Northern Ireland

NI centenarians reminded of £2k 'birthday bounty'

Elizabeth Cunningham (left) sailing to South Africa with two other postulant nuns in January 1940 Image copyright Helen Stevenson
Image caption Philomena Cunningham (left) sailed to South Africa with two other postulant nuns in January 1940

Philomena Cunningham left Northern Ireland for a new life in South Africa 80 years ago.

The year she emigrated, the Irish president began the tradition of a "Centenarian Bounty" - a financial gift for Irish people on their 100th birthday.

When she turned 100 - 9,000 miles from home in December 2019 - Philomena, who is now known as Sister Bartholomew, became one of 107 emigrants to receive the gift of €2,540 (£2,161) that year.

Cheques were also presented to 116 people in Northern Ireland - 85 women and 31 men - who marked their 100th birthdays in 2019, as well as 258 people in the Republic of Ireland.

Miss Cunningham became a postulant nun with the Missionary Sisters of the Assumption in Ballynahinch, County Down, before boarding one of the last passenger ships from Southampton to Cape Town before World War Two escalated.

Her family believes many people born on the island of Ireland like her could be missing out on the unusual presidential gift.

Image caption Sister Bartholomew as a young postulant in Ballynahinch and on the morning of her 100th birthday in South Africa

Figures are not available to show exactly how many people turned 100 in Northern Ireland in 2019, although there are approximately 300 people over the age of 100.

Sister Bartholomew's niece, Helen Stevenson, from Belfast, said she discovered the bounty "by chance" when she contacted the Irish president's office to request a 100th birthday greeting for her aunt.

She believed her aunt, who was born in Leitrim, County Down, before the partition of Ireland, would enjoy a letter from the president.

'Spread the word'

She was shocked to hear a financial gift would be attached.

"I am not sure everyone knows about this because we certainly didn't," she said.

"I want to spread the word."

Ms Stevenson said her aunt had "lived the most amazing story" and helped establish a school and clinic in Lulikani for 16,000 refugees fleeing the Mozambique war when she was in her 70s.

She also met US President John F Kennedy and South African President Nelson Mandela through her work.

Image caption Sr Bartholomew (front left) on a passenger ship to South Africa in 1940

She said her aunt had struggled to get her father's permission to join the convent at first.

'One nun was enough'

"She was the seventh of eight children. Her sister was already a nun when she asked her father if she could enter the missionary order," said Ms Stevenson.

"He refused and said one nun was enough. He said he would never see her again if she joined."

Sister Bartholomew's father relented some months later.

Ms Stevenson travelled to see her aunt for her 100th birthday with a group of nieces to fulfil a promise made some years earlier.

She said her aunt, who is now bedbound, renewed her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in a "loud, clear voice" on her birthday morning and smiled when the president's letter was read.

Image copyright Helen Stevenson
Image caption Five nieces of Sr Bartholomew travelled from Northern Ireland to see her for her 100th birthday

She said the birthday bounty would be given to the convent and would "go far" for a community that helps "the poorest of the poor".

So what are Sister Bartholomew's secrets to a long life?

"She loved South Africa and its people and education was a big thing - it was so important to her to pass that on," said Ms Stevenson.

"She prayed and she was different to everybody else I knew, I think she has lived to 100 so her story can be told.

"She also takes two sugars in her tea!"

What is the Centenarian Bounty?

People born on the island of Ireland and who have reached their 100th birthday receive a congratulatory message and financial award from the president of Ireland.

This scheme, often referred to as "the Centenarian Bounty", was launched by President Douglas Hyde in 1940.

Since 2006, all Irish citizens born on the island of Ireland have been eligible to apply.

The scheme is open to people living in Ireland and to Irish citizens born on the island of Ireland who are living elsewhere.

Number of centenarians in Northern Ireland

Population aged 100 and over

Source: NISRA

A total of 481 centenarians - 385 women and 86 men - received the award in 2019.

Since 1 January 2000, people over the age of 100 receive a commemorative coin every year on their birthday - 159 people in Northern Ireland received a coin in 2019.

Image copyright Helen Stevenson

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