A Sense of the Past - A Social History of Blindness in Northern Ireland

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A Sense of the Past A Social History of Blindness in Northern Ireland

First published in 2014 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted or used in any form by any means - graphic, electronic or mechanical - without the prior permission of RNIB Northern Ireland. This project was funded by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Written by quarto Designed by Cathal Tunney www.cathaltunney.com Printed by W&G Baird Cover image: Joe Thorpe, photographed by Sam Henry outside his home, circa 1930 (courtesy of Causeway Museum Service)

A Sense of the Past A Social History of Blindness in Northern Ireland


We are very grateful for the considerable help we have received in carrying out the research for this book. First, thanks go to our interviewees, without whose stories and reflections the social history of blindness in the north of Ireland would be the poorer. They are: Alan Owens, Brendan Magill, Claire Bowes, Enid Maxwell, Margaret Cooper, Torie Tennant, Andrea Hope, Henry Mayne, Margaret Bennett, Margaret Mann, Peter Leach, Thomas Quigley, Hazel Flanagan, Jimmy Morrow, Anna Beamish, Elsie Pearson, Joseph Deery, Bill Foster, Jim Bradley, Hugh Cox, Gareth, Margaret, Betty, Marianne, Lisa and Gloria. Kelly Gallagher very kindly allowed her life story to be used as a case study. Frank Callery, an independent researcher working on a history of blind welfare on the island of Ireland, was extraordinarily generous in sharing his knowledge and information of the situation in the north, and we are deeply in his debt. We benefited greatly from Desmond Archer’s ophthalmological expertise and collection of historical and contemporary articles and books about ophthalmology. Anne Magee and Carol Magowan at Jordanstown Schools allowed us access to the school's considerable archives, and gave of their time and personal knowledge to the benefit of the project. Likewise, without the help of Don Bannister and Deane Houston James Ford-Smith's life story would not have appeared.

Thanks go to the staff at the RNIB Heritage Services, Robert Saggers, Sarah Haylett, Nicola Kiddle and Sean Wilcox, who liberally loaned material from, and facilitated a visit to, the RNIB library and archives. Former archivist Philip Jeffs was of great help on an initial visit to the RNIB archives in Stockport. Robert Baker, collections and archive officer with Blind Veterans UK, formerly St Dunstan’s, kindly shared resources relevant to that charity’s work in Northern Ireland and supplied several striking images. Andrew Murdock, public policy officer with Guide Dogs for the Blind in Northern Ireland, gave substantially of his time and effort to help us research the organisation’s history and the experiences of guide dog users. Our thanks too to Martin O’Kane, David Barnes and Rosaleen Dempsey of the RNIB, whose knowledge was of great assistance in forming a picture of contemporary circumstances for blind and partially sighted people in Northern Ireland. Mark Mooney offered insight to the Braille unit at Maghaberry Prison. Margaret Mann, David Mann, Margaret Fusco, Thomas Quigley and Chris Bailey (director of the Northern Ireland Museums Council), the project steering group, openhandedly shared their experience, knowledge and contacts. Barry Macaulay, Catriona Doherty, Patrick Malone, Amy Stewart, Kirsty Campbell, Joe Kenny and Sylvia Morrison, all of the RNIB, offered valuable practical help throughout the project. The project was financed in part by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.


As Chairman of RNIB NI it gives me great pleasure to provide an introduction to this wonderful publication, A Sense of the Past. The book documents the social history of blindness in the north of Ireland, and the experiences of local blind people from the eighteenth century right up to the present day – where they lived, how they were educated, where they worked and how they spent their leisure time, an insight into the various support agencies for Blind People and pen pictures of notable blind people past and present. The book provides a fascinating insight into social attitudes towards blind people in the past, some of which are quite shocking to us today. And while we have come a long way from the Victorian asylums and workshops, there is no doubt that blind and partially sighted people today still face negative attitudes and barriers to inclusion in education, employment and social life. Finally, I would like to thank all contributors to the book and in particular the team at RNIB NI who conceived and designed the project; quarto, who researched and wrote the book; and of course, the Heritage Lottery Fund, who provided the resources for the publication and the associated exhibition. I hope, like me, you will find the book interesting, enlightening and thought provoking. Richard Moore RNIB NI Chairman

