Back in the 1960s my late mother had a two-door Morris Mini-Minor. The mini, about the size of a dog-kennel on wheels, was our family car for years (dad drove a van used for deliveries ). I think the mini won the Monte Carlo Rally at one time and it became famous. Towards the end of the decade it actually became cool to have a Mini-Minor after the film The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. But my brother and I had long legs, and the car became a torture chamber on long journeys. We hated the car. There was little room for us and later for my sister, and all her stuff, the dog (who went ballistic if he saw another dog on the street ), the weekly shopping, and all the detritus that family cars gather.
Then my mother began to collect children, some of them long teenagers like ourselves, and bring them to the newly opened school for children with learning difficulties, in Newcastle. There were lots of “Ah Mum!” every time she stopped outside a house to collect a child or a young adult. It took for ages before a mother would slowly lead the child down the path to our car, and climb in.
We were not impressed initially. But it soon became a challenge, because often we would not know if my mother had the correct address, or if there was a child in need inside. One of us would knock on the door. You would hear movement inside. The door may or may not have opened. My mother knew that some of these children were hidden in a back room. It would take time and patience for the mother to bring the child out.
Other times, the mother would be waiting at the window, and as soon as the mini drew up to her gate she come out smiling with the child.
Soon it was not practicable for us to be in the car as well. There was no room, as more and more children were brought to the new school. My mother I know, loved doing that simple job. She’d talk for days if a new child was brought to the car, especially if his or her family were initially reluctant to admit that they had a child with special needs. That is the way things were as recently as the 1960s. There was no official help for these children, no societal understanding of the situation, and more than likely, as the parents became older, the problem would be hidden behind the walls of an institution.*
The right to light
In the autumn of 1962 Sean Keane, father of John who had Down Syndrome, wrote a letter to the Connacht Tribune. He referred to a recently held meeting in Dublin to promote a greater understanding amongst people ‘interested in the welfare of the mentally handicapped, to repudiate to misconception associated with this social problem, and to stimulate further efforts by State and voluntary bodies.’ The initial meeting had been organised by the Brothers of St John of God under the title The Right to Light. A significent title where it urged that ‘backward children have a right not only to physical comforts and love but to all the aids that man can provide to bring light to mind.’ Sean asked ‘would anyone be interested in doing something for the mentally handicapped in Galway’?
There was no response to his letter. A few weeks later, Sean boldly answered it himself. Using different initials he replied that ‘as a parent of a mentally handicapped child I would like to associate myself with the writer of the letter some weeks ago who suggested that some form of day school for such children was desirable.’ The challenge was taken up by two officers of the teacher’s union, the INTO, Michael McSweeney and Mick Raftery, who called a public meeting on November 29 1962 at St Partick’s school.
Mary Cunningham describes the violence, humiliation and the shame endured by a young Anglican churchman William King (1650-1729 ) who, while probably suffering from dyslexia, described his time at school where he was ‘driven by whippings. I learned to repeat the alphabet by rote, but could not distinguish a letter...I trembled at pens and ink, my ignorent master being more apt to punish than instruct’.
Two centuries later had King sat in a classroom in the first half of the 20th century he would have found that some things had not changed. There was little or no official interest in providing for the special educational need for children like him. Physical punishment was still the accepted response to under achievement. Change had been a long time coming.
At that first meeting at St Patrick’s school, it was standing room only as hundreds recognised that this was a matter of major community concern. The Galway Association for Mentally Handicapped Children was formed that evening, led by the two teachers mentioned, and the principal of the Claddagh school, Kevin O’Rourke, father of the broadcaster Sean. Among others were Declan Costello TD, who had a child with intellectual difficulties, pediatrician Brian McNicholl and his wife Joan who were also prominent at that meeting, and with the future of the association. Fundraising started immediately. What must be Galway’s greatest volunteer achievement was under way.
Now more than 50 years later, and called Ability West - Éirim an Iarthair, it has become a large organisation providing services and supports to over 540 children and adults with intellectual disability in 13 locations and 58 centers across Galway city and county. It is dedicated to empowering people to live the lifestyle of their choice, and to play a meaningful role in all aspects of community life.
One of the best aspects to Galway life today is to see a cheerful troop of young people, clearly in need of assistrence, being guided into a cafe and enjoying a coffee and a chat like the rest of us.
NOTES: *I was reminded of those days in an article by Mary Cunningham in the recently published Growing up in Galway: Histories and Memories. This is an interesting collection of short talks held in the Galway City Museum on Culture Night 2016, edited by Sarah-Anne Buckley and John Cunningham, published in an attractive book for the very reasonable sum of €10. Contributions are wide-ranging: from happy memories of cross-road dances, to an account of life at Letterfrack Industrial School, educational needs in the city and county, Life ‘to the manor born’, a blistering row between students and city hoteliers, Clifden during the Civil War, what happened to some workhouse children, growing up in Salthill, and much more.