When my maternal grandmother Mary Fitzpatrick Ball died in December of 1936, she left behind a devoted husband and seven children. Her death was devastating for her family, and her loss meant that her husband had to face some very difficult challenges, not the least of which was keeping his family intact; however, my grandfather Patrick Ball was a remarkable man who met this challenge head on.
Shortly after the death of his wife, Patrick Ball received a visit from the Sisters of Mercy, enquiring after the health of his children, and offering 'the option' of, at least temporarily, taking the children into a Catholic Children's Home. In a move which would have been very difficult for this deeply religious man, he expressly forbid the nuns from taking any of his children. Not to be deterred, the nuns returned a couple of weeks later, and on at least one occasion after that. He refused them entry, and in fact barred the Sisters from any future visits to the family home. This was a very risky move, given the power that the Catholic Church wielded in the period; however, Patrick Ball was determined that his children would not be separated from him.
Patrick hired a well respected local housekeeper/governess to care for his children, but while this met with the approval of the local church and school, the possibility of other 'visits' hung over his head for quite some time to come.
According to Section 58, subsection 1, of The Children's Act (Ireland) 1908, if it could "be construed that a parent [was] unable to support their children, the court will, with the parent's consent, remove the children from the [family] home, and place them in a certified industrial school". In Ireland many of these schools were operated by the Catholic Church. What the statute does not allude to is the influence wielded by the Church with respect to children who might be affected by this law. In the statute the definition of 'support' was a very fluid one. In the case of a widowed father with seven children, some members of the church community believed that, while he could 'support' them financially, such a man was by nature incapable of caring for his own children. Also, the term 'consent' does not speak to the fact that the Catholic Church might apply pressure to such a man, in order to encourage him to surrender his children. In the eyes of both the Irish State and the Catholic Church, in the period in question, a home with a widower, seven children, and no woman in the role of mother was unnatural.
There were also many relatives who wanted to adopt one or two of the children, but my grandfather was determined that his family would not be split up. He did make one concession in allowing his brother Christopher, and Christopher's wife May, to take his young baby into their home, but he absolutely would not even consider allowing them to adopt baby John.
Life was made even more difficult for my grandfather when the woman he had hired to care for his children left his employ. For a while the family went through a series of 'housekeepers', a term which makes my mother's eyes roll. It seems that many of those hired were well aware of the power of the Church, and recognized the precarious position of the family. These women took advantage of the situation and simply took money for very little work done in return. My mom remembers one housekeeper in particular who had all of the children, down to the youngest daughter, cleaning the house and preparing the meals, while this woman took her leisure, smoking and chatting with friends in the garden, or taking naps. Eventually a more permanent solution had to be found, and it came in the person of Alice Fitzpatrick Ward, the widowed aunt of the late Mary Fitzpatrick Ball.
Alice had no children of her own. She moved in with the family in order to help raise the children, and make certain none of them would be taken away. Despite the fact that when she moved in Aunt Alice was 75 years old, almost 76, and nearly crippled from Rheumatoid Arthritis, she ensured that no one got out of line, as she ruled the roost with an iron fist. As the family grew and Alice's health worsened my mother was charged with the care of this woman, whom my mom both feared and respected. In the months before Alice was finally taken into care at Roebuck Castle, she was completely bedridden. My mother fondly recalls Aunt Alice's words to them on the day she had to be taken from their home. As they carried her down the stairs the old woman wept, as she observed how beautifully the children had kept the home while she was bedridden, and she told them how proud she was of all of them. On 27 May 1952 Alice died at Roebuck Castle. Alice is interred with her sister Teresa in St. Colmcille's Churchyard, Swords.
Whenever my mother speaks of her father it is always with great love, respect, and admiration for him as a man, and for the fact that he worked so hard to take care of his children, no matter what the obstacles. I now understand why my mom and her siblings were so devastated by his death. The same is true of Aunt Alice. Although Aunt Alice was mightily feared, my mother credits her presence as that which helped her father keep their family unit together.
NOTE: Although the Children's Act was amended in 1929 and 1941, the most significant change to the act followed the Irish Supreme Court ruling of 1955 in favour of an Irish single father named Desmond Doyle, who was fighting to have his children returned to him after he temporarily surrendered them to a Catholic Children's Home. The Supreme Court concluded that to deny a parent access to his/her children contravened the Irish Constitution. The film "Evelyn" presents a highly fictionalized account of the Doyle family's story.
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