Author's Note

Throughout the book various terms are used to refer to blind and partially sighted people, the condition of visual impairment, and institutions. Certain terms that were used historically, such as ‘asylum’, ‘inmates’, ‘the blind’ and ‘blindness’, today seem offensive. Where these appear in the book, they are in historical context, and are not used in ignorance of their insensitive nature. For example, whereas the RNIB is now known in full as the Royal National Institute of Blind People, it was once known as the Royal National Institute for the Blind. The differences in emphasis are subtle, but important, since one term positions blind and partially sighted people as passive and helpless recipients of aid, and the other as active agents for change. However, it is equally important to recognise and make clear that current sensitivity to terminology has developed relatively recently, since to pretend otherwise would affect our understanding of history. The terms ‘north of Ireland’ and ‘Northern Ireland’ are also used with respect to historical accuracy, since of course the state of Northern Ireland came into existence in 1921, and our history reaches back to 1800 and earlier. This is also an important point because of the contemporary political subtext of the two terms, both of which may be seen as inappropriate by different groups. It is hoped that as with other terms, allowance will be made for historical context.


Introduction 1- 8

Chapter One

Welfare, Asylums and Homes 9 - 54

Chapter Two

Eye Health and Medical Care 55 - 86

Chapter Three

Education 87 -132

Chapter Four

Employment 133-178

Chapter Five

The Impact of Conflict 179 -210

Chapter Six

Home Life and Leisure Activities 211- 244

Conclusion 245 -252

Endnotes 253 - 282


Eric Boulter, at one time Director General of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), looks far back in history and beyond Europe to argue that ‘blindness has always been one of the most greatly feared of physical infirmities’. Blinded himself during the Second World War, Boulter points out that historically, blind people at times were prevented from ‘liv[ing] a normal life span or… discharg[ing] any contributing role in the family or tribal unit’.1 However, in China, he notes, blindness was believed to lead to wisdom because it reduced the range of distractions from spiritual progress. In the context of western Europe, historians have suggested that since the time of the Enlightenment, blindness has elicited a peculiar mix of sympathy and horror in the sighted population. Luke Davidson considers the Enlightenment in particular to have privileged the ability to see, and concomitantly: blindness was readily conceived of as an affliction that came not simply because the world did not look after blind people properly, but because blindness itself was the negation of the most important sense of all, sight.2 The emphasis placed on learning through seeing, during a century of ‘intense interest in experimentation’, Davidson suggests, intensified the fear of sight loss.3 Boulter attributes a slowly increasing sense in western Europe from the thirteenth century onwards that blind people ought to be cared for, to the hold of Christianity, and Davidson contends that the Enlightenment sense of blind


people as afflicted and in special need was underpinned and bolstered by religious feeling and language. Added to this is the notion outlined by Ian Fraser, long-term chair of St Dunstan’s, the charity for war-blinded veterans, that ‘there is a peculiar sentiment for blind people’ simply because ‘every seeing person can imagine himself blind’.4 In fact, William Lawrence, an ophthalmologist writing in 1833, went so far as to claim: Blindness is one of the greatest calamities that can befall human nature, short of death; and some would perhaps prefer the termination of existence to its continuance in the solitary and dependent state, to which life is reduced by the privation of this precious sense.5 For these and other reasons, the nineteenth century saw an upsurge in provision of blind welfare, previously sporadic and inconsistent. Most of the asylums, schools and workshops established for blind people were under the auspices of charities and religious foundations, and state welfare did not develop significantly until well into the twentieth century. As Fraser noted in the 1930s: Not so long ago the great majority of blind people had no option but to secure the means of existence by begging or by selling goods in the street…They were compelled to demonstrate their affliction and to emphasise the fact that they were unfortunate, abnormal creatures.6


