The landmark paternity suit that ruined an entire family

Boy 11963 is an incredible story of a life changed forever by a Longford scandal

John Cameron (86) has written a book about his extraordinary origins, called Boy 11963.

John Cameron (86) has written a book about his extraordinary origins, called Boy 11963.


When do you think the first paternity test was proved in Ireland via a blood test in court? Whatever year you come up with, it’s likely to fall well short of the true date. Astonishingly, it was in 1935.

In 1924 a woman named Elizabeth Farrell married Hugh Major. They lived in Granard, Co Longford. They had two children, Hugh and Maisie. Hugh Major travelled to the US several times for work, and remained there for almost seven years. He returned to Ireland on May 23rd, 1933, and Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Una, on December 27th of that year.

It sounds like something out of a modern day reality show, but upon the birth of Una, Hugh publicly disputed his paternity of the child. He moved out of the family home. Left with little money, Elizabeth told Granard’s shopkeepers to charge her bills to him. In response, Hugh took out an ad in the Longford Leader, stating that he was no longer going to pay any bills incurred by his wife, thereby announcing to the county that their marriage was in trouble. Readers were agog.

There was more. Much more. Elizabeth engaged solicitors to pursue maintenance support from her husband for herself and the three children. In May the following year, 1934, the District Court in Granard was packed for a hearing of the case. By now, the story of the marriage break up was on the front pages of local newspapers.

Hugh Major was refusing to pay maintenance as he stated he was not Una’s father. During the extended absence of her husband in the US, Elizabeth had been seeing another man; William Cameron, who also happened to be married. This was common knowledge, and also known to Hugh, but he was forced to pay maintenance by the courts.

However, should he successfully seek a divorce, he would no longer be required to pay maintenance. So he sought a divorce on grounds of adultery, and the case would go to the High Court. (It appears there were some complicated routes that could facilitate divorce in Ireland in the 1930s.) Hugh sought a blood test to establish the paternity of the child he claimed was not his.

This is how The Irish Times covered the subsequent High Court story, on April 6th, 1935.

“Before Mr Justice Sullivan, in the High Court, Dublin, last week, Hugh Major, Edgeworthstown, sought a divorce from his wife, Elizabeth Major, on the grounds of her alleged adultery with William Cameron, a law clerk in Longford.

“The alleged adultery was denied.

“Dr John McGrath, State pathologist, gave evidence that a blood test that he had carried out with Dr Dockeray showed that Hugh Major belonged to the ‘ON’ group, and the child to the ‘OM’ group. No conclusion could be reached from the ‘O’ formation of the groups. The father was of the group ‘N’ and would, and must invariably, transmit the ‘N’ factor to any child of his. The mother, must, of course transmit the ‘M’ factor and a child of the two must be of group ‘MN’

“The child was of group ‘M’ only and her blood did not contain the ‘N’ factor. Because of this, Hugh Major could not have been the father of the child.

“This particular test was carried out in Germany, where doctors were appointed officially by the courts. This was the first occasion on which it had been tendered as evidence in Irish or British court.”

The Irish Times coverage of the High Court case on April 6th, 1935.
The Irish Times coverage of the High Court case on April 6th, 1935.

There was acknowledgement in the courtroom of the potential future impact of the use of this medical blood testing for paternity. Did any of those present in the court that day live to see how DNA could be used to trace identity, based on the tiniest human particle; a strand of hair, a swab of saliva, a flake of skin?

The news report went on to say: “Mr Justice Sullivan said that science advanced from year to year, and it might be possible for medical men to agree, not only in one country, but all over the world, that some decisive test had been found by which it was possible to say whether a certain man was the father of a child.”

The divorce was granted. It had been proved that Hugh Major was not the father of the girl born to his wife in December 1933. The judge, however, did not seek to prove who the father was. He observed however, that “he was entitled to infer that Mrs Major was guilty of misconduct in the hay shed”. A witness had come forward to say she had been seen in a hay shed with a man not her husband.

Elizabeth Major was present in court for the hearing. She was three months’ pregnant with a fourth child whose father was William Cameron. This child was a son, John.

Artane Industrial School

John Cameron is now 86, and has written a book about his extraordinary origins, Boy 11963. The title refers to the number he was assigned during his time in Artane Industrial School. He was left at St Brigid’s Orphanage in Dublin by his father, William; abandoned as a baby. He was later fostered as a small child to a family who mistreated him. He was underfed and made to sleep in a shed. At eight years of age, he was sent to Artane Industrial School. He knew nothing about who he was, or where he had come from, but went on to live a full and happy family life. He married Treasa in 1963 and worked as a teacher for 35 years in Dublin. He now lives in Gorey, Co Wexford and has five children and five grandchildren.

John and Treasa Cameron on their wedding day in 1963.
John and Treasa Cameron on their wedding day in 1963.

Elizabeth Major had eight children in total. She died at the age of 103, in 2002. John Cameron never met her. He only became aware of his origins after a relative went through the phone book and called his number on spec, after Elizabeth’s death.

What happened to all the others? Hugh Major died in 1968 at the age of 83, and is buried in Granard. He had put his two children, Hugh and Maisie, into State schools shortly after his divorce. Una was abandoned by her parents, and raised by her maternal grandparents until they fell ill, and she too, was placed in an orphanage; Our Lady of Succour in Co Longford.

Elizabeth and William had four more children after John, all daughters. Betty, Ada, Marie and Joan. They grew up knowing nothing about their two siblings and two half-siblings, who had all been abandoned to State care. They claim to have had a poor but happy and stable childhood.

Boy 11963 is an incredible story. At the end of the book, John Cameron reflects on the decisions made by his mother to abandon four of her eight children. He can’t understand it. “I still can’t fathom why they did what they did to us,” he wrote. Age has not brought acceptance: it has instead brought rage. “What would I do now if I met her? Maybe choke her. I wouldn’t have the strength for it, but that might be my reflex action.”

Boy 11963: An Irish Industrial School Childhood and an Extraordinary Search for Home by John Cameron with Kathryn Rogers is published by Hachette