- News stories
- Events calendar
- NCBI News Magazine
- NCBI News Autumn 2010
- NCBI News Autumn 2011
- NCBI News Autumn 2012
- NCBI News Spring 2011
- The Altered Images Exhibition
- European Blind Union launches the 2011 Braille Contest
- Féach takes to the Piste at St Johann
- Girls allowed @ IT Camp Dundalk
- Hilary's run 24@work
- Home care- what are your options?
- Irish Paralympics Success
- Make do and Mend
- Marathon Man
- NCBI Key Fundraising Events and Activities for 2011
- NCBI Roscommon Information Day and Lunch for Service Users
- News snippets
- Phil Gauran retires after 33 years of dedicated service
- Reading the Gift of Genius
- Ski the limit!
- The Founding of NCBI, 1931
- The Languages Project
- NCBI News Spring 2012
- NCBI News Spring 2013
- NCBI News Summer 2010
- NCBI News Summer 2012
- NCBI News Winter 2010
- NCBI News Winter 2011
- Public Policy and Campaigns
In this the 80th Anniversary year of the founding of NCBI, Frank Callery draws on the soon to be published History of NCBI (and of the History of The Blind in Irish Society in general), to outline in a series of articles the founding and early work of NCBI and to profile some of its founding members. The first question is: Why and how was it founded?
The founding of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) on March 10th 1931, or as it was initially known, The National Council for the Welfare of the Blind of Ireland, was a watershed in the annals of Irish social history. Not only was it the first voluntary body dealing with a disability group, founded in the Irish Free State, but it was to go on to set precedents in the provision of welfare and educational advancement for disabled and disadvantaged people in Ireland.
On October 18th 1929 Miss Barbara Knox wrote from Holton Lodge, North Cheriton, Templecombe, Somerset, to the secretary of The National Institute for the Blind, at Great Portland Street, London. She asked: ‘I wonder if you have ever thought of re-starting your branch of the National Institute in the Irish Free State. It is a good many years since I remember your office in Westmoreland Street, Dublin. Would you be prepared to re-open your branch if a suitable person be found to undertake the work? There are several, like myself, who feel that much more could be done for the Irish blind than is being done at present; there are such numerous little societies and institutions which need something like the national institute, with its up to-date methods and wide facilities and numerous departments, to bring them together. I am myself a native of Ireland and should like to see the Irish blind as well cared for as those in England. I should be glad if your committee would give this letter their consideration’.
Barbara was right. There were 13 institutions involved in blind welfare then 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 (1811, 1841); 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 (1871); The Cliftonville Home for the Blind (Mrs. Pim’s — 1886); The National League of the Blind of Ireland (1889), The Irish Association for the Blind (1921), The Rochfort Wade Hostel for Blind Women, nondenominational (1921).
Mary Mayne (Molly) Rochfort Wade, the daughter of William Rochfort Wade became the close friend of Barbara Knox. They lived a frugal existence together all their lives, devoting themselves to the welfare of the blind of Ireland. Barbara Knox was 25 when she wrote her letter to the N.I.B. Both she and Molly were anxious to see a revival of the work William Rochfort Wade had undertaken on behalf of the blind in Ireland. With the passage of time and the small intervening fact of Irish Independence, the N.I.B. had, in a sense, forgotten about Ireland. It was perhaps propitious that the recipient of the letter was the then new General-Secretary of the N.I.B., Waldo McGillicuddy Eagar, C.B.E., second son of Rev. Alexander R. McEagar, D.D., T.C.D., latterly Rector of Gowran, Cornwall. McG. Eagar lost no time in responding to Barbara Knox’s letter. On October 21st 1929 he told her: ‘I am writing immediately to acknowledge your letter of 18th October, which will require very careful thought. 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. Within three days McG. Eagar had discussed Barbara’s request with Captain Sir Beachcroft- Towse, V.C., Chairman of the N.I.B. Both men agreed that “While there is undoubtedly scope and need for a National Body for the Blind of Ireland to fill gaps and to co-ordinate, it is excessively difficult for the British N.I.B. to propose itself as the right body in the Free State”. He 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.
On November 5th having met Barbara Knox and Molly Rochfort Wade McG. Eager wrote a report of the meeting for the N.I.B. record. “Both these ladies are quite young (Molly was 26) 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 have 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”.
The Armitage Connection
McG. Eagar sought to advance the “Irish” cause by writing to Alice Stanley Armitage at her correspondence address at the Ladies National Club, 11 Cromwell Road, London S.W.7. Unknown to McG. Eagar, Alice Armitage was ‘already working over the field’ and had been recently in touch with affairs of the blind in Ireland, as she had previously with those of India and Egypt. She sent on a parcel of notes to McG. Eagar who in turn sent them on to Barbara at Bonnettstown Hall, Kilkenny, with the covering letter: ‘It occurred to me the other day that Miss Armitage, the daughter of the famous founder of this Institute, might be able to help you. I attach her reply as it stands’. Alice Armitage had an interview with Barbara Knox at her brother’s estate at Noan, Co. Tipperary in January 1930. She ‘got the names of some influential people in Dublin likely to be interested in the blind and prepared a statement which she asked McG. Eagar to check and amend and have it printed so that she might distribute it. However, N.I.B. had a secondary purpose in becoming involved with the blind of the Free State. From Alice Armitage’s enquiries it became known that the Richmond Institution was threatened with closure and N.I.B. could not countenance that. While working with Alice Armitage and her ‘Committee’ it also embarked on a rescue mission for the Richmond.
