An elderly Irish man with no family who spent decades fighting homelessness and mental illness in London will receive a special burial back in Ireland next month.
Joseph Tuohy, 87, originally from Toomevara in Co Tipperary, passed away this summer after spending the majority of his life in the UK.
Hailed as a “fine, sensitive, intelligent man” by Brian Boylan, a homeless outreach worker who befriended him some years ago after they met in a hostel, Joseph is one of the oft-forgotten Irish emigrants who “fell on hard times” and remain “hidden in the community”.
Boylan, who runs the St Gabriel’s Homeless Centre in London, was even made Joseph’s next of kin by Islington Council when the elderly man passed away. He’d visit him several times a week, helping to stave off Joseph’s loneliness.
“You won’t find [Irish homeless people] in the homeless persons unit anymore. They’ve mostly been housed – you’ll only find a few Irish people on the streets,” Boylan, formerly a missionary priest, told the Irish World.
“But the hidden pain of people like Joe; they don’t advertise it. It was only because we became friends that he opened up and told me his entire story. I meet other people and I see similar pain.”
Margaret Brown, a volunteer at St Joseph’s Pastoral Centre in Dublin which raises money for the Friends of the Forgotten Irish Emigrants every St Patrick’s Day, received a letter from Boylan revealing his desire to bring Joseph home.
She, and others, had recently erected a commemorative plaque on Carlisle Pier, Dun Laoghaire, honouring the location where thousands of emigrants left to find work in England. They planned Joseph’s service, which Boylan was overwhelmed by.
Boylan himself emigrated to London in the 1980s from a small village in Cavan called Kilnaleck. He has encountered estranged homeless Irish people down the years, individuals mired in pain and hopelessness. But Joseph’s story, he said, is a “particularly sad one.”
Joseph was taken from his unmarried mother, who became pregnant with him while in New York, and sent to live in orphanages and reformatories from the age of 5.
Before that, she had lovingly looked after him, with the pair sharing a “powerfully” strong bond. She’d stay busy, cooking for local farmers who were busy during the harvest months. Tuohy told Boylan, in conversations spanning years, about how happy he was at this time.
“She protected him. She shielded him from disapproving glances,” Boylan said. “She took the shame as an unmarried mother, and he had no inkling about this until later in life. She was a loving mother and he was an extremely happy infant.”
During quieter periods, when his mother was resting, Tuohy recalled cuddling her and feeling “secure and loved and belonging and valued” in her arms. He felt as though he mattered.
But one day while Joseph was playing with boys from the local area, he slipped and burnt his leg against an open fire. “That was the excuse the authorities were looking for,” Boylan said.
Shortly thereafter, she was taken to court; the decision was subsequently made to place Joseph in an orphanage.
“[Joseph] remembered standing outside the courthouse. His mother had bought him lemonade and biscuits. And then he was distracted by noise from up the street,” Boylan said. “When he looked back, his mother was gone, and a staff member from the orphanage took him away in a black car.”
Joseph, barely five years old, cried for two days straight, every waking minute, pleading for his mother. With no father or family, he was alone.
His mother then spent the rest of her days institutionalised in a Magdalene Laundry.
As a child, he was known for his erudition: A lay teacher in the school he attended – St. Joseph’s Industrial School in Clonmel – asked the Brothers if he could sit the Post Office examination.
Joseph recounted stories to Boylan about his days as a tailor in the school. Until he was 16, he made – and repaired – clothes for other boys.
After he finished here, a residential institution that the 2009 Ryan Report recognised as a place of “systematic physical and sexual abuse of children, Joseph moved to Waterford.
He got a job as a tailor, and quit fairly soon after, citing mistreatment. One day, he read about a job posting in London with the Irish Press, and decided to take the boat after his application was successful.
“He tried to be a normal Irish emigrant: Worked hard; got married,” Boylan said, noting how his marriage was eventually annulled by his wife.
According to Boylan, this was the turning point in his life, leading Joseph directly to him in unfortunate circumstances.
“His life fell apart after that. I met him in a hostel for homeless people,” Boylan said. “He told me his life story and about how he wished he had never been born.”
In the ‘50s or ‘60s, Boylan added, Joseph was picked by the Metropolitan Police, imprisoned for “being a vagrant”. “He had to be hospitalised. He had breakdowns and was delusional.”
“Whatever pain has inflicted on these sorts of individuals – heartbreak, loneliness,” Boylan continued. “There are some Irish people like that [in London].”
Boylan, who is now retired, knows the homeless “scene” in London, adding that he occasionally goes to parks, meets people there, talks to them and offers them whatever help he can.
St. Gabriels Church, in north London, gave Boylan a room some years ago, where there are daily tea and breakfasts for people who are hungry or homeless. “People come in to feel comfortable and to feel respected,” Boylan said. “They can meet people and be supported here.”
Despite his decades of selfless volunteerism, Boylan demurs about the importance of his role, explaining the London Galway Association are what make the work possible.
They were the group who initially asked him to assist vulnerable members of the Irish community. They also raise about £5,000 a year for his work.
Even though Boylan believes that the majority of Irish emigrants in the UK are “either well integrated or well adjusted”, there is the “odd individual [who isn’t]. The Galway Association asked me to visit some of these people.”
“Some of the [Galway Association] members are highly successful, but they don’t forget their fellow Irishmen and Irishwomen who have not been as fortunate for one reason or another,” Boylan added.
Last month, Joseph died, peacefully, in a nursing home in Islington, north London, with his remains cremated.
Boylan had intended on scattering the elderly man’s ashes in the sea or a graveyard somewhere in Ireland prior to making contact with Margaret Brown. But, Boylan laughs, these “dyed in the wool Catholics took all the whole thing”, organising a full funeral service.
“When the people here in the nursing home asked Joe what funeral arrangements he’d like he does depart, he said, ‘Put me in black [rubbish] bag and bury me in Brian’s back garden’,” Boylan recalled, speaking from a nursing home where he was about to meet three elderly Irish people.
“And I told him I’d be privileged to have him buried there but that the authorities wouldn’t agree to that, so he settled for a funeral with no trimmings; no mass; no flowers; no candles; no incense; no holy water; nothing. And I was the only one there. I walked away afterwards with my thoughts about Joe and the suffering some human beings go through.”
A funeral mass will be held for Joseph at 10am on 27 September at St Joseph’s Church in Glasthule, Co Dublin, before his ashes are brought to Tipperary and laid to rest in consecrated ground.