The ways in which people become blind, and how blind and partially sighted people are treated (medically and socially), educated and employed, as well as the access they are given to social and leisure activities, have changed enormously in the last two hundred years. Medical treatment and social and economic circumstances for most blind people in developed countries are a vast improvement on their nineteenth-century equivalents, but much remains to be done. Unemployment, poverty and isolation continue to affect many blind and partially sighted people, and although the state has assumed much of the financial responsibility for blind welfare, the continued need for lobbying and support organisations such as the RNIB is clear. In the north of Ireland since 1800 the experiences of blind people have mirrored those across the island as a whole and those in Britain, to a great extent. This book aims to describe those experiences in their wider contexts, and then point to the ways in which they were and are peculiar to social, political, economic and cultural conditions in the north of Ireland and later Northern Ireland. The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter one deals with welfare, provided by charities and the state, and includes a look at state legislation for blind and partially sighted people and its implementation, brief histories of the relevant voluntary bodies and the homes and asylums run by these and other groups. The effects of sectarian politics, religious feeling and geography on the provision of welfare for blind people are also examined in this chapter. Chapter two considers the causes and treatments of visual impairment from the early nineteenth century to


the present day, in relation both to adults and children. This is followed by a discussion of those hospitals in the north of Ireland specifically founded to treat eye injuries and eye disease, and concludes with a look at present facilities and practices. Chapter three discusses education, beginning with histories of the north of Ireland’s special schools for blind children and going on to look at how educational practices, and attitudes to special versus mainstream education for children with visual impairments, have changed. Chapter four is an examination of employment, taking in a history of sheltered employment in the north of Ireland, principally Belfast, and considering the relationship between education and work. Changes to attitudes and opportunities in recent decades are dealt with, and the contemporary situation is reviewed. Chapter five addresses the issue of conflict. The numbers of soldiers blinded in warfare have had an impact on feelings about treatment of, and welfare provision for, visual impairment since the early nineteenth century, and this chapter looks at the impact of the First and Second World Wars and the Troubles in Northern Ireland throughout the twentieth century in terms both of causing blindness and affecting those already blind. Chapter six, then, deals with home life and leisure activities for the blind and partially sighted, taking in technological developments, sport and hobbies, social life, domestic life and parenting. Sources for the subjects addressed in this book have varied, and include academic papers and books, research carried out by trusts and charities, newspaper articles, historical documents, from private letters to government


papers, and photographs. Material for some topics has been richer than for others, and certain institutions and organisations have left a more extensive paper trail than have others. It means that this history, like all history, is partial and provisional. However, it sheds some light on the past and puts the available information on different themes into relationship. The chapters have case studies embedded, in which a blind person’s life story is expounded upon in relation to the chapter’s theme. Building on the space made for individual narratives in the case studies, a central element of the research is a series of in-depth oral history interviews with eight individuals and three focus groups. Used throughout each chapter, their stories and reflections offer fresh insight into experiences of visual impairment in Northern Ireland in the last fifty years; importantly, their personal perspectives also act as counterpoint to the social history of blindness as it appears in documents, which have been, by and large, produced by and for sighted people. In his examination of the ways in which blind workers in Derry during the Depression voiced their political and economic concerns, Máirtín Ó Catháin points out that: Among those historians who have looked at the subject [of blind history], most have approached it from the socially conservative angle of the history of medicine or within the context of Victorian and Edwardian charity.7


Additionally, most of these histories again will have been written by and for the sighted. A recurring idea in the interview material and in the rare instances in the archives of documents written by and/or for blind people is the necessity for blind and partially sighted people to verbalise their own needs, lobby on their own behalf, develop their own strategies for progress and manage their own organisations. This book, it is hoped, will privilege past and contemporary voices of blind people in unfolding the social history of blindness in the north of Ireland, and embed them in the history produced by the sighted, which from time to time and place to place may conflict, support or repress them.


