Summary: NCBI was founded on the 10 March 1931. As a way of marking this event, this new leaflet was produced, outlining the background to the date of our founding.
How We Were Founded
From its founding on Tuesday March 10th 1931 at the Standard Hotel, Harcourt Street, Dublin, NCBI would in time become the inheritor of the work of a long line of organisations which had catered for blind welfare in Ireland since the year 1788. At the time of its founding, less than 400 of the blind population on the island of Ireland was catered for by 13 institutions and societies, each operating independently of each other in an ineffectual way. The vast majority of blind people, however, were living in their own homes or in the workhouses and it was mainly for these that NCBI sought to cater.
Ironically, at such an historical juncture, it was the National Institute for the Blind (N.I.B.) in Britain, having been approached by some Irish people, which was most influential in the founding of NCBI. On October 27th 1929 Barbara Knox (of Bonnettstown Hall, Kilkenny, who was then working in England) wrote to the National Institute for the Blind in London to ask if it had any intention of reopening its Dublin Branch which had closed in 1921. The recipient of that letter was the N.I.B. general secretary, Waldo McGillicuddy Eagar, of Irish descent and with the necessary sympathy to give the request a positive response.
McG. Eagar replied to Barbara Knox to say: ‘Personally, I am sympathetic as like yourself I am Irish by origin. My council will give every consideration to your suggestion, but whether they will regard such an extension of the work of the Institute as in their power I do not know. I will take the first opportunity of discussing it with the Chairman and Treasurers and will let you know whether there is any tendency in favour of your suggestion.’ — Yours faithfully, W. McG. Eagar.
Given the political situation in Ireland, the Council of the N.I.B. was chary of getting involved. It agreed that ‘While there is undoubtedly scope and need for a National Body for the Blind of Ireland to fill gaps and to coordinate, it is excessively difficult for the British N.I.B. to propose itself as the right body in the Free State’. They suggested that if a fairly representative group of people were to put forward a plan and to ask the N.I.B. for help or advice, it would be a starting point. They assured Barbara of the N.I.B.’s ‘great sympathy and desire to help, so far as circumstances permit’, if she would make the first step. She did. She and Molly Rochfort Wade who was also living in England at the time arranged to meet McG. Eagar at his home in Pirbright, Woking in Surrey on Saturday November 5th 1929 and discussed the Irish blind problem with him.
His report of this meeting to the N.I.B. is telling. ‘Both these ladies are quite young and I imagine that Miss Rochfort Wade has more business ability. Miss Knox lives in Kilkenny and Miss Rochfort Wade in London. “Both are Protestants”. Neither has any real knowledge of what provision is made for the blind in Ireland, nor do they know how to set to work to rouse public opinion. Miss Knox has come across individuals who are blind and neglected and has been stirred emotionally to the need for getting something done. She has been to a blind asylum at Drumcondra, the head of which seems to be a Brother John (Byrne) who seems to have made a great impression on her. There are other blind men, Miss Knox thinks, in Cork. She does not know whether there are any government grants available, any register, etc. The religious difficulty
is, of course, persistent in Ireland, but religious feeling is not so strong now. Practically all the blind people in southern Ireland would be Roman Catholic’.
This assessment was patently true. There was a limited compliance with the provisions of the 1920 Blind Persons Act which placed the onus for the implementation of the blind welfare schemes, enshrined in the Act, on the City and County and Borough Councils; there was no register of blind persons — in fact, the Free State had been negligent of its duties in respect of the welfare and support of blind people in Ireland.
In advising his visitors McG. Eagar set out a basic programme of action: establish the facts of blindness in Ireland; rouse public opinion by working up interest in the Press and by a public meeting, at which N.I.B. could help by supplying a speaker. The third step would be to ‘invite the N.I.B. to take an interest in the Irish blind problem. I emphasised that the N.I.B. could not possibly in the present political circumstances go to Ireland and say that the blind are being neglected. It could only appear as a result of an invitation from a representative Irish group’.
