Sr Margaret Hegarty – her devotion to helping children changed many lives for the better

An Appreciation

Sr Margaret Hegarty: she raised more than 30 girls and boys from as young as two years

Sr Margaret Hegarty: she raised more than 30 girls and boys from as young as two years

 

Sr Margaret Hegarty was a remarkable woman who devoted her life to giving young people a unique start in life.

She was born Margaret Bernadette Hegarty, in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, the sixth of eight children of James and Delia Hegarty. From an early age, Margaret had wanted to be a nun and to care for children. In the early 1950s, when in her early twenties, she entered the Order of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity at Saint Michael’s Convent in Waterlooville, Hampshire, England.

After two years of childcare training in London, Margaret set up a family unit in 1954, at “The Mount”, a detached house near Waterlooville. She planned to take in eight children but having reached six was then asked to take in a family of four. She readily agreed, to avoid the siblings being separated, so The Mount became a family of 10 children.

Over the next three decades, she raised more than 30 girls and boys from as young as two years.

The children mixed with other local families and were particularly close to the O’Hara family, next door but one, who had six children.

Margaret was a good friend of the Irish tenor Brendan O’Dowda and each Christmas their two households would celebrate Boxing Day at the O’Dowda’s and “Little Christmas” at The Mount. The children went to local schools and Margaret encouraged them to develop their talents and get the most out of their education.

Many went on to further education at college or university to pursue their chosen careers. The self-belief she instilled in them helped defy the usual statistics of young people leaving the care system.

Those Margaret raised cherish memories of their month-long summer holiday trips. Initially, these were usually in England (Devon, Isle of Wight or Ramsgate in Kent) and from the late 1960s to 1980s mainly to Ireland, or sometimes France. They’d set off for Ireland in the small hours of a misty August morning, the car packed to the brim with children, cases and the dog, for the eight-hour journey to the Holyhead ferry to Dublin or Dún Laoghaire.

Their south Dublin home for the summer, whether in Gleageary, Killiney or Dalkey, fostered lasting friendships with local children and their “cousins” in Margaret’s own family. They enjoyed Sunday afternoon walks in Wicklow and the Dublin Mountains with Margaret’s sister, Delia, and her family. They were thrilled to see their walks recounted in the Evening Press by Margaret’s brother-in-law, Pat Keena. Sharing her own family gave the children a sense of belonging.

The children enjoyed days out with friends at Sandycove, playing hide and seek around James Joyce’s tower and taking boat trips to Dalkey Island from Bullock Harbour, thanks to the generosity of boat owner Monica Smyth. Evening walks with Margaret along Dún Laoghaire pier were extra special when they included a Teddy’s ice cream from the hatch in the wall. Day trips or short stays took the children to all corners of Ireland. Most had Irish roots and this rich exposure to their heritage might have been missed had they not landed in Margaret’s care.

Despite being petite, Margaret was fearless and full of adventure, with a mischievous sense of humour. Contrary to advice from nuns, when Margaret and the children visited northern France, she drove a three-bench Peugeot estate through Paris to show the children the sights on a bank holiday! She delighted in being teased for this rebellious act.

She lived as a full-time mother, rather than a carer. Margaret taught by example, facing life’s difficulties as challenges and not barriers. She was ahead of her time in practising today’s concepts of equality, diversity and inclusion, which belied the discrimination prevalent in UK society at the time regarding race, gender and sexuality. This gave the children confidence to set their sights and achieve their goals, and to evolve with similar open-minded values.

Margaret’s support for those she raised continued long after they left the care system. She was proud of them all, showing loving acceptance regardless of their life choices and achievements, as they built their families and careers. They will always be grateful for the extraordinary introduction to life Margaret gave them when their parents were unable to.

During her later years, she lived with her biological sister Rosaleen, also a nun, next door to two other sisters remaining in their community. Sadly, Margaret fell into ill health in January 2021 and passed away on July 5th.

“May Margaret’s strength, love and kindness live on in all whose lives she touched.”