This is my grandfather Kevin Carey aged three (Yes, he’s wearing a dress)

Family Fortunes: My affluent ancestors and their grand schemes tell a cautionary tale: hard work is the path to security

This is my grandfather, Kevin Carey. He was born in 1906, so we think he’s about three in this photograph: and yes, he’s wearing a white lace dress. Many theories abound about the practice, including fear of fairies and kidnappers who targeted sons rather than daughters. The real reason may be more prosaic. Doting mothers kept little boys in skirts for ease of toilet training. We still have the dress.

Kevin was the only son of Dr William Carey, of Castletown Geoghan, Co Westmeath. William trained at the Royal College of Surgeons and prospered in England, where he married Marie Gibbs – christened Emma Susannah – a convert to Catholicism. Once, when I made redcurrant jelly my father declared: “That’s the Protestant blood in you.”

Kevin was educated at Beaumont, the Jesuit school known as the “Eton for Catholics”. I’m assured he could curse magnificently in a crisp aristocratic accent.

But at the foundation of the Irish State, Dr Carey’s brothers urged him home. He returned a rich man and settled in Ballinaskea near Enfield, Co Meath. Alas, his plans for breeding cattle had not anticipated the insanity of Éamon de Valera. As the economic war waged, Ireland’s only market for cattle – England – was cut off. His diary entries feature dismal accounts of bringing cattle to the fair – and home again.


Marie founded the local order of the Legion of Mary. She died of an aneurism aged 56.

Grander dreams

When Dr Carey died in 1936, in the worst of times, Kevin inherited a farm crippled with debt. Perhaps he could have worked his way out of it, but in truth he had little interest in farming. He had grander dreams.

His big scheme was to buy a projector to show films in parish halls. Against all advice, he sold Ballinaskea and downsized to the smaller holding on which my parents still live.

Locals still recall the excitement of the cinema nights, but it never paid off. Poor Kevin’s dreams came to naught. He died in his mid-50s from throat cancer – a poor man.

That left my grandmother Sally, for whom I was named. She too was born well and educated finely in England. My father declares her a saint for enduring the downward spiral with grace and good humour. She was an extraordinary personality, who taught piano into her 80s and was adored by a large extended family and local community.

Meanwhile, my father knuckled down and worked with my mother to rebuild. I grew up surrounded by the precious heirlooms of affluent ancestors and the cautionary tale: hard work, not grand schemes, is the path to security.