looking lad, isn't he?

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Well, that's a lovely photograph - no doubt about it.

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As well as sending a photograph to remember him by,

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the smitten Belgian soldier

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had continued to write letters for decades.

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Letters that would never arrive.

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This is the 28th of the 10th, '45.

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"Dear friend, I write to you for to say I shall never forget you

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"and this little country in which you call Ireland.

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"The thing I regret most in leaving Ireland is leaving you."

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So you just discovered this recently 70 years after he wrote it?

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It was 1945 it was written.

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Is it sad reading that?

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Of course it's sad.

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Despite never receiving a response,

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it seems Jean wrote letters well into the 1970s.

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Letters that someone kept secret from Maureen.

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Why did the letters never got to you?

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Who do you think kept them?

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Could only be my mother.

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She would be sort of interested...

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So your mother had read what she thought was a love letter and

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thought, "Not for my Maureen."

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Well, whatever she thought.

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Finding long-lost love letters was an unexpected result of Leo's search

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for the family's original birth certificates.

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He's confident the people at Guinness World Records

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will approve his application and award them the title

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of the world's oldest family.

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When you think of all the number of billionaires in the world today,

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I think I can see any number of them beating a path to the front door

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in College Hall and saying, "Leo, what's your secret?

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"How do you do it?"

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I'll be saying, "Come on in and we'll discuss it".

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And, show me the colour of your money

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and I'll give you plenty of secrets.

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People say it must be something in the air.

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I think it must be something in the soil.

0:19:470:19:49

They talk about these Mediterranean diets, Japanese sushi,

0:19:490:19:55

all this and that throughout the world,

0:19:550:19:57

but we think we've got just as good in our back fields.

0:19:570:20:00

Apples has been growing through our veins since before we were born.

0:20:040:20:08

That's the start of an apple that will grow three or four inches in

0:20:110:20:14

diameter. A lot of people have this apple because they grow a beautiful

0:20:140:20:18

big apple and they go into Mr Kipling's pies.

0:20:180:20:22

My daddy got into apples in the 1930s,

0:20:260:20:30

so there's apples that Daddy put in in 1939 and '40,

0:20:300:20:34

they're still growing. They'll last for 100 years.

0:20:340:20:37

An abundance of fresh fruit and veg has done the Donnellys no harm

0:20:390:20:43

at all, but it wasn't just getting their five a day

0:20:430:20:45

that has helped keep them young. They also love their sport,

0:20:450:20:49

and many of their physical feats took place

0:20:490:20:52

where the orchard now stands.

0:20:520:20:54

Where these apples are planted here was known as the old sports field.

0:20:540:20:58

And for sports day,

0:21:030:21:05

the grass was all mowed and cleaned up, ready for the whole community.

0:21:050:21:10

Actually, being our field,

0:21:140:21:16

we put in extra effort to get most of the prizes.

0:21:160:21:19

As the saying goes, the apple never falls far from the tree.

0:21:210:21:25

The Donnellys got their love of sport from Peter Donnelly Sr.

0:21:250:21:29

My father was an athlete.

0:21:290:21:31

And all of us heard the story that he could have jumped

0:21:310:21:34

over a five-bar gate, a field gate, without putting his hands to it.

0:21:340:21:38

The Donnelly kids were encouraged to play sport from an early age.

0:21:450:21:49

All of the children played, boys and girls.

0:21:490:21:52

Footballers at one end of the field,

0:21:520:21:54

and girls at the other end of the field.

0:21:540:21:59

All 11 brothers played for the local Gaelic football team.

0:21:590:22:02

In Gaelic football, you'd make dashes to get a ball, to get it.

0:22:040:22:10

You had to train for a couple or three hours every night.

0:22:110:22:13

If somebody told you to go out and do ten laps of that field,

0:22:150:22:18

you didn't turn up your nose, you did it.

0:22:180:22:23

Seamus is convinced that playing sport

0:22:230:22:25

has contributed to the family's good health.

0:22:250:22:27

This is why, it had to build your body up and build your muscles up.

0:22:270:22:29

You know, it made you eat more and eat good, solid food, so

0:22:310:22:36

you had your body in good tune.