At this time there were 13 institutions involved in blind welfare operating on the island of Ireland, each doing its own thing, some ineffectually at that. They were: The Richmond National Institution for the Industrious Blind (ostensibly non-denominational, 41 Upper Sackville Street, Dublin (1810); The Blind Asylum, Infirmary Road, Cork (1845); The Molyneux Asylum, or National Institution, for Female (Protestant) Blind, Leeson Park, Dublin (1815); Limerick Asylum for Blind Females, (Protestant — 1834); The Ulster Institution, Belfast (1836); The Association for Relief of Indigent Blind and Lending Library, 22 South Frederick Street, Dublin, (1857); St. Joseph’s Blind Asylum for Roman Catholic Males, Drumcondra, Dublin (1858); St. Mary’s Blind Asylum for Roman Catholic Females, Merrion, Dublin (1858); The Belfast Workshops for the Blind (1877); The Cliftonville Home for the Blind (Mrs. Pim’s — 1888); The National League of the Blind of Ireland (1898), The Irish Association for the Blind (1921), The Rochfort Wade Hostel for Blind Women, non-denominational (1921).
Immediately following his meeting with the two young Irish ladies, McG. Eagar wrote to Alice Stanley Armitage the daughter of Thomas Rhodes Armitage (1824-1890) founder of the N.I.B., a pioneering world leader of blind welfare. She had been already active in blind welfare in a small way in Co. Tipperary (the family estate was at Noan, near Thurles) and agreed to meet Barbara Knox. It was from here that Alice Armitage, with the constant support of McG. Eagar and the Council of the N.I.B., actively worked towards forming a committee of interested people. Following protracted manoeuvres and a fair amount of behind-the scenes work, Alice called a “private” meeting of people whom she had convinced of the need for intervention in Irish blind affairs, at the Standard Hotel, Harcourt Street, Dublin at 5.15pm on Tuesday, January 30th 1931. Those who were invited were: Dr. Thomas Gilman Moorhead; Mr. Gilligan and Mr. Lennan of the St. Vincent de Paul Society; Mr. Garvey (Offaly); Mrs. Olivia Hughes, Co. Tipperary, United Irishwomen’s Association; Miss Angela Boland; Mr. Fullerton; Mrs. Nanette (Nancy) Quin; Miss Long, Civics Institute; Mr. Denis Barrett, former Assistant Commission of the Dublin Metropolitan Police; Mr. Wrench, blind school master, Wicklow; Miss Emily Eacott (Miss Armitage’s companion and amanuensis); and Mr. W. McG. Eagar.
Alice Armitage read apologies from Barbara Knox, Molly Rochfort Wade and James Sinclair Quin who could not be present. She then outlined her proposal for the founding of what would become NCBI.
‘I expect most of those present know that it is through my father having spent so much of his life in helping blind people that I came to be interested in that work. I have always spent part of the year in Ireland but it was only about two years ago that I realised that since Mr. Rochfort Wade’s death in 1920 and the passing of the Blind Persons’ Act that all voluntary work for the blind, outside of the Institutions, had practically ceased in the Free State. The Government give financial assistance to the very poor. A blind person can receive the Old Age Pension at 50 years of age at the rate of 10/- per week, provided their income does not exceed £15: 12s. 6d. per annum. Those under 50 receive allowances at varying rates, the maximum income allowed in most counties being lower than that for the Old Age Pension. There is a Government register of those receiving help but the Census of 1926 took no account of blindness, and there may be many blind people living with relations or with such small means as to prevent their receiving the State Pension as the allowance, who on this account are not on the register. If interest is to be aroused it is felt that a census. such as the R.I.C. were good enough to take in an unofficial way for Mr. Rochfort Wade, is most desirable, as a register is necessary at the beginning of any scheme, for covering “all” the blind.
‘Home visiting and home teaching societies have been invaluable in other countries in bringing to the blind in their homes the consolation of having their needs understood and of being taught to read for themselves, to make things of practical use and to earn something towards their own keep. Increased home visiting and early home visiting makes it possible for the right care to
be given at the time it is needed; such as special treatment for blind babies and teaching on “how to be blind” for those blinded in later life. A Home Teaching Society such as this does not exist in the Irish Free State. St. Vincent de Paul Society has been approached on the subject and have undertaken to carry on this work in those places where they have branches.
‘If a central committee such as we are considering be started, it is hoped that an organisation may be gradually built up in Ireland similar in some ways to the National Institute in England, whose work, besides the production of Braille books, music and special apparatus, includes the higher education of the blind, their training in massage and inquiry into all problems connected with their welfare.
