Monday, October 20, 2014

Within these walls, the life of a family: 80 years on Gordon St., Ringsend

#69 Gordon Street, Ringsend, Dublin.
1 marriage
8 children
1 son dies
1 mother dies
1 grand-aunt moves in
2 sons go to war and return
3 sons marry
2 daughters marry
1 father dies
1 daughter marries
1 bachelor son remained.

This is the arithmetic of a full eighty years in the home of a family, the home of the Ball family of 69 Gordon Street, Ringsend, Dublin, Ireland.

The Ball family occupied this house for the greater part of the 20th century, and on into the 21st century, from 1923 until September of 2003. Within the life of this house so many changes occurred, both in the history of this family and in the history of their country. The lives of those who lived here were interwoven with the fortunes of their nation.

Sixty-nine Gordon Street is among those homes which were constructed between 1890 and 1910, when the area was called South Lotts. The neighbourhood is bounded on the west by Barrow Street and on the east by South Lotts Road. Ringsend Road marks its northern boundary and Gordon Street its south.

With living space of only 53 square meters (570 square feet), this home was one of those row houses in the area which were especially built for the families of men who worked in the industries on the docks, just east of the neighbourhood. When the house was first constructed it had two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs. The lavatory was originally built outside within the walls of the back garden, but by the time Patrick Ball and his bride Mary Fitzpatrick Ball occupied the house in 1923, an extension had been built off the back of the house, and the lavatory was moved inside.

A fireplace was situated on the largest wall in the front room downstairs, and in each of the two original upstairs rooms a smaller cast iron fireplace could be found. At times cooking pots would be hung over the fire, even after the hob and the cooker came into use in the kitchen. Like all of the original houses in the row, 69 Gordon Street has two windows upstairs and a single slightly larger window downstairs, all of which overlook the street. The granite support plints, in crescents above the windows and the door, are the only mortar decoration in its red brick facade.

Boland's Flour Mills,
fronting the Grand Canal docks.
Patrick Ball and Mary Fitzpatrick were married 1 June 1921. On 11 July, just one month and ten days after their marriage, a truce with the British suspended hostilities, and the Irish War of Independence came to an end. In 1923, shortly before the end of the Irish Civil War, Patrick and Mary moved into 69 Gordon Street with their newborn first child, a son named Anthony.[1]

Irish History had long been near the doorsteps of Gordon Street. On 29 March 1914, Thomas and Laurence Kettle, first cousins of Mary's father Thomas Fitzpatrick, came to Ringsend where Thomas Kettle gave a speech imploring young men to form a Ringsend company of the Irish Volunteers. [2] In later years, Laurence Kettle would be a frequent visitor to the house.

During the 1916 Easter Rising, the sound of shots rang out in this quiet neighbourhood. On Barrow Street, down the road and just around the corner from 69 Gordon Street, members of the Ringsend Irish Volunteer company occupied Boland's Flour Mills, emerging as heroes at the end of the Rising for absconding with several cart-loads of flour for their neighbours in the village of Ringsend.[3]

In 1926, new road signs were erected across the land, written with the mother tongue of Irish Gaelic emblazoned across the tops of them, dominant over the name written in English. When the new signs were affixed to the corner houses in Ringsend, Gordon Street was still Gordon Street, but now it was also Sráid Gordún.[4]

As social and political change was happening all around them, in their city and in their country, steadily the little family continued to grow in their home on Gordon Street. Following the birth of eldest son Anthony, next came Gerard, Patrick, and then little Thomas in 1927. Less than a year would pass — only ten months and a few days — before the first black ribbon was looped through the door knocker on 69 Gordon Street, a marker that little Thomas was dead.

Over the course of six years Patrick and Mary had welcomed four sons, and buried one, then in 1929, the first of a trio of daughters arrived when Bernadette was born. Mary followed two years later, and then Kathleen a little over two years after that. The last child born to the family was a son named John.

In 1936, just seven days before Christmas, another black ribbon was threaded through the knocker on the door of 69 Gordon Street, when Patrick's wife Mary died, leaving him alone to raise seven children, the youngest of whom was only 6 months old, and the eldest just 13 years. Blood poisoning had killed Mary Ball. Although penicillin, which could have saved her, had been invented in 1928, it was not introduced into Ireland until 1941, and even then was not widely available.[5]

In December of 1937, just a few days after the first anniversary of the death of Mary Fitzpatrick Ball, the modern Constitution of the Irish Free State was instituted. Enshrined within its pages 'the family' was recognized as the foundational unit of the State. Earlier that year, in the Ball household, their family had changed once again, as 76 year old Alice Fitzpatrick Ward, Mary's paternal aunt, moved in to help Patrick Ball care for his motherless children. Alice would live with the family for fifteen years, before moving first to the Barnwell home on Ringsend Road, and then to Roebuck Castle, where she died 27 May 1952, a little more than one month after her 92nd birthday.