Chapter One

Welfare, Asylums and Homes

The first recorded case of a state taking responsibility for the care of blind people is the founding of l’Hôpital des QuinzeVingts by Louis IX in Paris in 1254. It was a home for blind people staffed by priests, in which the residents were fed and clothed and trained in crafts. Most residents continued to beg, however.8 Apart from this exception, until the late eighteenth century charitable welfare for blind people was non-systematic, and state welfare for blind people continued to be all but unknown. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the situation was different. John Oliphant points out that ‘an institution for the blind came to be regarded as one of the hallmarks of a self-respecting Victorian city, along with the railway station and, later, the Town Hall’.9 John Bird, in a preface to the autobiography of James Wilson, a blind man living and working in the north of Ireland in the early nineteenth century, writes scathingly about homes for blind people, comparing them to leper colonies, in which sufferers are thrown together with no regard to personality, education, tastes or background. He quotes Charles Day, who specified that of the money he bequeathed to the needy blind, there was ‘not one sixpence to be spent in bricks and mortar to build a prison for blind people; they are imprisoned quite enough already’.10 From today’s perspective, Mary Wilson Carpenter is cautious about the extent to which such institutions benefited blind residents. She contends that: The blind were, in effect, simply confined in these institutions, rather than given an education as the term is understood today: taught to read and taught various


kinds of knowledge through the study of books. The blind inmates were also compelled to work, and though some institutions paid them for their labour, others did not. Some… attempted to teach the blind trades that they could pursue independently, such as piano tuning, but others employed the blind in their own workshops.11 Nonetheless, asylums and homes for blind people were the accepted form of welfare from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century.

The State and Blind Welfare In Britain and Ireland, state welfare for blind people was introduced only in the Blind Persons’ Act of 1920. Before this, provision of welfare depended on churches and voluntary organisations, which in turn depended almost entirely on donations, subscriptions, legacies and bequests. They were able to access some money from the state for the very poorest of their beneficiaries. The Poor Relief Amendment Act of 1843, for example, allowed for the Boards of Guardians (who were responsible for raising money to provide welfare for paupers) to: send any destitute blind child under the age of 18 years to any Institution for the maintenance of the Blind approved by the Ministry of Health and Local Government, and… pay for the child’s maintenance out of rates.12


In 1908 George Dickie contended that ‘England is a land “flowing with milk and honey” when compared to Ireland, with her more limited resources and diminished population’. Despite the existence of the Belfast Workshops for the Blind, where blind men and women were employed, the outlook remained bleak, since, as Dickie argued, ‘the majority of the blind cannot earn a living wage in open competition with the seeing’.13 In fact, wages at the workshops were subsidised by money raised by the Belfast Association for the Employment of the Industrious Blind (BAEIB). In other parts of Ireland blind people suffered from ‘the complete dearth of manufactories or industries’ considered ‘suitable’ for their employment and thus remained reliant on friends, family and charity.14 The Blind Persons’ Act came into effect from 10th September 1920. It applied at this time to Britain and Ireland, since the partition of north from south was as yet ambiguous, unofficial and partial. The act allowed blind people to receive a pension equal to the old age pension from the age of 50, and devolved responsibility for blind welfare to county and county borough councils. This included paying for or subsidising the provision and maintenance of homes, hostels and workshops. In order to receive a pension, a person must be ‘so blind as to be unable to perform any work for which eyesight is essential’.15 The Local Government Board for Ireland issued a circular entitled Welfare of the Blind on 4th February 1920. It outlined plans (including legislation) to assist ‘the unemployable blind living in their own homes’, as well as


Blind Persons’ Act, 1920 (courtesy of the Deputy Keeper of Records for the Public Records Office, Northern Ireland, D3563/ A/D/25)


those who worked from home, who would receive money towards the costs of tools, equipment and materials, and advice on prices and marketing.16 By the end of the financial year it had asked the Treasury to fund these grants, and the Treasury had suggested a sum of £12 000. However, Frank Callery indicates that not only was this sum inadequate, it was not paid.17 The National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland held public meetings in protest, and succeeded in getting the money released. Hereafter, once partition was formally and fully implemented, the paths of blind welfare in Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State diverged, although there was some contact between individuals and organisations. For example, in the 1940s the Blind Welfare Association was affiliated to the National Council for the Blind in Ireland (NCBI), and when the NCBI set up the National Council for the Blind Scientific and Research Foundation in 1982, it established close links with the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital Research Foundation in Belfast. The two bodies worked together on completing a national register of blind people including details on the cause in each case and exploring the use of new technologies in helping them. Cross-border partnership is evident today with the RNIB in Northern Ireland and the NCBI involved in a number of joint projects, particularly in border areas. In the years following the introduction of state welfare for blind people in Northern Ireland, progress was hampered by the Stormont government’s lassitude and reluctance to spend money. In a 1927 issue of St Dunstan’s Review, a publication produced by the charity for the war-blinded, the