‘The committee might well consider such questions as the following: Whether blind people in the Free State might not be allowed a greater margin of income when qualifying for help under the Blind Persons’ Act and so be encouraged to earn for themselves? Whether more opportunities might be given to blind boys for higher education and music and if there may not be openings for the employment of the blind in ways peculiar to Ireland such as that of work in creameries which has already been suggested?’
This was the most extensive public speech Alice Armitage was ever to give with regard to NCBI. As she told her auditors at that first meeting: ‘My deafness makes it impossible for me to take the chair’. Dr. Moorhead agreed to do so ‘for this meeting only’. Emily Eacott was to act for Alice throughout their active time with NCBI.
This initial meeting set the stage for the founding meeting on March 10th 1931 to which Alice invited all the institutions for the blind. Her invitation read:
“A few people interested in the blind met here at my invitation on the January 20th to consider the advisability of forming a Central Committee to represent all those who are working for the welfare of the blind in the Irish Free State. The great need for the visiting and teaching of blind people in their own homes was brought before the meeting and it was pointed out that this work had not developed in the Free State to any extent as compared to other countries. The St. Vincent de Paul Society contemplated carrying out a scheme with these objects in view and representatives from the society were present at the meeting. It was generally agreed that there was a need for a Central Council or Committee to coordinate various branches of work for the blind, and with a view to obtaining more information and furthering the fresh developments that were considered necessary a sub-committee was formed.
I have been requested, on behalf of the members, to invite a representative of your society to meet them and others interested in the work for the blind, at this hotel on March 10th at 5.15p.m. to discuss the whole question. I very much hope that your Committee will accept this invitation and send a representative. Any suggestions, whether from the blind themselves or from those who are already actively working on their behalf will be greatly valued, both with regards to the present needs and with regard to the future development of work for the blind in the event of a larger and more generous support from the public, such as is hoped will follow as a result of the formation of an active and influential Central Committee.
This invitation is being sent to the following Institutions and Societies: St. Joseph’s, Drumcondra; St. Mary’s, Merrion; The Richmond Institution for the Industrious Blind; The Molyneux Institution; The Blind Asylum, Cork; The National League of the Blind; The Irish Association for the Blind; The Rochfort Wade Hostel for Blind Women; The Limerick Asylum for Blind Women and The Belfast Workshops for the Blind. I am sure you will agree that much remains to be done and it is hoped with your assistance to initiate a forward movement in this sphere of social service. —Alice S. Armitage’.
The invitation was received with mixed feelings; some doubted its usefulness, some were sceptical and mistrusting of its intentions and also concerned about the possible impingement on their own organisations and operations (particularly their fund-raising), yet all saw the need for some “forward development” in the vacuum of social deprivation in which the blind of Ireland existed.
Thus began the slow movement towards the goal of serving the blind of Ireland. An operation of shoe-string finance and sheer perseverance. Building confidence and relationships with the blind population whom they wished to serve by raising their social and educational skills; fostering the much-needed regime of advocacy and preaching the social efficacy of the prevention of blindness to an otherwise unconcerned government.
Time and effort would build the voluntary branch networks; the assistive technologies, the pathways towards independence of spirit and ability. That was never going to be an easy path; but along the way, the generosity and commitment of many hundreds of volunteers would mirror that of its founders, who, along with their peers, gave a lifetime of service to blind people in every part of Ireland. Their era ushered in and was assumed into the era of the professional blind welfare worker, whether sighted or blind. These too have marked their place in NCBI’s eighty years of service to the blind of Ireland. (main text ends here).
1. Thomas Rhodes Armitage, M.D., (1824-1890) of Noan estate, Thurles, Co. Tipperary and 33 Cambridge Square, Hyde Park, London, father of Alice Stanley Armitage and founder of the B.F.B.A., forerunner of the Royal National Institute for the Blind.
2. William Henry Rochfort Wade M.A., Dublin solicitor and land agent (1864-1920) founder of The Hibernian Blind Association and Secretary, Dublin branch, National Institute for the Blind.
3. Alice Stanley Armitage (1869-1949) Founder of NCBI.
Some Founding Members
1. Barbara Knox (1904-1972) first and long-time Organising Secretary of NCBI.
2. Molly Rochfort Wade (1903-1999) long-time Secretary of the Wireless for the Blind committee.
3. Denis Barrett, Assistant Commissioner, Dublin Metropolitan Police, Ireland’s first Peace Commissioner. First Chairman of NCBI.
