A young woman wearing a blue dress is standing by a wall with concrete balustrades on a promenade and is admiring the seaside on a sunny day

Paul Hopkins: ‘Look after your children, they are most precious’

My father’s sister Maeve was a mere slip of a young woman when she took the boat to an England where ‘no Irish need apply’ and eventually found a job in the British civil service and a flat in Chiswick. She came home every Christmas to my grandmother’s house and my family would visit on Stephen’s Day.

I liked her. Maeve spoke in a clipped accent and always gave us expensive presents. She never married, had no friends in London that she spoke of, and across the water was known as Mary, the name on her birth cert and also my grandmother’s name.

Every Christmas driving home my father would say to my mother: “Poor Maeve, my heart goes out to her, going to London on her own all those years ago.”

When she retired Maeve came home for good, and bought a pokey council house in a not very desireable area. Now 65, she seemed hardened and embittered by life. She only spoke when necessary.

By then I was married with young children and every other Christmas I would invite Maeve to come stay with us. Her tradition of giving lavish gifts continued, though to look at her you would think she hadn’t a penny to her name. She took no pride in herself, was dowdy and unfashionable.

She seldom interacted with my children, but I do remember her more than once saying to me: “Look after your children, Paul. They are the most precious thing you can have.” Her tone struck me as odd.

My grandmother was many years dead and when her youngest daughter Toni died at only 54, eventually her home was sold but one day before that there was a knock on the door.

A balding, middle-aged man with an English accent stood there and said: “Forgive my intrusion, but does Mary Hopkins live here?”

“I’m sorry,” said a family member, “but Mary Hopkins died some years ago.”

The day we buried Maeve, in her 80s, my brother said to me: “I often wonder if that man that day was actually looking for Maeve. She was after all known over there as Mary.”

“That’s interesting,” I mused, “who do you think he was?”

My brother said matter-of-factly: “Well our mother always maintained that Maeve had gone to London to have a baby and give it up for adoption. A family secret, you might say. Maybe that was her son that day looking for her but of course he asked for Mary and we confused it with our grandmother.”

I can see my grandmother banishing her pregnant, unmarried daughter from the house. The hussey. It was a different back then. Families failed their daughters. Society failed them.

When I was 16, there was the Gang of Five, four boys and ‘Burns’ who looked like a young Audrey Hepburn. One day Burns said she wanted us to meet a girl she had just met. (I cannot recall the circumstance of their meeting)

Anna was tall and svelt, and as pretty as a picture; shy and unassuming. She was 16 and had been ‘raised’ in the Sacred Heart Home. We never asked her the ‘why or wherefor’ of her circumstance. Such inquiring was not in our thought process back then.

We five and her used to meet every Sunday afternoon, her only free time. We would walk the expanding suburban landscape of north Dublin, laugh and flirt and talk of Steinbeck and Yeats and Dylan and Phil Lynott.

Anna always had to be back at the orphanage by six to “help the nuns with the babies and sort out the washing of the nappies”. I remember when this shy but lovely girl told us this that I noticed how raw her hands were.

One Sunday she failed to show. Perhaps, she’s busy we thought. We rendezvoused for two more Sundays and then, typical teenagers, gave up on her.

To this day, I wonder often what became of her, what kind of life did Anna have. Did she find love? Happiness?s I write, nearly 4,000 children are homeless, 10% of all our children live below the poverty line, many young pupils get their schooling — when they do — in the 1,600 unsuitable prefab buildings throughout the country and the cost of childcare continues to escalate.

I don't see any moral responsibility forthcoming when it comes to this dreadful inequity. Happening now. It seems it is still too easy to overlook, to ignore, our children. To say we didn’t know…

Read Paul Hopkins' column every Tuesday in the Meath Chronicle print edition.

More from this Topic