editor highlights the fact that almost a year after legislation was passed to permit free wireless licences for blind people in England and Northern Ireland, ‘these facilities are not yet available to the sightless folk of Northern Ireland’.18 He rebukes the Government of Northern Ireland and local authorities for not ‘approach[ing this question] in the broadminded and charitable manner it should be’.19 In 1936 the Ministry of Health was considering the expense in Northern Ireland of following Westminster in issuing pensions to blind people over 40 years old, and a staff member notes in a memo, ‘ the blind population is… a class apart in that the blind person is ordinarily a charge on the community for the whole of his life’.20 Concerns were also expressed in this memo that blind persons’ dependants would have to be accounted for, and that blind people would move between council areas according to where the most financial support was offered, or where there was sheltered employment. As it was, the state aid available as a result of the Blind Persons’ Act was insufficient, as a letter from Elizabeth Doherty to Lord Craigavon in 1927 shows. She explained that she was struggling to support a large family, including a blind daughter of twenty-one, on a small income. Mrs Doherty applied for a pension for her daughter, whose blindness was the result of a tumour and who had to be cared for at home, but was denied on account of the young woman’s age.21 With no solution to offer to Mrs Doherty’s problem, the reply merely stated that ‘provision for cases such as hers in Northern Ireland is extremely limited’.22 In 1945 a parliamentary debate was held at Stormont


Petition supporting blind workers in Derry/ Londonderry (undated, courtesy of the Deputy Keeper of Records for the Public Records Office, Northern Ireland, CAB/9N/3/1)


on the subject of a proposed increase in the blind pension from ten to 30 shillings a week. John Nixon addressed the government in stinging terms: The plight of blind persons in this country is a disgrace to civilisation…There are blind persons who are living in conditions worse than those in which savages exist… [the government’s] name stinks in the nostrils of the people of this country owing to the apathy you have shown not only to blind persons, but to the old-age pensioners and to the widows and orphans.23 Herbert Quin, himself blind, MP for the University, later senator and a founding member of the Blind Welfare Association (BWA), was present and contributed to the debate. He did not align himself with Nixon; he explained that the needs of blind people were distinct from all other groups and must be considered separately. However, he used the opportunity to draw attention to the plight of blind people less fortunate than himself: As I look back upon the case of the blind people and think of the time when the only means of subsistence a blind man had was to stand in the street with outstretched hand and a card bearing the words, “Pity the Blind,” and his only hope of a roof was the union, I feel we have already gone a long way, but not nearly far enough.24


He noted that council grants were never sufficient and that he spent much of his time and energy with the BWA ‘coaxing’ local authorities to increase their monies. He castigated the government for a letter to the BWA in the previous year asking that charitable donations from the public be used to relieve local authorities of some of their responsibilities to blind people. Quin summed up by suggesting that Stormont could not follow Westminster because it had not got comparable revenues, and attributed the state’s reluctance to shoulder the full cost precisely to cost.25 In 1948 the Ministry of Labour and National Insurance announced it would offer financial assistance to local authorities providing facilities for the employment of blind persons, and assume financial responsibility for training blind people of 16 and over at special workshops, warning, however, that ‘[this] is a temporary measure pending further consideration of the special problems relative to their education and employment’.26 Both workers and workshops had to be registered at the Ministry of Labour Employment Exchanges and ‘approved’. Further, the new legislation required all employers with 20 or more staff at one or more branches of their business to employ a quota of registered disabled workers.27 The 1920 Act defined eligibility for the pension on the basis of being ‘so blind as to be unable to perform any work for which eyesight is essential’.28 A reference to Hughie McGarry in Antrim County Council records hints at the ways in which this definition might have been applied loosely, or otherwise sidestepped; an anonymous letter to the council