4. Dr. Thomas Gilman Moorhead, President, RCPI, Hon. Secretary NCBI, who chaired the preliminary meeting of NCBI.
5. Dr. James Sinclair Quin, M.D. , long-time Treasurer of NCBI.
6. Dr. Nanette (Nancy) Quin, Chairman, Ladies Visiting Committee and founder of Ireland’s first Charity Shop.
7. Olivia Hughes (ICA), founding member and long-time Chairman of the NCBI Prevention of Blindness Committee.
8. Dr. Euphan Maxwell (RVIE) member of NCBI’s Prevention of Blindness Committee, long-time supporter of NCBI.
9. J.P. Neary IAB, long- time blind welfare campaigner and initially an opponent of the founding of NCBI.
10. Renowned Irish composer and organist Dal (Daniel) McNulty, B. Mus., F.R.C.O., of Dublin, who was assisted and encouraged by NCBI. He was later a Vice-President of NCBI.
11. John Hehir, from Galway, a student from St. Joseph’s, Drumcondra, who successfully qualified as a Braille shorthand- typist at the Royal Normal College for the Blind (England). Alice Armitage paid John’s fees. He was later employed by Prescotts Cleaners and Dyers, Merrion, Dublin.
12. As part of its social encouragement programme, NCBI established a bamboo pipe band run by Olivia Hughes’ sister, Mrs. Haythorntwaite and Molly Rochfort Wade.
13. Employment: Mr. William Henderson, who ran a Kiosk at Donnycarney, Dublin. NCBI introduced this concept into Ireland in the 1950s and convinced Dublin Corporation of its efficacy in allowing blind people to become involved in business and enabling them to earn a living.
14. The Little Shop: Nanette Quin (centre) started this concept which was the first charity shop in Ireland. Apart from running shops from NCBI premises, she usually convinced some businessperson to give a shop rent-free for the duration of the Little Shop sale. This was in time to lead to NCBI’s Mrs. Quins nation-wide chain of Charity shops.
15. Brendan Walton, blind home worker turned home teacher instructs a client. Brendan was to become a vice-president of NCBI and to work for cohesion between the agencies for the blind, The IAB, the NLB and NCBI.
Timelines – NCBI: some notable dates in its evolution
Timeline 1 – 1778 — 1931 – The Institutions for the Blind of Ireland
1. Simpson’s Hospital for Blind and Gouty Men May, 1785 -.
2. The Belfast Harp Society1808-1839. Photo of a drawing of the Belfast Harp School in Cromac Street, Belfast.
3. The Dublin Harp Society 1809-1812. Photo of Patrick Quinn, Blind harp master of this school which was founded in The Bishop of Kildare’s (Protestant) house in Glasnevin village, later to become the first house of the Sisters of Mercy.
4. The Richmond Institution for the Industrious Blind (first house) 1810-1958. First house means its first address. This was in Lord Mountgarret’s Dublin townhouse in Great Britain Street, adjacent to the Rotunda Hospital complex, it later became the hospital’s property (it is ironic that 180 years later NCBI was later to buy its head office, The Drumcondra Hospital, from the Rotunda Hospital authorities ). Within a few short years of its founding, the Richmond was to move to No. 34 Sackville Street, Dublin, (later No. 41) where it remained until its closure in 1958.
5. The Molyneux Asylum for Blind Females 1815-. Shows a photo of the original building in Peter Street, Dublin. The Molyneux moved to purpose-built asylum with associated church in Leeson Park in 1862.
6. The Ulster Society (Jordanstown) 1831. Shows a copy of the front cover of Annual Report of the Society for 1896 which depicts the original building.
7. The Limerick Blind Asylum 1834-1962. Shows a photo of the origin asylum and associated chapel in Catherine Street, Limerick.
8. The Cork City and County Blind Asylum 1845-1979. Shows a photo of the remains of the original building on Infirmary Road, Cork.
9. The Magan Blind Asylum, Armagh 1845-1958. Shows a photo of the remains of the Magan Asylum on Cathedral Road, Armagh.
10. Miss Pettigrew’s Home Teaching & Lending Library 1857-1931. Shows a drawing of Miss Mary Pettigrew reading Braille at a table.
11. St. Joseph’s Male Blind Asylum Drumcondra 1858-. Shows a recent photo of the Asylum range of buildings.
12. St. Mary’s Female Blind Asylum 1858-2003. Shows a photo of Portobello House, adjacent to the Canal Harbour and the Rathmines Bridge. This was the second home of the Asylum, prior to its move to Merrion Castle. Its home for its first year was 41 Lr. Dominick Street, Dublin.
