Saturday, 3 September 2011

On the trail of blind John McDonnell

Following my email to the National League of the Blind Ireland (NLBI) earlier this week I did not have to wait long for a response and within 24 hours had received a reply from Michael Lavin who is Secretary to the Board of Trustees in Dublin. Michael is very kindly sending me a book about the history of NLBI called "A Place in the Sun", written by one of their former members, Mr Pat Lyons, now deceased. Michael also gave me contact details for a gentleman named Frank Callery of the National Council for the Blind who is currently writing a history of the blind in Ireland.

I would wish to thank straight away Frank Callery for his most informative emails this past few days. This includes some quite specific information relating to John McDonnell himself and also some more general information about the League of the Blind.

The League of the Blind was an organisation formed by blind people across Britain and Ireland which had local branches and published a newsletter called The Blind Advocate in the late 1890s and early 1900s. The League was very actively involved in the cut and thrust of the politics of blind services at the time. John McDonnell was chair of the Dublin branch of the League in the early 1900s and was therefore very involved in a campaign for benefits and support services from the government at Westminster to help blind people to acquire skills to become employed and to live independently, rather than scraping by in institutions or begging on the streets of Victorian and Edwardian Ireland.

There is evidence that John McDonnell, the basket manufacturer of Dublin and one-time chair of the local body of the NLB, had a national reputation in Ireland for his writing published in the Dublin press which raised questions appertaining to the employment of blind people.

John’s example was highlighted nationally to other branches of the NLB such as in Cork and Belfast with blind activists in other parts of Ireland being encouraged to follow the example of the Dublin branch in asking questions of their local politicians, especially around election times, for example prior to Irish Local Government Board Elections.

There was even a national meeting of Irish blind people chaired by John McDonnell and it is known that he entered into correspondence with John E. Redmond, a leading Irish nationalist MP and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1900 to 1918, in which Redmond pledged the keen sympathy and active support of his entire party to the objects of Mr McDonnell's Irish members.

Just these briefest glimpses of John McDonnell’s involvement with the NLBI confirm the impression that our great great grandfather was indeed a man who played an active and influential role in promoting fairer conditions for blind people both locally in Dublin and across Ireland.

Frank Callery also provided the following information about John McDonnell, his close family and his wider activities:

"I do know a little about John McDonnell (1841 - ?). Poor Law Guardian, Chairman and long-time spokesman for the Dublin Branch of the NLBGB+I who attended St. Joseph’s Male Blind Asylum, Prospect Monastery, Glasnevin and Drumcondra Castle, Drumcondra, Dublin. They did not speak too highly of him because he was a thorn in their side. He was elected to the Poor Law Union in 1899 ( I think) and topped the poll and he also ran the North City Basket Factory at 78 Chancery Street with his possible relations John and Philip McDonnell also of 26 Chancery Street Dublin".

Frank sent me copies of the records of John McDonnell and his family living at 78 Chancery Street in the 1901 census and at Bolton Street in 1911. I have previously posted these records on this website from my own research, though what I haven't seen before are the records appertaining to another family of McDonnells at 23.6 Chancery Street in the 1911 Census (see above image from the 1911 Census courtesy of Frank Callery).

The family listed in this record are as follows:

McDonnell Mary
Head of Family
Roman Catholic
Born County Meath -
Cannot read write
- Widow -

McDonnell John
Roman Catholic
Born Dublin City
Basket Maker
Write read -
Not Married -

McDonnell Philip
30 Male
Roman Catholic
Born Dublin City
Basket Maker
Read write
- Not Married -

McDonnell James
Roman Catholic
Born Dublin City
Basket Maker
Read / write -
Not Married - 

If this family is related to John McDonnell my guess is that the head of the family, Mary McDonnell, a widow aged 80 in 1911 (John was aged 70 in the same census at Bolton Street), might have been his sister-in-law (note she was born in County Meath whereas John was born in Dublin City). In which case her sons John, Philip and James would therefore have been blind John McDonnell's nephews. We would need more evidence to make a definite certain link but the fact they were close neighbours in Chancery Street and were all basket makers makes a strong case for a family connection.    

Frank continues:

" Note the two addresses in Chancery Street, Dublin, where my own people the Callerys were living; it was a poor area of the city. Note also the Bolton Street address where I think John died — I seem to recall an obituary for him connected with this address. Many blind brush-makers and basket-makers lived in this area of the city and were either connected with the Richmond National Institute for the Industrious Blind, 41 (Sackville) Upper O’Connell Street; Michael O’Connor’s basket workshops in Stafford Street and Capel Street; McDonnell’s in Chancery Street; the Varian Brush works in Talbot Street or had a connection with St. Joseph’s Asylum and workshops for the blind, then at Drumcondra Castle".

"His son John McDonnell was a butcher and was connected with my mother’s family the Richardsons who owned many of the slaughterhouses (the lime yard) around Moore Street, Dublin. I think he or his son were involved in the founding of the Workers Union of Ireland along with the son of the famous labour leader, James Larkin. Also, going on defective memory these people may have ended up (not a pejorative term) in Blessington Street, Dublin. This information regarding the Workers Union of Ireland is anecdotal and was given to me by an old neighbour; I do know for a fact that Larkin got £300 to restart his Workers Union of Ireland from the butchers of Dublin of whom among their number were: Frank Cluskey, Dick Union and Ned and Gerald Richardson, as to John McDonnell or Paddy McDonnell being actually involved, I have not yet seen this written in stone; but given the Old John McDonnell involvement in the trade union movement in Dublin I am inclined to believe it".

"With regard to where you might search further; we are unfortunate in this country in that record keeping has not been our ace and you will find that the records for the NLB are very sparse. I have trawled through what remained of old minutes books and this was very poor and mostly lists of names and pro forma entries. However, your g g grandfather is mentioned in reports of meetings in the mansion house and The OddFellows Hall (10 Abbey Street) these are in the Freeman’s Journal and the Irish TImes, both of these are on line ( the monthly subscription seems to be the best value) "

Frank has also supplied me with other contact details which I won't publish online, appertaining to friends who used to look after the archives of the Workers Union of Ireland now called SIPTU He suggests that this contact may be able to establish the veracity of the McDonnell link with the butcher’s section of WUI.

Once again I would wish to thank Frank Callery most sincerely for all of this fascinating information which provides us with a wonderful insight into the character and works of our great great grandfather John McDonnell.

Frank Callery is the author of two historical articles about another Dublin based organisation called National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) posted on their website at the following links:

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