of 1944 alleges that despite being in receipt of the blind pension, he was earning ten pounds per week ‘on the wee boats’ in Waterfoot.29 Perhaps Mr McGarry was able to carry out his work despite being blind, perhaps he had deceived those who assessed his eligibility for the pension, or perhaps he was merely the victim of a spiteful neighbour. It is certain, however, that ten shillings per week almost universally was felt to be a scant pension. The National Assistance Act of 1948 introduced the registration system and legally defined blindness and partial sight. This led to direct state support for those people on the register. In Northern Ireland state support was provided by the County Welfare Boards, who employed Home Teachers for the Blind and Mobility Workers for the Blind. They prefigured today’s rehabilitation and social workers. By the 1950s every blind person of 40 years or more was entitled to a non-contributory old-age pension, subject to a means test; a certain amount in pensions, investments, war savings and house sales was to be disregarded, and resources of other members of the household were not counted.30In 1955 at the annual conference of the Home Teachers of the Blind (Northern Ireland), Miss W.L. Adams pointed out that perceiving blind welfare only in terms of finances was to do blind people a disservice. She noted that ‘intellectual independent blind people are… deprived of much intangible help’ if ‘welfare’ was to be offered only to the poor.31 Currently each Health and Social Services Trust in Northern Ireland has a dedicated sensory support service, which offers help to people with visual loss and people with


hearing loss. The trusts hold the register of blind and partially sighted people and have a statutory obligation to provide support through the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1978 and the Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1989. They work closely with the local voluntary sector for blind people, often contracting voluntary organisations to provide support services on their behalf. In terms of grants to individuals, blind and partially sighted people now are entitled to generic benefits for people with disabilities, such as Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance (DLA). However, at the time of writing it is feared that the forthcoming Welfare Reform Bill will detrimentally affect the entitlements of blind people and hence their quality of life. The movement, proposed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government, from DLA to Employment Support Allowance and the new Personal Independence Payment, risks a loss of income for those blind people for whom finding paid work and gaining economic independence is deeply problematic.

Welfare Organisations Belfast Society for Home Mission Work Among the Blind The Belfast Society for Home Mission Work Among the Blind was founded by Mrs R.B. Pim, who had received ‘a direct call from God through his honoured servant, Dr Moon’,


Beginning of annual report of Belfast Society for Home Mission Work Among the Blind (1892, courtesy of RNIB Heritage Services)


in 1886, with the objects of teaching Moon’s raised type, visiting blind people in their homes, helping those in poverty or ill and commissioning articles to be made by blind people that the society then sold on their behalf.32 It was overtly proselytising, with Mrs Pim reporting in 1887 that despite the initial ‘suspicion’ of blind people, the society’s ‘Bible-woman’ had ‘got at [their] hearts’.33 Offering to teach them to read, it seems, was entwined with reading the Bible. Mrs Pim noted, ‘we find that if they learn about our Lord and Saviour, that then they are only too anxious to learn to read afterwards’.34 By 1888 a second ‘Bible-woman’ had been engaged, and 2878 visits had been made to blind people of Belfast in their homes, at the workshops and in hospitals. Their library had been well used and a Clothing Guild set up to provide the needy blind with blankets and winter clothes.

Guide Dogs The use of dogs to guide blind people was known of and practised at various times and in various places for centuries before it was formalised in the period after the First World War, first in Europe and then in America.35 A doctor working with war-wounded men in Germany left a blind patient with his German Shepherd dog, and being impressed by the dog’s behaviour, decided to experiment further with pairing dogs and blinded ex-servicemen. With this end in view, a training centre was established in Potsdam in 1923, and its work was noted by Dorothy Harrison Eustis, a wealthy American breeding dogs in Switzerland for the use of the army, customs


