Travails of Charles Haughey’s father sheds new light on family trauma

John Haughey’s multiple sclerosis left the family in difficult circumstances

John Haughey: newly released pension file  sheds light on the devastating illness which left him an invalid

John Haughey: newly released pension file sheds light on the devastating illness which left him an invalid


Most biographers of the former taoiseach Charles Haughey point to his impoverished childhood as one of the primary motivations in his life in looking to transcend his circumstances.

Born in a Free State barracks in Castlebar in April 1925, he was the third of seven children to John and Sarah Haughey. The couple were both from Swatragh, Co Derry and were involved in the Republican movement; he in the IRA, she in Cumann na mBan.

The newly released pension file for John Haughey sheds light on the devastating illness which left him an invalid and his young family dependent on a small army pension.

John Haughey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1933 . Within two years he was unable to walk and was so incapacitated by his illness that he could only mark his witness statement about his illness with an X in 1941.

Haughey joined the Irish Volunteers in 1917. When the War of Independence started he carried out raids on the homes of loyalists and retired British army officers.

He became a marked man and complained that his home was raided in one year on 10 different occasions. As a consequence, he claimed, his father and sister had to leave Ireland and emigrate to the United States.

His files mark him out as one of the most energetic IRA members in south Derry. In one attack on June 5th 1921, RIC sergeant Michael Burke was shot dead and others seriously wounded in an ambush shortly after midnight on the barracks at Swatragh.

He received glowing references from others involved at the period. Major Daniel McKenna, his senior IRA commander in the North, said John Haughey had “done his utmost to make British law impossible in his area”.

As a consequence he was on the run for a time and would have been killed had he been caught, Major McKenna maintained. “His enemies were of the opinion, and indeed not without reason, that he was the cause of all their woes in his area.”

Military pension

His hardships did not end when he joined the National Army. A Commandant A Fitzpatrick, said in 1923, that while Haughey was stationed in Co Mayo, he operated in an environment where the civilian population were “almost entirely hostile to the Army”.

Haughey and his men often had to sleep out and their clothes were ruined. They were billetted in accommodation in Ballina which had no heating, lighting or windows.

“All these hardships endured by NCOs and men had a very detrimental effect on the health of ex-commandant Haughey as he continually endeavoured to improve of the conditions of the men under his command, without result,” Fitzpatrick recalled.

Haughey received a military pension for his service in the National Army. He also received a disability pension though he spent years trying to prove that his progressive illness arose out of the hardships he endured in the IRA and National Army.

His wife Sarah (McWilliams) also received a pension for her service in Cumann na mBan. That service ceased in 1923.

Charles was the third of the seven Haughey children and was born in 1925 while his father was stationed in Castlebar.

In a documentary about the former Taoiseach broadcast in 2005, his brother Fr Eoghan Haughey spoke of the devastating impact that their father’s illness had on the family.

“My father was an invalid as long as I can remember. In fact I never saw my father working.”