One day last March, Kathy O'Grady, Senior Psychologist, Sisters of Charity of Jesus & Mary Services, Mullingar took Mary de Paor and her son to meet Patsy Farrell and Sylvia Dawson. Kathy reports here on the two founders' accounts of 'how it was' [and wasn't] in Irish learning disability services half a century ago.

PATSY FARRELL — St Michael’s House and Camphill Communities

When Patsy’s son Brian was born with Down Syndrome in 1946, there was almost no alternative to residential care. Fortunately, she was able to make her own arrangements for Brian’s education and care. ‘I hired a wonderful governess–Miss Lynch. She did so much to help him in his early years. Thanks to her he can read and write…. I taught him a lot of other things.’ [Miss Lynch is a very alert 97-year-old now and still keeps in touch with Patsy.]

Patsy was aware of the great lack of services to meet the needs of other families. She placed a letter in the personal column of The Irish Times, and in other papers, asking parents in the Dublin area to get in touch with her about starting a day school. About a dozen parents attended an inaugural meeting in the Savoy Tea Rooms, and the Dublin Association of Parents and Friends of Mentally Handicapped Children [and St Michael’s House] was born. Monthly parents’ meetings followed in the ICA Country Shop on St Stephen’s Green, and at a public meeting in the Mansion House officers and a committee were elected. Members, many of whom had been personally canvassed by Patsy, included Mrs Costello (mother of Declan Costello), Eithne and Gerard Clarke, and Mrs Dennehy of Dennehy’s Cross in Cork.

Patsy drew on the professional talents of members: ‘We had a bank manager, Dudley Robertson,–well, he was made treasurer. Christo Gore Grimes became our legal advisor, etc.’ The committee purchased premises in Northbrook Road, near the Grand Canal in Dublin. Ten children attended on the first day of service, to be taught by Sheila McCabe Rea. There was a team of volunteers to cook a hot lunch. ‘We soon realised that to avail of whatever grants were going, we needed the backing of the church. So we went to Archbishop McQuaid.’ A second St Michael’s House day centre opened in Grosvenor Road–and the service has continued growing ever since.’

Important professional contributions were made, e.g. by Carlo Pietzen (who travelled from the Camphill Community at Glencraig, Co. Antrim to work with Dr Barbara Stokes and Dr Maureen Walshe). Patsy’s original inspiration for St Michael’s House came from the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. He held that by living and working with people who are differently abled, we ultimately get more in touch with the true meaning of life and our own spirituality.

St Michael’s House is distinguished as the first service in Ireland developed by ‘parents and friends’. Although Patsy’s primary involvement was with the foundation of St Michael’s House, she also helped to establish the Camphill communities within the Republic, along with Joe and Ann O’Reilly and Gay and Elish Brennan. ‘I said to Carlo Pietzen, if you find the house parents, we’ll provide the house.’ Duffcarrig, near Gorey, was purchased; its first house parents were Susanna and Peter Esholtz, with their four children. Camphill Communities are now well established in many locations throughout the country.

Patsy also brought up three sons and ran the family farm in Gigginstown. (She says her brother Jimmy was a great help with the farm management.) In 1993, when she was 80, Patsy sold the farm–‘I could no longer drive the tractor’. Patsy and Brian now share a lovely home in the village of Killucan. Together they maintain a magnificent garden, and Brian enjoys craftwork. He attends part-time at the Siol Resource Centre in Mullingar. Patsy, undaunted by arthritis, continues as a volunteer in the neighbouring Camilian Nursing Home and with the Chernobyl Children’s Appeal, and hosts holidays for a Camphill resident. She is also Vice-Chairperson of the Siol Support Group in Mullingar.

SYLVIA DAWSON — St Christophers’ Services, Longford

A contemporary of Patsy Farrell, Sylvia Dawson used to take the tram to the Pillar on her way to school in Rutland (now Parnell) Square in Dublin. But after her marriage she moved to County Longford. As her own children were growing up, she became aware of close neighbours, and a number of other families, who had children with a learning disability–for whom the bleak choice was to ‘get on with it’ as best they could, or to place them on a waiting list for far-away residential services: families in desperate circumstances expected to give up their most vulnerable child … and they were the “lucky ones”–those who were offered a place in a residential service.’

‘I’d seen Patsy Farrell’s letter in the newspaper, and that fired me up. It was like I knew what had to be done.’ Sylvia admits she joined the local ICA with an ulterior motive–the organisation offered excellent training in how to work with others, run meetings and keep minutes. In February 1964, Sylvia published a similar letter to Patsy Farrell’s in the Longford Leader, organised a public meeting later that year, and the Midlands Associations of Parents and Friends of Mentally Handicapped Children took tentative shape. (The name was changed to the County Longford Association of Parents and Friends in March 1966, by which time a group of parents had also formed the County Leitrim Association of Parents and Friends.)

Sylvia Dawson was the official ‘Hon. Organiser’. In those early years, she was inspired by Col Joe Adams, Professor Eva Philbin, Annie Ryan, Dr Barbara Stokes and other founding members of NAMHI. Dr Finn O’Brien provided advice and invited the committee to South Hill, Delvin, and Moore Abbey, Monasterevan–Sisters of Charity of Jesus & Mary residential centres which had been established approximately ten years earlier.

On 25 June 1966, the first temporary day centre opened in Longford Town–two rooms made available in the Temperance Hall, with the voluntary services of a qualified teacher. Volunteer drivers ferried children from all over the county. A rota of helpers cooked hot meals–a voluntary practice that continued in the St Christopher’s Services until the late 1990s.

The day centre was accommodated in successive temporary premises, but after many exchanges with government departments and the County Council, as Sylvia describes: ‘in August 1968, people passing up and down Killashee Street [Longford] were astonished to see overnight the erection of our new school on the foundations provided by the volunteers. This prefab was the first in Longford [at a cost of £4000].’ The school opened just before Christmas that year, with four pupils; in January 1969 it had eleven pupils, and the number had grown to fifteen by Easter.

In 1973 the Longford Association acquired Leamore Park, a three-storey building on a five-acre site on the edge of Longford Town; the site continues to be the nerve centre of St Christopher’s Services. Now, in addition to a purpose-built three-classroom special school, St Christopher’s offers day services to 115 people on campus and an extensive programme of off-campus support services.

Sylvia is still active in NAMHI and the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies. Although she remains on the Management and Steering Committees of St Christopher’s, she insists that ‘St Christopher’s is not my whole life’. She completed a UCD College Certificate in Women’s Studies last year (during which she recorded the early history of the Longford Association); she is involved in an Active Retirement Group, the Longford Women’s Centre and the Longford Historical Society Museum committee.

Sylvia has travelled extensively. Everywhere she goes she keeps a watchful eye out for ‘good ideas to bring back to Longford’. Clearly, though, some of the very best ideas have originated with Sylvia herself- She’s a shrewd operator, with a truly magnanimous spirit, unflagging energy and a human rights/equality perspective that springs from her own generous heart.


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