service and police. She, in turn, set up another training centre in Switzerland and devoted herself to expanding and improving the nascent guide dog movement. In 1931 Muriel Crooke, a German Shepherd enthusiast, and Rosamund Bond, a German Shepherd breeder and exhibitor, established a trial scheme for what would become in 1934 the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in the United Kingdom. They affiliated themselves with the National Insitute for the Blind. Dorothy Eustis lent them her trainer, and work began with seven German Shepherds. Early beneficiaries of the trained dogs gave unreserved praise, with former soldier Allen Caldwell stating that ‘not only has my dog given me glorious freedom and independence… but delightful companionship’, and Musgrave Frankland suggesting that ‘a guide dog is almost equal in many ways to giving a blind man sight itself’. Captain Liakhoff, an early trainer, considered the real work of the association to be not the training of the dog, but ‘the joining of the man and dog into one inseparable unit’. After premises were donated, the practice of offering blind students a home for four weeks while training with their dog was established, and by 1957, 107 men and women had been trained. There were at this time 29 District Teams across the United Kingdom, with local fundraising groups. Soon, rather than selecting puppies, the association began breeding them, with the puppies being reared at all training centres; this meant that a greater proportion of dogs trained went on to work as guide dogs, with the essential characteristics of being ‘willing workers, used to people and other animals and not afraid of noise or


crowds’. The breeds found to be most successful were Golden Retrievers, Labradors and German Shepherds. Guide Dogs opened its Northern Ireland office in 1984 in east Belfast, with three staff members from its parent organisation in Great Britain delivering its services. Presently it is in Sydenham Business Park and has 22 locally recruited staff supporting 92 guide dog owners. 290 volunteers provide services in walking puppies, boarding, fostering and exercising dogs, offering themselves as guides through the My Guide programme and driving blind and partially sighted people to and from engagements and appointments. Although Guide Dogs for the Blind in Northern Ireland initially had residential facilities for training users and kennels for the dogs, these were outsourced after restructuring at a national level in 2007, and currently applicants are trained at a hotel or at home. Dogs are sent from the national breeding centre and four regional training schools. The charity also offers training in using the long cane, orientation and route development, and can access state funding for some of these mobility or rehabilitation services when there are no other providers. Owners are also given the option of paying veterinary and feeding costs for their dogs; if they cannot, Guide Dogs will take responsibility for these. Guide Dogs in Northern Ireland does not meet all its costs through fundraising and relies on money from the Guide Dogs Central Office. Andrew Murdock, public policy officer, believes that attitudes to guide dogs and their owners are more open and accepting than ever before, and there is a general understanding that guide dogs must be able to accompany


their owners almost everywhere. However, discrimination still occurs particularly in relation to taxis and restaurants, and Guide Dogs for the Blind continues to campaign on issues of mobility on behalf of its clients and others.36

Blind Welfare Association The Blind Welfare Association (BWA) was established as a company limited by guarantee in 1932. Its objects included promoting better education, training, employment and wellbeing for blind people, campaigning to prevent blindness, advancing methods of printing and writing for and by blind people, producing and distributing reading materials and equipment for blind people and providing facilities for socialising for blind people.37 The BWA acted as advocates in the matters of grants and payments, offered attendants to help blind people travel and subsidised fares where possible. It arranged for the maintenance of radio sets supplied by the British Wireless for the Blind Fund, as well as the charging of batteries. It had a staff of 20, ‘underpaid and insufficient in numbers’.38 The BWA was liquidated in 1948 because the county and county borough welfare committees were taking over its functions.

The Blind Centre The Blind Centre for Northern Ireland was founded in 1978 by James Ford Smith, a curator at the Ulster Museum and broadcaster. Having lost his sight through diabetic


James Ford-Smith and Harry Toner at new Blind Centre premises (1986, courtesy of Deane Houston)

retinopathy, he continued this work, and faced with a dearth of services for blind people, set up the Blind Centre from his home. He secured funding to establish it as a charity from the Department of Health and Social Services. The Blind Centre developed its services in consultation with blind and partially sighted people, and took care to respond to varied local


