Funeral of emigrant who died alone: Joseph Tuohy ‘ashamed of his existence’

Hundreds gather for Irish man who was separated from his mother at five years of age

Joseph Tuohy was "forgotten in life and remembered in death", mourners heard at the funeral of the man who died alone at the age of 83 in London last July, after a lifetime of mental health problems and homelessness.

The chief celebrant, Fr Denis Kennedy, told the congregation packed into the church of St Joseph's in Glasthule, Dublin, on Friday morning that Mr Tuohy's good deeds were the courage he displayed "in the face of injustice piled on injustice. Your sufferings did not diminish you – you were dignified to the end."

The story of how Mr Tuohy was separated from his mother when he was just five-years-old, and incarcerated for over a decade in state-run institutions in Co Tipperary, while she was sent to a Magdalene Laundry, was one, he said, that "could be replicated thousands of times over many decades of the last century. On behalf of all of us here, I express our sorrow - our shame."

It is a story that seems to have touched the hearts of people all over Ireland when it came to light earlier this month. Hundreds of them turned out to pay their respects, some arriving very early and sitting in a pew with a book, others arriving a bit later and finding only standing room.

They came in groups of twos and threes. They came, said Mr Tuohy's friend Brian Boylan – who seemed astonished by the response to a letter he wrote to Margaret Brown of Friends of the Forgotten Irish last July, asking for her help in organising a memorial – "from Tipperary, Leitrim, Cavan, Dundalk. "

Magdalene Laundries

They included survivors of Magdalene Laundries and state-run institutions, including Ferryhouse in Clonmel, where Mr Tuohy spent most of his youth. And they included older people who said they could remember Joseph Tuohy as a young boy playing on the streets of Toomevara.

In attendance, too, were representatives of official Ireland. President Michael D Higgins was represented by his aide-de-camp Captain Paul O'Donnell; Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor, Minister of State for Higher Education, was there on behalf of the Government, and members of An Garda Síochána and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council were in attendance.

Some of the well-known faces among the mourners included RTÉ's Ryan Tubridy and Nuala Carey. Others in the congregation wore the blue and grey school uniforms of two nearby schools, St Joseph of Cluny and CBS Monkstown.

Afterwards, some of the survivors of the state-run and religious institutions, who said they were there to “be here for Joseph, so that he doesn’t go on this journey on his own”, accused the Government of continuing to forget them.

It made for an extraordinary send-off for a man who said, not long before his death, that he wanted to be put in a plastic bag and buried in Brian Boylan’s back garden.

Speaking afterwards, Mr Boylan said he had originally hoped that Margaret Brown would just “throw Joe’s ashes into the sea.” Mr Tuohy would have “laughed his head off, and then cried, and wouldn’t be able to cope” if he had seen it all, he said.

Moved to tears

In a eulogy that moved some of the congregation to tears and all of them to their feet, Mr Boylan said he was one of only two mourners at Mr Tuohy’s cremation in London. “Just me and the undertaker. There was no Mass. No flowers. No singing. No music. No holy water. Nothing.”

That’s “the way Joseph wanted it, because his experience of life was that he didn’t matter. He was of no consequence. He was ashamed of his very existence.” Mr Tuohy, he said, had been too ashamed to go up for communion at Mass.

In his homily, Fr Kennedy spoke about how Joseph Tuohy was separated from his mother in childhood, after he sustained minor burns when he fell near an open fire, “by the church and the state acting in unison...How cruel, inhuman and brutal, and this was done by people who staunchly professed the Catholic faith.”

The congregation heard that Joseph cannot be buried with his mother, Mary Tuohy, who later changed her name to Mary Flannery, because she is buried in a communal grave.

The era of Magdalene Laundries and industrial schools was now thankfully in the past, Fr Kennedy said. Speaking about the need not to be blind to “our failings today”, he referred to children being raised by single parents, and the “lifelong disadvantage” he said was suffered by those with absent fathers.

“When we look at the Ireland of today, a first world country, we see a country where a quarter of all children are being raised in single parent homes. They are most frequently being raised by their mothers; a great many of the fathers have vanished without trace, just as Joseph’s father and countless others did in the past. These children will suffer lifelong disadvantage: financial, educational and emotional,” he said.

‘The voiceless’

“We need to speak on behalf of the voiceless, we need to act on behalf of the helpless, we need to speak up for the 4,000 homeless children in our country.”

Fr Kennedy recalled other details of Mr Tuohy’s tragic life story; how the breakdown of his marriage “led to a downward spiral of depression, which necessitated several periods in mental hospitals.”

Prayers were said at the Mass for the homeless and “those living in the chaos of mental illness”, that “the darkness of stigma, exclusion and marginalisation may be dispelled by the light of understanding, inclusion and respect.”

As the Mass concluded, Mr Boylan carefully carried the small box holding the cremated remains of Mr Tuohy down the aisle, to the haunting sound of soprano Maria Fitzgerald singing Bring Him Home from the musical, Les Miserables.

A private burial will be held at a later date in Mr Tuohy’s native Toomevara, Co Tipperary.

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