Friday 16 November 2018

Remarkable tale of brave Balfe family

Kathleen Dempsey, front, third left, and fellow Cumann na mBan members at a function in the Central Hotel, Peter Street.
Kathleen Dempsey, front, third left, and fellow Cumann na mBan members at a function in the Central Hotel, Peter Street.

THEY SAY there's a story around every corner - and sometimes a few if you are lucky.

Some weeks ago I wrote a note about a lady called Mary Balfe, appealing for more information on her.

All I knew was that she was involved in the Cumann na mBan in Drogheda at a difficult time in our country's past.

Last week, a black folder arrived on my desk.

I always check black folders, they usually contain something important.

Inside was a letter from former councillor Raymond Dempsey from College Rise and a booklet containing some remarkable facts.

In many ways it's an unpublished book, detailing Mary Balfe and her sister, the woman known as 'Lady Kate' - Raymond's mother.

The best place to start is at the beginning.

Hugh and Rose Balfe lived at 54 Chord Road (a place deserving of a plaque by the time you finish reading this) and they had 10 children, five boys and five girls.

Mary was the youngest, born in 1898, and became a weaver in the old Boyne Mills, weaving some of the tri-colours used on State occasions at one stage.

With her sister, Kathleen, she joined the Cumann na mBan in 1917 and from 1919-1921 was involved in the conflict, often encountering the Black and Tans and performing a series of missions.

When Kathleen's husband died just short of his 40th birthday, she had to return to work as a dressmaker and Mary took on the role of a second mother to the Dempsey clan in Sandyford Terrace.

It was here she enjoyed life until her death in 1975. She was buried with full military honours.

The thirst for Irish freedom seemed to run through the bones of the Balfe and Dempsey families.

The aforementioned Kathleen Balfe was born in 1893 and the stories that surround her are varied and wonderful, from Irish dancing on the top of Laurence's Gate for American tourists to her passion for all things Irish as she grew older.

In 1917, at the age of 24, she became a founder member of Cumann na mBan in Drogheda. Her role was a forceful one, visiting prisoners in the RIC barracks (now Barlow House) and passing on information and on one occasion carrying a machine gun under her coat to Ballapousta for an attack on the barracks in Ardee.

Her brothers Hugh, Frank and Joseph became members of a crack IRA Flying Column and for 18 months the home at 54 Chord Road was raided by the Tans every week.

Kathleen survived the conflict and went on to become a politician, the first woman to be elected to the local council in 1967 at the age of 74. She retired at the age of 81 and passed away in 1984.

A real story indeed.