The recently published report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has shocked Ireland with the testimonies of hundreds of women who were victims of an unspeakably callous and judgmental society. Yet, it is not really surprising; the story of Ireland’s mother and baby homes has been told by several brave individuals over the years, including the Limerick woman Philomena Lee, whose son Anthony was born in Tipperary at Sean Ross Abbey, where he lived with his mother for more than three years before he was taken away and given to an American couple.
Philomena Lee’s search for her son featured in the best-selling book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and the subsequent film Philomena. Since then she has campaigned for justice for the survivors of the homes – the mothers and their children. More recently, she embarked on a different kind of search, commissioning Ancestor Network to find out more about her own family’s ancestry.
Philomena Lee has spoken about how the death of her mother when she was just six years old fractured her family and shaped her future. Along with her sisters, she was sent to live in a convent school where she remained for 12 years. Before the introduction of any state-funded support for vulnerable Irish families, the most predictably life-changing event that could happen to a child was the loss of a parent. In such cases, children frequently ended up in orphanages or industrial homes. The records show that not just Philomena but her own mother, father and a grandfather suffered the early loss of a parent and struggled to overcome the trauma. Their lives – like many Irish lives at the time – were difficult and demanded extraordinary resilience.
For the most part, Philomena Lee’s family roots are in County Limerick, in Newcastle West and the surrounding area, but the Lee family line comes from County Sligo, near Ballygawley.
Philomena Lee’s great-great grandfather, a farmer named James Lee, held land in Rusheen townland, Ballysumaghan parish, Co Sligo, according to the 1824 Tithe Applotment book for that area. In 1832 James Lee’s son, Ralph, joined the RIC. His Royal Irish Constabulary record states that he was aged 20, 5’10”, a native of Co Sligo and a Protestant. He was stationed first in Co Galway, then in Co Clare, Limerick City and finally Co Limerick. He retired in June 1861 having served for 28 years and six months, and received a pension of £34.
In 1861, shortly after he left the police service, Ralph Lee married Ellen Broder in Newcastle, now more commonly known as Newcastle West. They were married in the Catholic Church, but also in a civil ceremony, which was not uncommon in the case of a mixed marriage. (The Lee family seems to have become Catholic from this point on, although Ralph Lee’s grave is in the Church of Ireland cemetery in Newcastle West.)
The civil marriage record confirms that Ralph, the RIC man, was the son of James Lee, a farmer. Ellen was the daughter of Patrick Broder, a servant. The civil marriage service took place in the Registrar’s office. It was a first marriage for both of them. Ralph was 48, a ‘pensioner of police’. At 26, Ellen Broder was 22 years younger than her husband. There is no occupation listed for her in the marriage certificate and she signed the register with ‘her mark’, indicating illiteracy. However, as later events proved, she was clearly a resourceful woman.
The children of Ralph Lee and Ellen Broder were: James (1862), Ralph (born in 1863 but died in infancy), Patrick (1865), another Ralph (1867), and John (1869). John was born 6 months after his father’s sudden death from heart disease in 1868. His pregnant widow, Ellen, had three sons under the age of 6. While it is probable that she retained some of his RIC pension, she also supported her family through midwifery. Her eldest son James joined the RIC; Ralph – Philomena Lee’s grandfather – became a tailor.
Ellen (Broder) Lee died in 1883 in Newcastle West when her youngest child was 14. Her death certificate described her as a 53-year-old widow and midwife. In 1889, her son Ralph – named after his father – married 20-year-old Mary Delee, a servant and daughter of a labourer. They had seven children, the youngest being Philomena Lee’s father Patrick, born in 1902.
In the 1901 census Ralph Lee, a 35-year-old tailor, was living with his wife Mary, aged 30, and their five children; Ralph (10), James (8), John (5), Ellen (3), Sarah (0). All members of the family were born in County Limerick. They were living in ‘Churchtown Town’, Newcastle, in a ‘2nd class’ house which had two rooms, a ‘slate, iron or tile roof’, and two windows to the front. Another daughter, 10-year-old Mary, was living with her elderly cousins James and Julia Cotter, also in Churchtown Town, Newcastle.
