No ordinary Joe: The story of forgotten Irish emigrant Joseph Tuohy

Joseph Tuohy, who died in July, never got over being separated from his mother as a boy

Lemonade and biscuits were not everyday treats in midlands Ireland in 1941, especially not for five-year-old Joseph Tuohy. But it was not because of the lemonade and biscuits that the day would etch itself into his memory.

Tuohy was born on May 18th, 1936, the only and, by all accounts, adored child of a single mother, Mary, who had become pregnant while working in New York. They didn’t have much by way of material wealth, but until that moment, standing on the street with his unexpected bounty, he had known only love and joy. And then, in a glance, everything changed.

He heard a sound up the street. He looked towards it. And when he turned back, his mother was gone.

Seventy-eight years later, on July 11th this year, an Irish former Columban Fathers priest called Brian Boylan sat down in his home in Holloway, London, to write a letter to an acquaintance in Sandycove, Co Dublin, Margaret Brown.


“Dear Margaret,” he wrote. “I attended the funeral of an old Irish emigrant recently. He has no relatives in Ireland or England. The local authority (Islington Council) appointed me as his ‘next of kin’. I requested the man’s ashes and I have them in my house.”

Boylan had intended to spread the ashes in a graveyard in England or Ireland. “And then I thought of you and your friends in Sandycove,” he wrote.

He cried for two whole days. He pleaded for his mother. His cries went unheeded

Brown is one of the founders of Friends of the Forgotten Irish, an organisation set up just over a decade ago. Every year, the organisers hold a coffee morning to raise money for Irish emigrants in London, funding a plaque in their memory on Carlisle pier in Dún Laoghaire, or donating to organisations like the community centre where Boylan volunteers, St Gabriel's of Archway.

Now Boylan was writing to ask her another favour. “I know you and your friends are concerned about the welfare of Irish emigrants,” he went on. “The giving of this emigrant’s ashes to your care is, symbolically, an expression of your desire to support Irish emigrants and our wish to be reunited with our people at least in spirit.”

The “old Irish emigrant” was Joseph Tuohy.

The story of how the adored five-year-old was separated from his mother – and how he would struggle for the rest of his life with the after-effects of that separation, spending intervals homeless, and eventually dying alone in London – is shattering.

And it is also grimly familiar, resonant of the experiences of thousands of Irish women and children who were shamed, criminalised and emotionally brutalised because of a pregnancy that was deemed socially unacceptable.

The authorities were waiting for her an opportunity to take the boy away from his mother, Boylan – his friend of 40 years – believes. Tuohy’s mother “used to work on a farm. On one occasion, Joe was playing with the farmer’s son, and he slipped. It was an open fire, [and] he burned himself slightly.”

Tuohy’s mother was taken to court, and “obviously the judgment was that he would be sent to an orphanage”. The mother “couldn’t bear saying goodbye to her little son,” so she gave him the lemonade and biscuits and waited until he was distracted to walk away.

The separation, Boylan says, destroyed his friend’s life. “She was a good mother, loving, and he felt happy and supported. She protected him from the negative feelings that might be directed to somebody who was born outside of wedlock. He was confident and bright. And then she was taken from him.”

He was brought to an orphanage where, Tuohy would later tell Boylan, he spent the first days in anguish. “He cried for two whole days. He pleaded for his mother. His cries went unheeded. So, it seems to me, exhausted by his grief and with his little heart broken, he commenced his incarceration,” Boylan stops, to be sure he is using the right word. He decides that he is.

Tuohy had a 'generosity that remained there and stayed there, despite being torn apart emotionally'

Tuohy spent two years with nuns in an orphanage and the remainder of his childhood, until the age of 16, with the Christian Brothers at Ferryhouse in Clonmel.

“Despite being so severely wounded and carrying those wounds, there was a humanity about him,” Boylan says. He later wrote to the Christian Brothers, and mentioned only the Brothers who had been compassionate, omitting the names of those who hadn’t.