0:22:360:22:37

For the Donnellys, it seems an apple a day has kept the doctor away.

0:22:400:22:45

I'm certainly glad we had that healthy lifestyle,

0:22:450:22:48

because it's given us a good chance to get this world record.

0:22:480:22:52

It's absolutely amazing that the simple things of life

0:22:520:22:56

can have you stay on this planet for longer than any family

0:22:560:23:01

in the whole wide world.

0:23:010:23:03

In anticipation of the official result from Guinness World Records,

0:23:120:23:15

Leo is preparing to welcome his brothers and sisters

0:23:150:23:18

back to College Hall, their childhood home.

0:23:180:23:21

Is everyone on their best behaviour?

0:23:220:23:24

I hope so. I think they will be, I think they will be.

0:23:240:23:27

The important thing is to get together as a family.

0:23:270:23:32

It could be for the last time,

0:23:320:23:33

because some of us aren't getting any younger.

0:23:330:23:36

13 Donnellys are travelling from far and wide

0:23:370:23:39

for what they hope will be a celebration.

0:23:390:23:41

Maureen! You're very welcome.

0:23:410:23:43

Good to see you. Welcome home. You're looking as well as ever.

0:23:430:23:49

Grand for us all, getting out and getting our faces washed.

0:23:500:23:53

Right, how many do we have now?

0:23:540:23:56

We're two missing. There's far too many, that's what's wrong.

0:23:560:23:58

With so many brothers and sisters, it can be hard to keep track.

0:24:010:24:04

So, where are you in the line-up?

0:24:040:24:06

I'm number 12.

0:24:060:24:07

I'm number five.

0:24:070:24:09

I will be number eight about, roughly.

0:24:090:24:11

So, you're the eldest?

0:24:110:24:12

So they tell me. Second.

0:24:120:24:14

Second? Yes. Sean, Maureen, Eileen, Peter, Mairead,

0:24:140:24:18

Rosie, Tony, Terry, Seamus, Oliver, Brian, Kathleen, Colm,

0:24:180:24:22

Leo, Austin and Michael was the young one.

0:24:220:24:25

Do you worry about anything?

0:24:260:24:27

I don't worry about very much.

0:24:270:24:29

No. As my bed is all paid, and I don't owe the bank anything

0:24:290:24:31

and I don't owe anybody else anything.

0:24:310:24:34

Collectively, what you think everybody here does

0:24:340:24:37

or has that's...?

0:24:370:24:39

The Donnellys' apples and the apple tarts could be the secret.

0:24:390:24:41

They're secret. Yeah. Well, we've a few slices in there. Oh.

0:24:410:24:45

Not that much, only a little bit...

0:24:450:24:48

Did you love growing up in such a big family?

0:24:480:24:52

Oh, well, yes, but we used to think that the boys

0:24:520:24:56

got away with murder...

0:24:560:24:58

They never did anything. Because we had to do all of cooking,

0:24:580:25:01

the housework, the cleaning and then we had to go out and help in the

0:25:010:25:04

fields. The girls had to do everything?

0:25:040:25:07

The girls had to do everything.

0:25:070:25:08

And the lads were out tinkering with their motors.

0:25:080:25:11

They'd say, "Get me my tea," and pour it out.

0:25:110:25:14

For your brothers?

0:25:140:25:15

These boys, here.

0:25:150:25:16

Oh, yes. And these boys were off on their motorbikes and their cars,

0:25:170:25:20

which we knew nothing about.

0:25:200:25:21

It's kind of amazing.

0:25:210:25:24

Regardless of whether they get the record or not,

0:25:240:25:26

they're all together, they're all here,

0:25:260:25:29

they're all healthy

0:25:290:25:31

and I think their mum and dad would be really proud.

0:25:310:25:34

I'm hoping, in a few decades' time,

0:25:350:25:37

that I'll be sitting here eating a load of cake and drinking tea and as

0:25:370:25:41

happy as you all seem to be.

0:25:410:25:43

What are the secrets?

0:25:430:25:45

What's the thing, the advice?