Catastrophe struck the family when Mary (Delee) Lee, died in December 1902, aged 36, from ‘phthisis’ (tuberculosis). Her son Patrick Joseph Lee was only 11 months old.
The 1911 census tells the story of a family struggling after the death of a young mother. Their financial circumstances had become more precarious. Their home, still in Churchtown, was now a two roomed ‘3rd class’ dwelling with a roof of ‘thatch, wood or other perishable material’. Living with the widowed tailor Ralph Lee were sons James (16), also a tailor, and Patrick (10), who was Philomena Lee’s father. Ralph’s 21-year-old daughter Mary, described as not married, was also in the family home with her own son, John, aged 1. On the census form Ralph Lee recorded that he was married for 22 years, had 7 children, 6 of whom were alive. Three children were living at home and three were elsewhere.
Eldest son Ralph, in 1911, was in the home of the O’Shea family in Newcastle, where he was a servant. John Lee was in St Joseph’s Industrial School in Limerick. A ‘Lena’ Lee was found in St Vincent’s Industrial School run by the Sisters of Mercy in Limerick. This was probably Ellen Lee. A death record was found for a 6-year-old Sarah Lee who died in 1907 in Mount St Vincent’s Orphanage, Limerick. It is likely that after the death of his wife, Ralph Lee held on to some of his children but others were sent to orphanages or into service. Tragically, supports for vulnerable families had not improved when – in the next generation – Philomena Lee’s own mother died, leaving a young family behind.
According to civil records, Ralph Lee (the tailor) died in Newcastle workhouse in 1917, aged 50, of ‘jaw bone cancer’. (At this stage the workhouse hospital would have treated the less well off in the wider community. Newcastle’s workhouse eventually became St Ita’s hospital.)
As to Mary Delee Lee, she born in 1868 in Knocktosh near Newcastle West, County Limerick. She was one of at least five children born to Ellen Riordan and her husband John Delee, a labourer. Throughout their lives this couple appear in records under a variety of surname spellings – Deely, Deeley, Delee and De Lee. Land and church records would suggest that Ellen Riordan was the daughter of Patrick Riordan of Tulligoline North, Monagay which is between Abbeyfeale and Newcastle West.
Turning to Philomena Lee’s maternal line, her mother was Anne Ahern, from Rathkeale, County Limerick. The Aherns were in the Rathkeale area from the beginning of the 19th century and probably earlier. Philomena’s great grandparents James Ahern and Anne Danaher were married in Rathkeale in 1855. On the parish marriage record Anne Danaher’s address was Rathnasare, James Ahern’s address was given as Mount Brown. Rathnasare, in the parish of Nantinan, is the townland just beside Mount Brown. Later documents describe James Ahern as a labourer. The couple had at least least nine children born between 1857 and 1877, in either Rathnasare or Castlematrix. Both Mount Brown and Castlematrix were residences for the Brown family who were significant landowners in Rathkeale. Possibly James Ahern was employed on the estates of the Brown family.
Philomena Lee’s grandfather Thomas Ahern – son of James Ahern and Anne Danaher – was born in 1873 in Castlematrix, County Limerick. In 1900 he married Mary Crosby in the Catholic church in Rathkeale. It was a first marriage for both, and both were of full age. He was a labourer. She was a servant; her father, also a labourer, was Patrick Crosby.
Mary Crosby’s parents were Patrick Crosby and Johanna Prendeville. When they married in 1870 they were both described as servants living in Glenquin, Killeedy parish, which is between Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale. Their fathers – James Crosby and Robert (or Richard) Prendeville – were both labourers. Glenquin is a townland south of Newcastle West but it is also a barony which takes in a large triangular area from Newcastle West to Dromcolliher and Abbeyfeale. The main landlord here was the Earl of Devon and quite possible Patrick Crosby and Johanna Prendeville were servants working on the Devon estate.
