It was with great sadness that members of Skibbereen & District Historical Society learned of the death on 18 October 2023 of Alfie O’Mahony.
When the Skibbereen Society was formed in 2003, Alfie was a very active member. He delivered talks on various subjects to members, and he contributed a number of articles to the Society’s annual Journal over the years.
Alife died at his home at the Flaxmills, Skibbereen, full of years and of contentment. Just shy of his 92nd birthday, Alfie had a long life and he enjoyed robust good health until practically the end.
Alfie did not have a very auspicious start in life. He was born in Dublin on 12 November 1931. In 1933, when just an infant, he was admitted to an orphanage in Kilkenny. He was a resident there from 1933 until 1941. Alfie had just turned 10 years of age when he was sent from the orphanage in Kilkenny to the Industrial School in Baltimore, arriving there on 8 December 1941. All his life Alfie could recall the night he arrived in Baltimore.
From December 1941 until 1947 he was a resident at Baltimore Industrial School. How the Baltimore Fisheries School, which was opened in 1887, became the ‘industrial school’ is a long story. The original Fisheries School was a wonderful initiative, spearheaded for the most part by Fr Charles Davis and funded largely by the altruistic Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, an English heiress. The transition of the fisheries school into an ‘industrial school’ was a gross betrayal of those who founded it. How such noble altruism was allowed to deteriorate to such depravity is scarcely credible.
The Industrial School in Baltimore received a shameful notoriety for the way children in its care were treated. The Child Abuse Commission, set up by the government in 1999, uncovered evidence of appalling sexual abuse, severe physical punishment, flagrant neglect, and near starvation of residents of the Baltimore school. In fact, when Justice Mary Laffoy’s final interim 434-page report was published in 2004, it mentioned the analysis of material from 55 industrial and reformatory schools, but it described in vivid detail just one named institution, that being the Baltimore Industrial School.
Though Alfie wrote about the Laffoy Report, and he spoke publicly about it on many occasions, he did not give evidence before the Commission and did not seek compensation through it. He did, however, support and encourage his contemporaries who did give evidence. In 2006 Alfie published Reminiscences of life in Baltimore Industrial School, a series of essays which he described as ‘resembling a patchwork quilt due to the different issues being linked by association.’ Alfie wrote this book not for any commercial or personal gain; this was a personal narrative written for posterity and it is an account that is true to himself and the story of his life.
Alfie was extraordinary in his magnanimity. Bitterness or recrimination were not in his make-up. He was above all that. He escaped his childhood. Even in later life, Alife would recall small acts of kindness that some of his teachers in Baltimore showed him on occasions. He remembered the joy of listening to the school band. He spoke fondly of his trips to the mobile cinema that occasionally visited Baltimore. He had a gift of remembering the goodness he encountered amid the scandalous depravity of the institution.
In 1947 Alife went to work and live with the O’Donovan family (Denny Jer’s) in Drominidy, Drimoleague, and this was the beginning of a new life for him. He worked on the farm in Drominidy for four years where he became one of the family. It was the first time he knew stability and support in his life. Several generations of the O’Donovan family of Drominidy were to become firm friends of Alfie’s, an important connection that ran through his life from 1947.
In 1952 he emigrated to England where he worked hard and he accomplished a great deal, professionally and socially. Alfie never allowed the trauma and deprivation of his early years to hold him back. He went on to have an extraordinary life, lived to the full. He was employed for a time as a security officer at Independent Television and then for many years as a security officer at Harrods. For nine years he attended evening classes at various educational institutions in England. This exposure to education broadened his mind and introduced him to subjects that he was to study throughout his life.
He availed of every opportunity he could to study and deepen his knowledge. Alife was a man of considerable learning and an accomplished scholar, and he had a great appreciation of the many and varied subjects that inspired him. He could hold his own in any company on any number of topics, including history, literature, theology, philosophy, music, and other subjects.
Having worked and lived in England for 45 years, Alfie returned to Ireland to live in Skibbereen in 1997. Despite the years Alfie spent in the confines of the callous and inhumane Baltimore Industrial School, he developed a great love for Baltimore itself. This was more than just a bit of a grá for the place, Baltimore was his spiritual home.
Alfie often told me that he would rather burn than rust. He certainly didn’t rust away! For the last 26 years Alfie became a valued and respected member of the community in west Cork. When Skibbereen & District Historical Society was founded in 2003 he was an enthusiastic member and contributed substantially to the activities of the Society. He was a prolific writer and as well as publishing a number of books, he wrote many articles of historical interest for the Southern Star.
While in England, Alfie played squash at a very high level and was also a very good tennis player. In Skibbereen he played tennis right up to his mid-80s and also coached tennis until quite recently. Alife was good company, and he enjoyed the company of others. Mind you, you would not want to be in a hurry if you called to see Alfie. He could talk for Ireland!
In just the last few years, Alfie was reunited with some of his family members. This discovery brought unconfined joy and fulfilment to Alfie. It completed him!
Alfie was buried at Tullagh Cemetery, Baltimore, on Saturday 21 October, following Requiem Mass at the Sacred Heart Church, Rath. We know that Alife will rest easy in that ancient burial ground overlooking Carbery’s hundred isles.
The summer sun is falling soft on Carbery’s hundred isles,
The summer sun is gleaming still through Gabriel’s rough defiles.
Old Inisherkin’s crumbling fane looks like a moulting bird,
And in a calm and sleepy swell the ocean tide is heard.
The hookers lie upon the beach; the children cease their play,
The gossips leave the little inn, the households kneel to pray.
And full of love and peace and rest, its daily labour o’er;
Upon that cosy creek, there lay the town of Baltimore.