Beginning in September of 1939, due to the Second World War, Taoiseach Eamonn DeValera declared a state of emergency in Ireland, and rationing began.[6] Over the course of the war — called ‘The Emergency’ in Ireland — the Ball family would be impacted by the rationing of such essentials as tea, flour and butter. Tobacco was on the rationed items list too, so Patrick Ball would only be able to enjoy his pipe at day's end. Even soap and dentifrice (toothpaste) were rationed, as were soap flakes for washing clothes. In 1942, bakers’ bread was also rationed. [7] Just like all Irish families at the time, the Ball family would learn to strictly 'cut their cloth according to their measure'. [8]

The rationing order extended to shoes as well, and in the house at 69 Gordon Street, Patrick Ball made the best of a bad situation. An accomplished carpenter by trade, he built a shoemaker’s bench, skillfully carved several ‘lasts’, and taught himself how to mend his children’s shoes, as well as his own. [9]

No waste was tolerated. The children became adept at using and reusing tea leaves, in the course of preparing tea for their father and their aunt Alice. Bread and butter became a rare treat. Alice taught them how to make the very best bread using the least amount of flour. Every last bit of butter was drawn from the paper in which it was wrapped, and that paper was saved for other uses.

Petrol had been rationed early on during ‘The Emergency’, but that was of no consequence to Patrick Ball. Each morning he set out from home, heading to work on his bicycle, as he had done always. Each evening, six o’clock would find him paused on the bridge over the River Dodder, standing next to his bicycle, holding his hat over his heart, and whispering the words of the Angelus prayer to the peals of the Ringsend Church bells.

Éire, the Irish Republic, was declared in 1949. After having served in the British army during the war, Anthony and Patrick were safely back home on Gordon Street. Like the many Irish who had served during WW2, their service would not be officially acknowledged by the government of the Irish Republic, since they had served in the army of ‘a foreign power’. It would not be long until Patrick left number 69 for a new life in Liverpool, never to return.

The 1950s brought a succession of marriages in the history of this house, that of the first born son in 1951, of the first born daughter in 1952, and of the second born daughter in 1954. The world moved on, and with it the lives of the Ball children.

All of the children, save one, left Gordon Street behind, forged new paths, and raised new families. Gerard Ball lived at number 69 for the whole of his life, and he recollected every significant moment in the life of their home. Sadly, Gerard did not die there. In 2003, out for the day visiting friends and running errands, he suddenly collapsed and died on a Dublin street, just after leaving a shop.

After over 80 years, life with the Ball family thus ended for the house on Gordon Street.

Does the house know they are gone? Perhaps the feelings of joy and sorrow known by the family seeped into the brick work of its walls. If you are very still, in the quiet of a late evening, perchance you might hear the long ago laughter of children on the stairs, detect the fragrance of turf burning in a cast iron fireplace, or see the shadow of a mother, seven young children at her heel, gazing out the window of her home on Gordon Street, Ringsend, Dublin.

The row houses of 'South Lotts', Ringsend, Dublin.




1.Valuation Lists, County Borough of Dublin, Ward of Pembroke West, 1923. Retrieved at Valuation Office, Irish Life Centre, Dublin, 10 June 2014.

2.‘Irish Volunteers: A Ringsend Company: Speech of Professor Kettle’, The Freeman’s Journal, Monday 30 March 1914. Irish Newspaper Archives, retrieved 14 Feb 2010.

3.‘Occupation of Ringsend area in 1916’, An t-Óglác, 26 April 1926, page 7.

4.S.I. #55/1926 ‘Road Signs and Traffic Signals Regulations, 1926. Irish Statute Book, Office of the Attorney General, Ireland.

5.S.I. #242/1946 ‘Therapeutic Substances (Penicillin) Order’, 1946. Irish Statute Book, Office of the Attorney General, Ireland.

6.‘Emergency Powers Act’ enacted 3 September 1939. Irish Statue Book, Office of the Attorney General, Ireland.

7.‘Emergency Powers rationing’ article on Houses of the Oireachtas website: The Ball family's experience of rationing is based on interviews with family members.

8.'Cut your/their cloth according to your/their measure.': a popular saying in the maternal side of my family tree. Basically the saying translates to living within your means.

9. A ‘Last’ is a cobbler’s tool, which resembles a foot. It is usually crafted of wood, but sometimes of metal. The cobbler places the components of the shoe on the last when making or repairing a shoe.


  1. Charlotte and I were talking about this post over coffee. We both like the way you have woven Irish history into the history of this family. I learned things, we both did, that I/we did not know about before. Catherine

    1. Hi Catherine, Thanks very much for your comments. I am glad both you and Charlotte like the post, and I hope the coffee was good! :-)


  2. Jenn, Patrick Ball must have been a very talented man to be able to teach himself to cobble. I know it’s a cliche to say, but it seems to me people knew how to live more simply back then, and took pride in helping one another. I like the row houses, but a cousin of mine just bought a 7,500 square foot McMansion in north Toronto, she’d never survive in Gordon street. BTW the coffee was good :)

    1. Hi Charlotte, Thanks for your comments; wish I had been there for the coffee. I agree that he was indeed a talented man, and I suppose making do for their families may have made a lot of people discover such hidden talents. 7,500 square feet? Yikes! I would have endless nightmares about managing a house that size.


  3. Replies
    1. Hi Jackie,

      Thanks very much for your comment!


  4. You write beautifully, wonderful post.

    1. Hi Anna and welcome, thanks very much for your lovely comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.



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