Tuohy was bright, too: one of only two boys to sit the primary cert in the industrial school and pass it. The single lay teacher there wanted him to take the post office exams, but the Brothers refused “because he was also the best tailor”. Even at the end of his life, Boylan says, when dementia was taking hold, he was still able to watch Countdown and get all the answers.

He had, says Boylan, “a sadness [and] a painful shyness, which he overcame with close friends.” And “a generosity that remained there and stayed there, despite being torn apart emotionally.”

Tuohy, who worked in Waterford before going to London to set up business as a tailor, formed a relationship with a woman and got married. He arranged for the wedding to take place in Limerick, where his mother was still in a Magdalene Laundry. Walking down the corridor, she blessed herself as they passed the religious statues. She turned to her son and whispered, “don’t mind me, I’m only doing that because I have to.”

Tuohy’s marriage did not last, and was annulled. He was never able to give himself fully to anyone, says Boylan. The failure of the relationship propelled him into a prolonged mental-health crisis, including periods of illness and homelessness.

The ongoing trauma of his childhood remained so intense that when he later lost his leg – he had a sore on his foot that he ignored until it developed gangrene – “it was nothing. That was of minor consequence. Everything of value had been wounded and cut off when he was separated from his mother.”

After they became friends through his work at St Gabriel’s, Tuohy would come to visit Boylan in his family home, and collect Boylan’s s young son from school, often buying the child a comic. “My son is a fine young man now and is very kind to me and to my wife, and I think that Joe had an influence on him, just the person he was.”

Having experienced homelessness himself, Tuohy once took in a Filipina woman who had nowhere to go and gave her his sitting room, restricting himself to the kitchen.

Many emigrants go on to be successful he says, but those who are not can have a debilitating sense of inferiority

When it became clear that Tuohy was dying, the nursing home where he was living asked him what arrangements he would like for his funeral. “He said, put me in a black bin bag, and bury me in Brian’s back garden.”

Boylan wanted more for his friend Joe. So he wrote the letter to Margaret Brown.

When she got the letter, Brown’s first thought was to scatter the ashes in the sea. But a friend in the RNLI told her that wasn’t allowed, so she contacted her local undertaker, Martin Quinn of Quinn’s Glasthule. One of the priests in her parish, Father Kennedy, has a connection to Toomevarra, where Joseph Tuohy had roots. Plans began to form for a more fitting send-off for a man who, in life, was never given a chance.

“We either do it right, or we don’t do it,” says Brown. “He died with nothing. He said he wanted to be put in a plastic bag and buried in the garden. You wouldn’t do it to a dog.

“When most of these people left these homes at 15 or 16, they headed down to the pier in Dún Laoghaire, and they got on that boat to England, and they arrived in England penniless and with very little. And some of them never came home. Some of them ended up very lonely, and living in poverty,” she says.

Brown says the parish office in Glasthule has been inundated with people wanting to help, sending cards and offering masses since Joseph Tuohy’s story first came to light.

Boylan says he has been deeply moved by the response from Margaret Brown and others in Ireland. He sees in the story of Joseph Tuohy echoes of stories of other emigrants who went to England and lost their way, and who felt lost to their own country too.

Many emigrants go on to be successful he says, but those who are not, “we can have a debilitating sense of inferiority. Because we’re not successful socially, or materially, we prefer to be left alone.”

And “we don’t acknowledge as emigrants what we lost in leaving Ireland. You may not be perfect, but you are our people.”

He remembers one man turning up at the centre for a sandwich for his breakfast. “He said his only fear was that somebody from home would see him. That’s how we feel about ourselves. We [see ourselves] through your eyes.”

Joseph Tuohy never returned to Ireland. “Joe was so wounded that I offered to take him back several times, and he says, no, I’m never going back to Ireland.” He was not interested in compensation. “He didn’t want anything. Money couldn’t compensate for what he lost or the pain that was inflicted on him.”

All are welcome to Joseph Tuohy’s funeral, at St Joseph’s Church in Glasthule, in south Co Dublin, next Friday at 10am. A private burial will be held at a later date in Tipperary