0:25:450:25:47

The advice I would give is anything that's difficult,

0:25:470:25:50

let it pass over your head and forget about it.

0:25:500:25:52

Sleep on it. Now, the doctor'll tell you it's in your genes.

0:25:520:25:55

He told me it was in my genes, and I was looking in my jeans...

0:25:550:25:57

Looking for a few pounds?

0:25:590:26:00

To see what he was talking about. Two-legged jeans?

0:26:000:26:02

And Colm, what do you think it is?

0:26:020:26:04

I think it's working together is the secret of a long life,

0:26:040:26:07

and having that family feeling.

0:26:070:26:09

What will it mean to the Donnellys to be recognised

0:26:110:26:14

as the world's oldest family - if that happens?

0:26:140:26:18

If my father was alive,

0:26:180:26:19

he would be absolutely over the moon to think that all of us

0:26:190:26:23

are here together and, you know,

0:26:230:26:26

it would be the icing on the cake if it all comes together in the end.

0:26:260:26:31

With the birth certificates authenticated

0:26:360:26:38

and all the ages counted, it's time for the official announcement.

0:26:380:26:42

Hello, hi. Hello.

0:26:430:26:44

Hello, everyone.

0:26:450:26:48

So, as a Guinness World Records adjudicator, I can confirm you are,

0:26:480:26:53

indeed, the world's oldest 13 living siblings.

0:26:530:26:56

So, congratulations, you guys are record holders.

0:26:560:27:01

Woo-hoo, come on, the Donnellys!

0:27:010:27:04

CHEERING

0:27:040:27:06

They are officially the world's oldest family.

0:27:060:27:08

I think you imagine that title to belong somewhere exotic,

0:27:080:27:14

and actually, we're in Armagh.

0:27:140:27:17

You know, in a field, and that's quite nice.

0:27:170:27:20

I think the key to it all, really, is tea.

0:27:200:27:24

Oldest to youngest, all the way...

0:27:250:27:28

Yeah, from the eldest, all the way down.

0:27:280:27:32

Thankfully, we have got to the finish line

0:27:320:27:35

and over the last hurdle.

0:27:350:27:36

And it really is a fantastic feeling.

0:27:380:27:39

Yeah. A feeling of completion.

0:27:390:27:42

Go on, the Donnellys!

0:27:420:27:44

I'm kind of disappointed, because I love a fad, I love a quick fix.

0:27:440:27:48

I love someone to say buy that and it will fix this and, actually,

0:27:480:27:51

what I'm learning is that the Donnellys don't purport

0:27:510:27:55

to have any magic solution or reason why they've managed

0:27:550:27:58

all to live so long, it's kind of all pretty basic stuff.

0:27:580:28:03

How do you think Austin would feel about it all?

0:28:050:28:08

I can see Austin smiling down on us right now.

0:28:080:28:11

He's just saying, "Well done."

0:28:110:28:12

Go on, the Donnellys!

0:28:130:28:14

Woo-hoo!

0:28:160:28:17

Hello, I'm Victoria Hollins with your 90-second update.

0:28:540:28:56

Angela Scanlon meets the Donnelly family from rural County Armagh, thought to be the oldest group of siblings in the world. Collectively they add up to an incredible 1,064 years. In a film that looks at what it means to grow older in today's society, we follow the family as they attempt to get a world record.

Austin Donnelly (70) and his 13 siblings, 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 Leo (70), came to the realisation that all their ages added up to a grand total of 1,117 (at the time) after Austin decided, playfully, to do a bit of maths at his oldest sister Maureen's 90th birthday party earlier last year. From then on the seed was planted and Austin was now determined to find out if they really are the oldest group of siblings in the world.

Sadly, before being able to complete his world record journey, Austin passed away earlier this year. His twin Leo, has taken up the mantle to complete the family's world record attempt in his brother's honour. Following Leo's efforts, the film weaves a stunning portrait of a large family from rural Northern Ireland growing up in the most turbulent of times. Incredible family archive helps to bring to life personal recollections and experiences. The Donnellys, in all their years, are our guides through a magical historical journey, with they themselves at the centre of it.

Part of BBC One's Our Lives strand.