Alice Armitage was keen to expand the work for the blind which had been initiated in a small way in South Tipperary. Keenly aware of the sectarianism which existed and aware also of the anti-British feelings among many people in Ireland, she adopted a policy of softly, softly; a stance which NCBI was to maintain and which was to inform its policies of recruitment and client services for many years. In order to build acceptance, Alice Armitage needed to establish some ground work and link the work intended by the new ‘Committee’ to what had been acceptable in 1920. She therefore laid claim to the work of the Irish Advisory Committe on the Blind which had emanated from the 1917 Report of The Department Committee on the Welfare of the Blind, following which the Advisory Committees on the Blind for England (and Wales), Scotland, and Ireland were set up. In establishing this “continuum” she was conscious of the opposition which was building among some of the organised blind in Dublin, particularly from J.P. Neary and the Irish Association for the Blind which saw a “Committee” so closely linked to the N.I.B., as a threat to its ‘manor’.
McG. Eagar visited Dublin on Saturday January 19th 1931 for a few days. He had two purposes. One, to meet with the Richmond and set the N.I.B. plan before its committee. The second was to attend at Alice Armitage’s request, a ‘private’ meeting which she had called at the Standard Hotel for 5.15 pm. on Tuesday January 20th 1931. They spent time going over the address Alice had prepared for the meeting and in assessing those who had been invited. Among these was her influential ‘Roman Catholic’ considered so necessary to the project. Prior to the meeting, McG. Eagar had had interviews with W. J. Gilligan of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Miss Long of the Civics Institute. Those invited to the meeting were: Dr. Thomas Gilman Moorhead; Mr. Gilligan and Mr Lennan of the St. Vincent de Paul; Mr. Garvey; Mrs. Olivia Hughes, Co. Tipperary and of the 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 (DMP); Mr. Wrench a blind school master from Wicklow, Miss Emily Eacott; and Mr. W. McG. Eagar. No representatives of the then existing institutions for the blind were invited. Nor were the representatives of the Irish Association for the Blind nor the National League of the Blind. Alice Armitage welcomed those who attended and read letters from Barbara Knox, Molly Rochfort Wade and Dr. James Quin. She suggested that the meeting should be regarded as ‘private’. She then delivered her prepared script which had been carefully compiled following consultations with Dr. James Quin, Denis Barrett. Mr. McG. Eagar and others and which annunciated the general principals on which she thought help might be given to the blind of Ireland.
My Father’s Work
‘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. I believe Dr. Stevenson of the Local Government Board has done his best to secure generous treatment for them. 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 or 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’.
Alice then went on to outline her case, setting forth her aims for the ‘committee’, testing the waters of acceptance with questions which undoubtedly needed answering in the treatment of the blind in Irish Society.
‘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. The 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?
‘On receiving the report of St. Vincent de Paul on the existing conditions, the question of training home teachers and visitors would arise and that of providing for the care of the blind in those districts where St. Vincent de Paul has no branches. Mrs. Hughes (who is here today) in County Tipperary and Miss Knox in Kilkenny, have already got in touch with their local blind people, with excellent results. As I am not a resident in Ireland I hope that this much needed work of caring for the blind will be taken up by the Irish themselves. I should suggest that a central committee or people interested in the blind be nominated (including representatives of the different institutions and Societies) with a proper Constitution and Bye-laws. If it is decided to have this Committee perhaps some of those present would undertake to consider the details. I should be pleased to arrange for further meetings or personal interviews until the work is started”.
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”. Dr. Moorhead did not agree with Alice Armitage’s decision to regard the meeting as private. He said this “is unwelcome to me when publicity is wanted”.
Alice Armitage, as she would prove at subsequent meetings was well aware of the decorum and formality needed at meetings but she was also ably equipped to cut to the chase and would prove to be an adept back-room operator when need arose. In casting about for her “influential Roman Catholic” she had been put in touch with Denis Barrett. He had served with Nanette Quin’s father Thomas Duke Norris and was well know in the ex- RIC and ‘county set’ circle. On his retirement from his position in the DMP, he was made Ireland’s first Peace Commissioner. Her invitation to him was to prove propitious; he was to prove a stalwart support to her at the first meeting of The NCWBI at 5.00 p.m. at the Standard Hotel, 79-82 Harcourt Street, Dublin, on March 10th 1931 and for many years to come.
To be continued.