13. Belfast Workshops for the Blind 1870-1968. Shows a photo of the original location of the workshops on Royal Avenue, Belfast.
14. St. Raphael’s Blind Asylum Cork 1870-1919. Shows a photo of the Italianate Villa building.
15. National League of the Blind of Ireland (Aug.)1898. Shows a photo of the doorway of No. 35 Gardiner Place, Dublin. The League had previously met in Gloucester Street, Dublin; The Oddfellows Hall, 10 Upper Abbey Street, Dublin; and No. 41 Parnell Square, Dublin.
16. The Hibernian Blind Association 1914-1920. Shows a photo of No. 66 Lower Gardiner Street, across the street from the chapel in which Dr. William Moon gave a lecture on his writing system in 1862, (that building is now the Employment Exchange on Gardiner Street).
17. The Rochfort Wade Hostel for Blind Women 1920-1989. Shows a photo of the Varian Brush Factory on Talbot Street, Dublin. The Varian family were long associated with blind welfare in Cork and Dublin and it was here that Mary (May) Varian and her husband Alexander Henderson Varian founded the Rochfort Wade Hostel. The later took a house in Blackhall Street and took women from the North and South Dublin Union workhouses to live there.
Timeline 2 – NCBI: Some Notable Dates in its Evolution
1. The Irish Association of Blind Homeworkers (later IAB)1921-1986.
2. The Standard Hotel, 79-82 Harcourt Street, Dublin, where NCBI was founded on March 10th 1931.
3. NCBI’s first home teacher Eileen Carroll started in November 1931. Helen Macaulay NCBI’s first blind teacher takes a class in Tipperary. This photo shows Helen (later, Canty) giving a craft class to a group of six men at the Technical School, Clonmel, Co.Tipperary when she visited there for a fortnight before the appointment of the county home teacher in 1938 (The photo also features a very alert collie dog).
4. The Court House, 58 South William St., Dublin, first official address of NCBI. NCBI moved here in December, 1931 at the invitation of the Civics Institute (Miss L. Long, secretary of the Institute was a founding member of NCBI. Prior to this it had operated from No. 25 Grosvenor Road, Rathmines. William Street was also the place where Dublin Corporation paid out the Blind Pension and allowances under its blind welfare scheme.
5. First Wireless for the Blind sub-committee commenced in November 1932. The First NCBI radio was donated by Sir Patrick Dunns Hospital. This shows a photo of an old-fashioned radio.
6. NCBI’s second address, 7 St. Andrews St., Dublin. It moved here in December 1934.
7. Ireland’s first guidedog, Beryl, with her owner, Mr. O’Donnell. Mr. O’Donnell was an ex-serviceman was Beryl was provided by NCBI.
8. NCBI’s first Talking Book machine was acquired in 1936 and lent to 14 blind people. Top titles were: The Thirty-nine Steps and Pickwick Papers. This picture show a woman using one of the Nuffield machines.
9. NCBI’s third address, 11 Molesworth St., Dublin from December 1938. This picture shows a general shot of the street, the NCBI offices were on the site of the present Passport Office.
10. Employment: Blind workers on their allotments in Crumlin, Dublin in 1942. This was an arrangement made by NCBI with the Irish Allotment Holders. This shows six men working on the allotments (there is a small child in the background). This was a war-time attempt to employ men and produce food.
11. Employment: Miss Maureen Fox — one of 42 NCBI trained Telephonists (1960) — at Halroyd and Jones, Abbey Street, Dublin. Maureen is seen working at the switchboard.
12. NCBI’s fourth address, 10 Lr. Hatch St., Dublin from September, 1969. The photo shows the hall door of Armitage House with Mr. Shepherd an NCBI service user, who was a frequent caller.
13. NCBI Social Worker Frances O’Grady instructs a deaf-blind client.
14. NCBI’s Low-Vision Clinic which it initially ran with the Sisters of Charity at Merrion, Dublin. This shot shows a client being examined by an NCBI Ophthalmologist.
15. NCBI’s fifth and present address, the old Drumcondra Hospital, 45 Whitworth Road, Drumcondra, Dublin, from June 1988. This final shot in the timeline shows a general shot of the building and grounds.