Coming from a family of practical jokers, you can imagine that I took this latest nugget of family history with a pinch of salt. “Say that again dad” I said as I looked for that give away winkle in his eye. “No it’s true”, piped up my uncle Matt from the other side of the table, “our great grandmother really was kidnapped because of her blonde hair”
My uncle Michael was treating his 3 brothers, Matt, Jack, my dad Frank and the females of the family to a special Mother Days meal at his golf-club and we were all relaxing around the dinner table enjoying the view of the Wicklow Mountains in the spring sunshine when this story of my great great grandmother began to unfold. With renewed enthusiasm and lots of wine to loosen their tongues, all my uncles including my father began to regale their own version of the story to us, talking at cross purposes to each other, all trying to get their version heard. “Wait, Wait” I said, “one of you start at the beginning and tell us slowly, this is huge… if at all true, knowing you lot!”
So my dad took the lead and as he gazed out the long glass windows onto the golf course he recalled when it was first told to him. “Well like you are now I was very suspicious about this tale from my father too”, he began, “I was a young married man, I think it was in 1960 something when he first mentioned it to me over a pint.” “You know my grandmother – your great grandmother was kidnapped. She was thought to be lucky because of the blonde hair, he told me.”
Just to fill you in on my grandfather. He loved to play practical jokes and was always spinning a tale or two. One such incident I recalled being told about was when my grandfather had painstaking added zeros and totalled up correctly, an old obsolete post office saving book he had. He wanted to make sure that a certain work colleague would find it, so he left it on the floor in the gents just before this man went in. The man came out and left the bar never returning the post office book to my grandfather, who knew he wouldn’t. This post office book would have given my grandfather savings of around 20,000 shillings which in the 1900s would be the modern day equalling of a few million. From that day on, my grandfather was greeted by work colleagues and his superiors with undue and unwarranted respect thinking he was a far wealthy man that he was. He obviously had instilled the same banter in his sons over the years so you can now understand why we were so unbelieving of this story.
“Mary Ann McFadden, our great grandmother”, began my father as he pointed to his brothers as if we didn’t know who they were, “was born a bouncing blonde in Ballymote, Co. Sligo in 1874 to proud parents Mary and Michael McFadden. Unlike many families in the 1800s struggling under British rule, Michael was a journey man and had a well-respected job as the official tailor for the British army. This job took Michael the length and breadth of Ireland with his loyal horse and cart. Life continued in this way with Michael gone for many weeks in a row until that fateful day in 1877 when Mary Ann was kidnapped from outside their terraced house on Grattan Street. They had no idea what had happened to her, or whether she was even alive anymore.”
My uncle Michael straightened himself up in his chair and looking at my dad said “sure do you remember Frank, what she was like when we were younger, how she would gather us all around the big open fire in the house and tell us tales of ghosts and ghouls frightening our little hearts out as we sat around in the dark with only the flames lighting up our fascinated faces”…. And, and wait, my dad interrupted suddenly, “remember the card readings and how she saw the hospital bed in Doris’s tealeaves when we haven’t told a sole she was pregnant. It made sense didn’t it really”, they nodded in mutual agreement with each other, “we should have believed our father in the beginning.” “What makes sense”, came the chorus from the rest of us at the table, “get back to the story. “ You are killing us here”, we laughed. Waving at the waitress for more wine, my uncle Matt settled himself into the back of his seat to continue with the story
“Well she was never found and day after day passed for poor Michael and Mary not knowing what fate had become her daughter but like everything, life continued on. Michael had to continue on and his job as a journey man bought him all over Ireland. He continued to look for her everywhere he went apparently but never found her”. . It was with a deep sadness that Matt seemed to recall this part of the story and I met the eyes of my female cousins as we looked knowingly from one to another thinking of how we would feel if our little darlings had been taken away from us.
Apparently, the story was forgotten for twenty years after it was first told in the 1960s as the lads all doubting their father had actually asked the lady in question, their great grandmother but she refused ever to talk about it or even acknowledge that she was kidnapped always saying she didn’t want to talk about it. Then in 1980 when they were gathered for their usual Friday night drinks, their father began to tell reveal the whole story to them again including every small detail this time, leaving them in no doubt that this was all true. The clatter of dinner plates being bought to other tables and the hum of friendly conversation seemed to continue in slow motion behind us as our table sit silently in mutual astonishment as Uncle Matt continued revealing the details of Mary Ann McFadden’s younger years.
“And as the years passed for them, their hope that she was still alive faded. Michael was on one of his trips as a journey man in 1880, 3 years after his daughter had been taken. He had never given up looking for her and while on his way to the British Soldiers Barrack in Donegal, he passed a gypsy camp on this dirt track he was following. Suddenly he was drawn to a little blonde girl with mad curly hair, filthy dirty from head to toe dancing around the campfire. He stared at her but there was no mistaking it. This was Mary Ann without a doubt in his head. He ran to the British Soldiers and begged them to come with him and take her back. They informed him that they couldn’t just go in on a hunch and they would need to inform the RIC as well about his suspicions. Luckily for Michael and our family, Mary Ann had a birth mark on the top of her leg which could be used to identify her”.
Of course all the jokes started to come out now around the table, as we tried to lighten the sombre mood while each of us were secretly imagining our own life now if Mary Ann hadn’t been found. “Do you think that is why we all spend our summers and weekends in caravans in Wexford, laughed the brothers, each having owned a mobile home in kilmuckridge Co, Wexford for many years. “Go back to the story”, we all shouted at them, “you was digressing at the best bit”. “Yes.. Well sorry, my dad jumped in, “Michael and the British Army and the RIC marched into the camp in Donegal and demanded that the child’s leg be shown upon which revealed a big red birth mark as suspected. The red-haired gypsy couple could not lie about it but just protested their reasoning for taking her saying that she would bring them luck being blonde. Somehow I imagine this was not the kind of luck they had been hoping for 3 years earlier.
Mary Ann McFadden died of the grand ole age of 91 having never recalled or spoken about her kidnapping to her father or grandchildren when asked about it. She would always say she didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe she didn’t remember it, maybe she did or maybe it was just too much for her to deal with. We will never know what it was like for her back then.
“The worst part though” said Jack having remained silent as the story unfolded, “was that our father told us that Mary Ann didn’t want to be found. She had spent the past 3 years of her little life with the gypsies. She knew no other way of life. Her real parents were now total strangers to her. That’s the saddest part. They found her which was great but was she ever really the child that they had lost 3 years before”. As Jacks words trailed off, the mood seemed to dampen and the banter quietened down now as each one of us around the table began to take in the magnitude of this story and how each of our lives could have been so different. Each of the mothers among us feeling the pain Mary McFadden must have felt each day not knowing where her baby was. Each parent throwing a watchful eye to where their children or grandchildren were playing safely outside in the sunshine.
Now coming from a family of practical jokers as I said and not wanting to leave what had been a lovely day on a sad note, I stood up raising my glass to Michael McFadden as I said. “Having not got married yet but remaining ever optimistic that one day I will, I would like to toast my great great grandfather Michael McFadden from saving me from a big fat gypsy wedding!”