Patrick Crosby and Johanna Prendeville had at least seven children, including Philomena Lee’s grandmother Mary, born in 1876 in Glenmore, just south of Newcastle West. By the time of the 1901 census, most of the Crosby children had left home. Patrick Crosby, described as a 57-year-old labourer, was living with his 53-year-old wife Johanna and their daughter Lizzie aged 14. The family home was still Glenmore, a basic 3rd class house with walls of ‘mud, wood, or other perishable’ material, a thatched roof and two windows to the front. In the 1911 census eight-year-old Annie Ahern (Philomena Lee’s mother) was with her grandfather Patrick Crosby in the same or a very similar home in Glenmore. Here, Patrick Crosby’s age is given as 74. (A big jump in age between the 1901 and 1911 censuses was not unusual – the old age pension had been introduced in 1908 and lots of people ‘tweeked’ their age to qualify.) There is no sign of Johanna (Prendeville) Crosby in the 1911 census, but she died in 1933 in the home of her granddaughter Annie (Ahern) Lee in Maiden Street, Newcastle.
In the 1901 census Thomas and Mary (Crosby) Ahern were living in a cottage in Church Street, Newcastle: ‘3rd class house’, two rooms, one window to the front, thatched roof. Thomas was listed as 26 years old, a labourer, could not read, born in County Limerick. His wife Mary, aged 21, could read and write, and was also born in County Limerick. Their daughter Mary was two months old.
The next year, when Philomena Lee’s mother Anne Ahern was born, the family was living in Well Lane. Birth records were found for the following children of Thomas Ahern and Mary Crosby: Mary (1901), Anne (1902), Johanna (born and died in 1902), James (1905), Denis (1906), Catherine (1908), John (1910) and another Johanna (1912). By 1908, when Catherine was born, the family address was Boherbuoy, also in Rathkeale.
Both Thomas Ahern and his wife Mary (Crosby) Ahern died young from tuberculosis. Mary (35) died in 1913; Thomas (40) died two years later, when his children were aged between 14 and 3. How the children managed is not clear.
Patrick Lee and Annie Ahern – the parents of Philomena Lee – married in 1926 in the Catholic Church in Newcastle West. The marriage certificate shows his full name was Patrick Joseph Lee, a labourer living in Maiden Street, Newcastle. She was living in Church Street and no occupation was given. The ceremony was performed by Rev Patrick Lee, but no direct family connection to this cleric was found.
Like her parents before her, Anne (Ahern) Lee died of tuberculosis, leaving a young family behind. For much of the 20th century in Ireland, tuberculosis was a scourge that claimed many thousands of lives. Bereaved families suffered without much in the way of support from the state. It’s a story of harsh times that is sadly familiar to researchers and Irish family historians. Hopefully, it is now part of the past.
Civil births, deaths and marriage certificates from the General Register Office sources on www.irishgenealogy.ie; www.findmypast.ie; www.rootsireland.ie; www.familysearch.org and at the GRO, Werburg Street, Dublin 2.
1901 and 1911 census, www.census.nationalarchives.ie
Tithe applotment records, Field & House Books, www.genealogy.nationalarchives.ie
Records of the Royal Irish Constabulary, www.findmypast.ie
Jim Herlihy, Royal Irish Costabulary, a short history and genealogical guide, 2016.
Irish Newspaper Archive, www.irishnewsarchive.ie
Patricia Brennan, MA, is a journalist and editor with more than 35 years experience in national print and broadcast media. Several years ago she turned her investigative skills to genealogy. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, she came to Ireland to study at University College Dublin where she was awarded a MA in Anglo-Irish Studies. She also holds a Certificate in Genealogy from UCD, and Dublin’s Lord Mayor’s Certificate in Local Studies. She is the co-author of This Great Little Nation, An A to Z of Irish Scandals, and has contributed chapters to two recent books on journalism, The Sunday Papers (2018) and Periodicals and Journalism Vol 2 (due out in 2021).
Please note: The research contained within this blog post and publication of same, has been approved by Philomena Lee and her family.