Irish Nun Margaret Aylward: The Case of a Missing Child
Margaret Aylward Found Guilty
Margaret Aylward spent six months in the Grangegorman Prison in Dublin Ireland. She was the founder and Mother Superior of the Irish Sisters of the Holy Faith. The Irish Catholic nun was accused of kidnapping a small child. She was innocent of that charge but was convicted of Contempt of Court.
Margaret Aylward an Irish Nun
She was born into a wealthy Catholic family in Waterford in 1810. She was one of ten children. Both her aunts and mother were also independently wealthy too. On leaving school, she became a volunteer teacher in a school for poor girls in Waterford. After about four years there she and her sister Catherine went to Dublin to join the Sisters of Charity at the Stanhope Street Convent.
Kings Inn Street School in Dublin
As a Novice she taught in Kings Inn Street School. But after a while she left the Convent and returned to Waterford where she joined another Order, the Ursuline nuns. But again she could not settle into the restrictions that religious life entailed and lasted only two months. In 1848 she returned to Dublin. Three years later she had founded her own branch of the Ladies of Charity of St Vincent De Paul.
Dublin at that time was still suffering the effects of the long famine. Margaret concentrated on the slums north of the Liffey. The Ladies of Charity, six in total, supported the families with food, clothes and medicines.
The British government was active in trying to stamp out the Irish language and the Catholic faith in Ireland. A few years earlier it was against the law for Catholics to practice their religion or teach their own children.
They had set up schools where children were picked up off the streets and kept there. They were only to speak English and taught the Protestant Religion. They were punished if they spoke their own Irish language. These 'Charter Schools' had been in existence for over a hundred years
Babies were Fostered
By the time Margaret Aylward came to Dublin the Irish Church Missions were active on the streets. They went around the slums of Dublin bribing the families. They were a Protestant Organisation who offered food and clothing in return for the hungry Catholics to listen to bible readings of the Protestant faith.
The State Schools
The ladies of the I.C.M. persuaded the parents of desperately hungry children to allow them to attend. They did this by providing a meal for each child. The children once in these schools were taught that Protestism was the only true religion.
Margaret Aylward’s Ladies of Charity continued to visit and give help to the poor. She opened St Brigid's Orphanage in 1857. Margaret believed that the children would benefit from being fostered to Irish Catholic families, rather than being brought up in a large institution. This had been tried before with disastrous results.
Over 10,000 Babies Died
The Dublin Foundling Hospital was closed in 1838 due to the large number of babies who died while in their care. They paid wet nurses to take the children into their own homes and rear them until a certain age when they could be brought back for schooling some years later. The wet nurses were mainly women from the country, this was a job to them, they needed the money to survive.
Some Foster Mothers Killed the Orphans
In some cases they would kill the orphaned baby, replace it with their own baby and pass the child off as the orphan. But some women became so attached to the babies that they decided to keep the child when it was time to return it and rear it as their own. But that was very rare.
In a sixteen year period, between 1756 and 1771, out of the over 14,000 children admitted to the foundling hospital, over 10,000 were recorded as having died while in the care of these foster mothers. Of the remaining 4,000 many had disappeared without trace.
Grangegorman Female Prison
The difference with Margaret's plan was that only families that were willing to look after the children properly were hired. More importantly, they were given support by the Ladies of Charity who visited them regularly. All the children were brought up as Catholics and saved from the I.C.M.
In January 1858 Mary Was at The Orphanage
She was fostered out. Mary's father was a catholic and her mother a Protestant. Her parents had split up with herself and her brother Henry being left with their father in England. Their mother took her youngest child with her to the Bahamas to take up a position as a child minder. Henry Matthew could not find work, so returned to Ireland. He became ill almost immediately and asked that the children be brought up as Catholics. He died in January 1858.
