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Meet the 14 brothers and sisters from Tyrone village, who clocked up an amazing combined age of 1,117 years

Ahead of the latest edition of the acclaimed BBC NI True North series on Monday, Leo Donnelly from ‘The World’s Oldest Family’ of siblings, a healthy farming clan from Northern Ireland, gives Una Brankin a fascinating insight into rural life and the secrets of their longevity.

Austin Donnelly was the baby, with his twin Leo, of a family of 16 from rural Collegelands on the Armagh/Tyrone border. Although two of the family had died before the eldest sister's 90th birthday last year, Austin, then 70, became intrigued by the possibility that he was part of the oldest group of siblings in the world.

At the party, a rare gathering of the entire family group, 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, after a fall.

"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.

Austin fell from ladder while working in his garage.

"He was making the doorway bigger to get a car in. The ladder went one way and he fell the other and injured his back," Leo explains. "He was in hospital but he was dead-on for a couple days, talking to the family and that, but he went under anaesthetic on the Thursday and never came out of it.

"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 and his face was a bit pushed in 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, 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, (right), 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."

Following Leo's efforts to establish the family's place in the Guinness Book of Records, True North weaves a portrait of a large family from rural Northern Ireland growing up in the most turbulent of times. Family archive helps to bring to life personal recollections and experiences.

There were so many birthdays occurring in the household, the occasions came and went without celebration. One of the brothers recalls that on one birthday as a child, he went into his parents' bedroom - "where all the action happened" - and announced "I'm five".

The family home had four bedrooms. At one time, there were five boys in one bed.

"There were two generations in our house - the older ones seemed like a crowd of big men to us younger ones," Leo remembers. "The older ones looked after the young ones.

"The youngest was born the same year as Prince Charles (above), so my mother always had an affinity with the Queen and always read about the royals in the Woman's Weekly.

"My parents weren't too strict," he adds. "There was never any turmoil in the house. Plenty of pillow fights and plenty of craic. We would've gone out to dances together and we all went out to work early from a young age - I was driving a tractor at four years of age, with a bit of help to steer."

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.

In another poignant segment, Maureen, now 91, is filmed opening letters posted to her 70 years ago by a lovelorn young Belgian soldier she met while he was stationed in Collegelands during the Second World War. Her mother, harbouring ambitions for a convent life for her eldest daughter, had apparently hidden them, and Maureen is shown slightly abashed that they were never acknowledged.

The Donnellys, in all their years, are the viewer's guides through a historical journey, with themselves at the centre of it.

"I haven't seen the film yet; I'm looking forward to hearing Paul's educated voice on it," says Leo. "It's hard to get the whole lot of us gathered together these days but we'll all be watching it. It's a nice thing to have, in memory of Austin."

  • True North: The World's Oldest Family, BBC1, Monday, 10.45pm

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