Tuesday, March 3, 2020
The case of Kate Connor of Athy
The Evening Herald of 2nd May 1919 under the front-page headline ‘A Child’s Religion’ and the subtitle ‘A Mother’s Dying Wish’ reported on an appeal by Kate Connor of Athy against an earlier judgment of the Master of the Rolls. Kate of Higgins Lane (locally we have always referred to it as Higginson’s Lane) applied to be appointed guardian of her 8-year-old granddaughter Josephine Connor whose mother Mary died in Dublin in July 1918. Mary had been brought up as a catholic and was of that religion when she went to live with Arthur and Margaret Strong, stationers of 32 Charlotte Street, Dublin with her 2-month-old child in 1910. In November 1912 Mary Connor was received into the Church of Ireland and thereafter attended Church of Ireland services and brought up her child in that religion. However, before Mary died, she was received back into the Catholic church and it was claimed by the priest who attended at her death bed that she expressed a wish for her child to be reared as a catholic. Mr. and Mrs. Strong insisted that the child who was still living with them should be reared by them and brought up as a member of the Church of Ireland. The grandmother living in Athy applied to the Court for the right to take the child into her care and to rear her as a catholic. The Master of the Rolls ruled against the grandmother in a judgment of February 1919 holding that in all the circumstances the child ‘would not be made more happy or profitable by the proposed change’. The Court of Appeal heard Mrs. Connor’s appeal in May 1919. Evidence was given that the grandmother was a charwoman and certified to be a respectful person while Fr. O’Rourke of St. Michael’s parish Athy testified she was a fit and proper person to be appointed guardian of the child. The Master of the Rolls had held that ‘the proposed move from the comparatively genteel and comfortable surroundings of a stationer’s shop in Dublin to the very humble house of a charwoman would not be for the advantage of the child either physically or morally.’ Further the Master in giving judgment said ‘I cannot give any consideration at all to the very laudable desire of the applicant to bring the child up in her own religion. She has no rights in this respect at all and I have to deal with the case as if one religion was as good as another.’ The Lord Chief Justice wondered if the mother’s conversion resulted from proselytising. His judicial colleague, the Lord Chancellor, who expressed little confidence in people who were proselytisers pointed out that the young mother was eight years with the Strongs ‘and her family never interfered, if any proselytising was going on.’ Counsel for the grandmother claimed that the wishes of the deceased mother should be paramount. Against that the Court were of the view that not a word of evidence had been brought against the good character of Mr. and Mrs. Strong who had acted ‘charitably and in the best spirit’. Evidence was given that the young mother, Mary Connor, was occasionally supported by her brother John who was described as a demobbed soldier. On the third day of the appeal hearing the Court, consisting of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Justice Ronan and Lord Justice O’Connor, reserved its decision. The Court of Appeal, with Lord Justice O’Connor dissenting by a majority decision, affirmed the judgment of the Master of the Rolls and dismissed the grandmother’s appeal. The young girl, Josephine, was therefore allowed to remain in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Strong. Whatever happened to the young girl Josephine Connor? Higgins Lane or Higginson’s Lane has long disappeared from Athy’s streetscape but the legal case of 101 years ago provides an interesting insight into the religious divisions which marked Irish society in the days before the emergence of the Irish Free State. Sarah Bradshaw’s partner has contacted me in an attempt to find an Athy girl (name unknown) who with her sister attended the VEC school in Crumlin Road, Dublin in or about 1977. She would have been about 17 years old at the time. The Athy girl’s mother had died some time previously and three daughters, including the two girls who attended Crumlin Road school, were sent to the Islandbridge home operated by the Sisters of Mercy. I understand Sarah Bradshaw came to Athy quite recently to search for her school friend of 40 years ago but understandably did not succeed in meeting her. Could you help her make contact?