'Knowing of you has touched my life' - hundreds of strangers attend funeral of elderly Irishman who died alone in London
An elderly Irish man who died alone in London was remembered for the “man he was and lives he touched” by strangers who never met him but honoured his memory at his Funeral Mass today.
Hundreds of mourners gathered at St Joseph’s Church in Glasthule, Co Dublin to pay their final respects to 87-year-old Tipperary native Joseph Tuohy who died in Islington, north London after a life bereft of familial care, from the tender age of four and a half.
Mr Tuohy’s life story, detailing the loss of his unmarried mother’s love, intrusive religious and State interference of the late 1930s Ireland, leading to an extremely bright young man emigrating to London to a life full of promise yet ending in vagrancy, psychological breakdowns, health incumbencies and dying alone in a nursing home, has made the nation stop, think and realise the true value of life.
For more than half an hour prior to the 10am ceremony, mourners began to fill the church by the sea, to listen to the life story of a man who symbolises our forgotten Irish emigrants around the world. His remains were welcomed into the church by renowned soprano Maria Fitzgerald accompanied by resident organist Ronan Murray to the air of May the Road Rise to Meet You.
Fathers Denis Kennedy and William Farrell welcomed President Michael D Higgins aide-de-camp Captain Paul O’Donnell and Junior Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor.
Mr Tuohy’s close friend of 40 years and former Columban father living in London and designated next-of kin, Brian Boylan who wrote to co-founder of Friends of Friends of the Forgotten Irish, Margaret de Brun from Sandycove, asking for help in ensuring the Tipperary man receive a dignified and respectful Funeral Mass and burial, were also honoured for their work by Fr Kennedy in his emotional homily.
Mr Tuohy’s final journey, the first and last in so many years, began on Wednesday when Mr Boylan, who runs St Gabriel’s Homeless Hostel in London, arrived back in Ireland. A trip, so different than he imagined while writing that fateful letter to Mrs de Brun last month.
When the letter came through Mrs de Brun’s post box little did she know the sad story she was about to read. She knew very little about Mr Tuohy but as a forgotten Irish emigrant she could not allow him to go to his final resting place without people around him. Mrs de Brun knew his passing should not fall on deaf ears.
Mourners, were urged to attend from around the country, heard that one anonymous letter summed up how Mr Tuohy’s life captured how he should be remembered.
“I read of your death this morning and was touched by your life. A life of sadness and endurance, a life of loss and grief. But it did not diminish you.
“Knowing of you has touched my life, a life too of loss and grief. But not of such sadness and aloneness. You have opened my heart, you have enriched us all.
“Today we honour you, Joseph Tuohy, for who you are, the contribution you made, the lives you touched, in life and in death. And I am sorry, sorry for the part I played in your aloneness.
“We are all one, all equal and we all have a purpose, despite how it appears, Please forgive me for my lack of compassion, I struggle too, thank you for reaching out to me.
“May you rest in peace in the beautiful garden you dreamed of, May you know your life has not been in vain, And may you know you are appreciated and valued. You, Joseph, made a difference. Thank you.”
Fr Kennedy recounted to mourners that, “Joseph Tuohy, was born in the village of Toomevara, Co Tipperary in 1936. He saw his mother Mary for the last time in 1942 outside the courthouse in Nenagh; she had just given him a treat of lemonade and biscuits. Suddenly, she was taken away in a car by Gardaí, while strangers placed Joseph in another car.
“He was torn from his mother, who gave him love and protection. Mary was destined for the Magdalene laundry in Limerick city’s Good Shepherd convent. Joseph’s destination was Ferryhouse Industrial School near Clonmel. Here he remained for 10 years. Mary never left the institution in Limerick, where she was known as Mary Flannery. Why this change of name, we do not know. It certainly is strange. As far as I know, they were never to meet again.”
He became a skilled tailor worked in a clothing factory in Waterford city but emigrated to London at the age of 17 where he spent the rest of his life.
Fr Kennedy acknowledged the wrongs committed by the Church and State to Mr Tuohy and others like him.
“The reason given for their separation – by the church and the state acting in unison – was that she had not taken proper care of him after he accidentally burned his foot in an open fire. How cruel, inhuman and brutal, and this was done by people who staunchly professed the Catholic faith - how far removed from the teaching of Isaiah and Jesus!”
“Brian Boylan, who befriended Joseph during the last twenty years of his life, described him as a fine, sensitive, highly intelligent man who could outscore any of the contestants in the quiz shows he watched on ITV or BBC. What a shame that all this potential was destroyed by the decision taken in that courthouse in 1942. Joseph’s story could be replicated thousands of times over many decades of the last century. On behalf of all of us here, I express our sorrow – our shame.
“Thankfully, the era of Magdalene laundries and industrial schools is now consigned to history. They will never be seen again. When we look at the Ireland of today, a first world country, we see a country where a quarter of all children are being raised in single parent homes. They are most frequently being raised by their mothers; a great many of the fathers have vanished without trace, just as Joseph’s father and countless others did in the past.
“These children will suffer lifelong disadvantage: financial, educational and emotional, Brian Boylan tells us there are fewer and fewer Irish sleeping rough on the streets of London. Where do we find them now? Here in Dublin, and other Irish cities and towns, sleeping in cardboard boxes in doorways, under canal bridges or in tents in parks and open spaces. While we rail against the sins of the past, the wrongs and injustices inflicted on Joseph, his mother Mary and countless others, we must not be blind to our failings today.
“Our second reading speaks of God wiping away all tears; there will be no more death, no more mourning or sadness, the world of the past has gone. The just can rest forever, for their good deeds go with them. Your good deeds, Joseph were the courage you displayed in the face of injustice piled on injustice. Your sufferings did not diminish you – you were dignified to the end. May you and Mary your mother, rest forever in the peace of God’s Kingdom.
“However, this belief is not enough. We cannot undo the evils of the past but we can make sure that they never happen again. We need to act in the here and now. We need to speak on behalf of the voiceless, we need to act on behalf of the helpless, we need to speak up for the four thousand homeless children in our country. We need to heed Christ’s words, ‘What you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me’”.
A group of students from two nearby schools, CBC Monkstown and St Josephs of Cluny, Killiney, were also present at the Mass to learn of how important it is not to forget the Irish diaspora, along with people from Toomevara, where Mr Tuohy was born, who knew him as a child and also a distant and long lost cousin.
Words of thanks and appreciation to the congregation and those who offered help and support were made by Mrs de Brun and Mr Boylan.
Mr Boylan said: “Joe suffered greatly and was a shy, insecure and unassuming man. He was a victim of circumstance, self, shame and sadness.
“When the people in the nursing home asked Joe what funeral arrangements he’d like prior to him departing Joseph said: ‘Put me in black [rubbish] bag and bury me in Brian’s back garden.’
“I told him I’d be privileged to have him buried there but that the authorities wouldn’t agree to that, so he settled for a funeral with no trimmings. Nothing, no flowers, candles, incense, holy water, just nothing. And I was the only one there. I walked away afterwards with my thoughts about Joe and the suffering some human beings go through.
“In a way his story should not become one of young people today. I believe and I’m confident Joe is at peace now. I want to thank people so much for their compassion.”
Mr Tuohy’s ashes were led out from the church by the strains of, Bring him Home, by a lone bagpiper Seán Kelly. His ashes will be buried in a private ceremony in Toomevara in coming days.