Margaret Aylward's Defence
In the meantime, his wife Maria, an alcoholic had lost her job due to her drinking and neglect of the child in her care. She was expelled from the Bahamas by the Governor. In May, 1858 after some months in England, she came back for her two eldest children. She recovered her son Henry from the Fr. Fay's Catholic Orphanage. She arrived to St Brigid’s to enquire about her daughter Mary.
The Child had Disappeared
The I.C.M. encouraged her to start legal proceedings. Margaret Aylward was ordered to produce the child in court. According to Margaret Aylward's defence lawyer, another person had feared the child would be brought up a Protestant and unknown to Margaret had forged a note to the foster mother telling her to hand over the child to the holder of this note. It was signed by M.A. She stated in court that she knew nothing of this until eleven days later when the foster mother having met her expressed her regret at having to give back Mary.
Prosecution Case Against Margaret Aylward
The Prosecution lawyer alleged that Margaret Aylward knew where the child was. The papers covered the story in every detail. It didn't help Margaret that the judge in charge of the case had two sisters who were prominent in the I.C.M. She first appeared in court on 29th May 1858.
Guilty of Contempt of Court
On the 7th November 1860 Margaret Aylward was found not guilty of kidnapping but guilty of contempt of court. She received a sentence of six months. She spent the first two days at the Richmond Bridewell which was an all-Male Prison. The Governor there allowed her to stay in his own apartments. Margaret Aylward was then transferred to the Grangegorman Female Penitentiary in Stoneybatter Dublin 7
Grangegorman Female Penitentiary
She was given a small room just off the hospital, which included the mentally ill. She was not allowed out for exercise for four months. The Prison Board was told by the Matron of the prison, Mrs Rawlins, that Margaret was being treated humanely.
It was Mrs. Rawlins who had Control of Margaret's Daily Life and she did not make her stay pleasant. But Margaret was allowed to write and receive letters. In this way she was able to continue to run the administration of the orphanage.
On 5th January she wrote a petition explaining that she had paid all the court costs and that ' she already had served two months of said imprisonment ….and that her health is ‘fast failing’ from the effects of said imprisonment. But this had no effect and early release was not granted. Margaret Aylward left the prison after serving the full length of her sentence on 5th May 1861. Her health was never to be the same again.
Schools in the Dublin Slums
During the six months that Margaret Aylward spent in prison six of the women from The Ladies of Charity had died and three others had left. Ada Allingham age 22 and Eliza Monahan, a much older woman were the only two left. The ‘missing’ child Mary was first taken to North Great George's Street and then on to Europe where she was reared a Catholic in a Belgian Convent. She later became a nun in the same convent.
Pope Pius 1X
Pope Pius 1X heard about Margaret’s Imprisonment and called her a Professor of the Faith. Margaret Aylward began opening schools in the Dublin slums for the poor catholic children soon after her release. Once again the battle was on between the Protestant I.C.M and the Catholic Ladies of Charity. Margaret also supplied food and clothing to her children, allowing them to bring food home to their families. The establishment tried to blacken her name, but she had the Catholic Church behind her.
Margaret Aylward knew that to continue her work and keep the small community of ladies together, she needed to create a religious order. She was quite capable of running the schools and orphanage herself, but the male clergy were very powerful.
They encouraged her to carry on her work, but in Dublin at that time to expand and grow most charitable bands of women usually ended up as a religious order. This gave the Catholic Church total control of their activities. Earlier examples of this in the immediate area were the Presentation Order in the Markets Area, Dublin 7. and the Sisters of Charity in Stoneybatter.
The Sisters of the Holy Faith was Founded
It was approved in 1867. In the meantime, the small community, which only a year after her imprisonment had risen to eight women, continued to flourish. Margaret was the Superior and they wore the formal religious dress. Margaret soon stopped the practise for herself. This was to cause problems for her later as some priests felt she was too independent.
She suffered ill health for the remaining years of her life. The six months she spent in the Grangegorman Female Penitentiary, Stoneybatter Dublin contributed to her continuing ill health. Margaret Aylward died on 11th November 1889, at 79 years old and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.