When he was around five-years-old, Joseph Tuohy was ripped from his mother’s arms. It was a moment that shaped the rest of his life.
Originally from the village of Toomevara in north Tipperary, Joseph, a skilled tailor, who remained private all of his life, was one of the forgotten Irish emigrants who returned to the land of his birth just once, to marry an Irish girl and to see his institutionalised mother one last time.
He died, aged 87, in a nursing home in Islington, north London last July, alone. His remains were cremated. He thought his life so worthless that he asked his friend, former Columban priest Brian Boylan, to place his ashes into a black bag and bury them in his back garden. So appalled was he by this request, Mr Boylan made contact with Margaret de Brun, from Sandycove, Co Dublin, a volunteer at St Joseph’s Pastoral Centre, which raises money for the Friends of the Forgotten Irish Emigrants, to see if she could help bring Joseph’s remains home.
According to Mr Boylan, who runs St Gabriel’s Homeless Centre, in London and had known Joseph for more than 40 years through his voluntary work with the homeless, Joseph was, “four-and-a-half or five-years-old he was taken from his unmarried mother and ended up in two different orphanages over an 11-year period. It was the 1930s and a very different Ireland ruled by the Church.
“His mother became pregnant while working in New York. She was alone and abandoned but managed to return home to Ireland. He told me they had a special bond that he never forgot. She was a loving mother who worked very hard on various farms, cooking.
“She protected him as best she could and he felt secure, he told me. He felt very loved by her and knew nothing of the bad feelings felt towards his mother being unmarried. She shielded him from all of that. She protected him from disapproving glances. She took the shame as an unmarried mother, and he had no inkling about this until later in life. She was a loving mother and he was an extremely happy infant.
“During quieter periods, when his mother was resting, Joseph recalled cuddling her and feeling “secure and loved and belonging and valued” in her arms. He felt as though he mattered.
“But Ireland of that time was not a place to be an unmarried mother and the various authorities were just waiting for a slip-up by her so he could be put in to care.
“One day while at a farmer’s house, Joe was playing close to an open fire. He slipped and burnt his leg. As a result, his mother was brought to court and Joe was taken from her and placed in an orphanage. She was placed in a Magdalene laundry and her name was changed.”
Joseph told Mr Boylan, whom he learned to trust over their 40-year friendship, that he remembered standing outside the courthouse. His mother had bought him lemonade and biscuits. And then he was distracted by noise from up the street.
“When he looked back, his mother was gone, and a staff member from the orphanage took him away in a black car. He cried for two days straight, every waking minute, pleading for his mother. With no father or family, he was alone.”
Mr Boylan, emotionally recounted how Joseph could have been “world famous and made a lot of money,” due to his tailoring skills.
“From the age of 14 to 16 Joe worked as a tailor in St Joseph’s Industrial School in Clonmel, Co Tipperary. He was only one of two boys there who passed the then Primary Cert. A lay teacher asked the religious order if Joe could sit the post office exams but they refused.
“Joe was one of the brightest people I knew. Even as he became more confused with age, he was still able to beat the contestants on Channel 4’s TV quiz show, Countdown.”
Mr Boylan explained that Joesph never spoke about the child abuse at St Joseph’s Industrial School but did write to the order, “expressing how some Brothers were kind to him. He never mentioned the others who weren’t”.
The Industrial school was recognised in the 2009 Ryan Report as a place of “systematic physical and sexual abuse of children”.
Upon leaving the school at 16, Joseph, went to work in a clothes factory as a tailor in Waterford where he made men’s suits. “So good was he at his job, he was put working in a room on his own. The other workers didn’t like that and they threatened to go on strike. The situation was eventually calmed.”
But Joseph eventually left for London where he stayed for the rest of his life, was married for a short time, but had no children. “His marriage was annulled and he continued to work as a tailor in London and he was so good at what he did. If only he had a financial backer he would have gone to the top of his field.
“However, he fell on hard times, he had a nervous breakdown, became homeless and unfortunately, due to health complications, he lost a leg because he didn’t look after himself.
“In the 50s or 60s, Joseph was picked up by the Metropolitan Police and imprisoned for being a vagrant. He had to be hospitalised. He had breakdowns and was delusional.”
Mr Boylan visited Joseph several times a week. “This man is symbolic of a hidden suffering and we should never forget our people. We come from a great people who are loyal to one another. They deserve our respect.
“I know that Joe would take solace from the fact that his life story, which was full of pain, may help others on their own and encourage them to seek help. To know that so many people want to attend his funeral and to help with his final goodbye is a great solace.”