needs. As with earlier blind welfare organisations, the Blind Centre depended heavily on volunteer as well as paid labour. The charity recognised blind people’s struggles with social inclusion and financial support, and aimed too to address the needs of the families and carers of blind people. To this end, it set up three day-support centres in Belfast, Omagh and Coleraine, and maintained a holiday chalet at the Share Centre near Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh with colour coding, Braille signs, additional lighting and tactile floors. Its staff and volunteers across Northern Ireland helped at 40 social clubs for blind people, facilitating activities such as bowling, swimming, tandem cycling, rambling and arts and crafts, and the centre’s youth worker organised youth clubs, activity days and residential trips for blind children and young people. The Blind Centre also ran a specialised home visiting and befriending service for blind people it identified as lonely and socially isolated, mainly elderly people. In 2000 its fieldworkers made 6200 visits to blind people in their homes. Further to these services, it produced, copied and distributed talking books, magazines and newspapers from its two recording studios. These included its own monthly 60minute magazine, Sound Vision Ulster, and another monthly magazine made for and by blind and partially sighted young people, Eye Hear. The Blind Centre worked closely with Northern Ireland’s Health and Social Services, and in 2001 helped to carry out research into the needs of its users, including the specific issues affecting those with age-related macular degeneration. The Blind Centre, like its predecessors, struggled to


generate sufficient income to maintain its services.39 The government funded around half of these, and the rest were paid for by fundraising, applications to trusts and grant bodies, legacies, street collections and loans secured on its properties; in 2002 it estimated that £250 000 was needed to run its premises and services.40

The Royal National Institute of Blind People in Northern Ireland A Northern Ireland branch of the then National Institute for the Blind (NIB) was inaugurated in Belfast in October 1950. Herbert Quin was a member of the National Institute’s Executive Council, and had lobbied for it to extend its reach into Northern Ireland. Speaking at the initial meeting of the Belfast Ladies’ Committee of the NIB, Quin indicated that as blind and partially sighted people in Northern Ireland had been receiving ‘very considerable benefits’ from the NIB, it was time to begin contributing.41 The Institute, while an independent voluntary organisation, would work closely with government and local authorities in the province. At this stage the Institute in Britain provided more than thirty services, including the production of Braille materials and assisting blind and partially sighted people to secure work in ‘industry and commerce’; however, in Northern Ireland it was restricted mainly to raising funds, supplying Braille literature and wireless sets.42 The first NIB organiser in Northern Ireland was Thomas McGladdery, later assisted by a secretary, Miss Beck, and


managed by Herbert Quin. His office in College Square North was furnished initially with items borrowed from the Belfast Workshops for the Blind, and he was responsible largely for raising money by donation and subscription.43 To this end he travelled all over the six counties canvassing money from businesses, groups and individuals, but appealing for money proved controversial. The NIB was relatively unknown in Northern Ireland, and was perceived on occasion to be poaching donations from other voluntary organisations for blind and partially sighted people. The North of Ireland League of the Blind object in an undated letter to Herbert Quin to the NIB’s use of the slogan ‘Help to bring happiness to the Blind of Northern Ireland’ on collection boxes; alleging that the League was receiving inconvenient enquiries about these boxes, with which it had nothing to do, its secretary, Edward Gilmore, writes pointedly that ‘we are not aware of any Blind person in Northern Ireland who has received any material benefit from this source’.44 In fact, in 1952 concerns were expressed to McGladdery by the Belfast Ladies’ Committee that the money raised in Northern Ireland was being spent in Britain; they pointed out that it would prove increasingly difficult to secure contributions if these did not have a concrete outcome locally.45 The NIB also incited the enmity of the management committee of the Cliftonville Home for the Blind, principally on the basis of collections. The committee argued that their subscriptions were decreasing because the NIB ‘had weaned their supporters away’. The NIB refuted the charge and refused to restrict their collecting.46


In 2007 the Blind Centre was merged with the Northern Ireland branch of what had become the Royal National Institute of Blind People. This enabled the RNIB’s core services, such as technology training, the provision of daily living aids, education and employment support, to reach a much greater number of blind and partially sighted people, through access to the Blind Centre’s local contacts and networks across Northern Ireland. At the same time it ensured that the Blind Centre’s social, leisure, youth and community services were financially protected and developed. The merged organisation had a stronger voice when lobbying and campaigning. Since this merger, Northern Ireland is presently the only part of the United Kingdom to have no local blind welfare organisation in addition to the RNIB, and now has no representative in the umbrella organisation for the 126 local societies for blind people in England, Scotland and Wales, Visionary. Staff at RNIB Northern Ireland acknowledge a need for more blind people to become activists, and are working in partnership with Guide Dogs to set up the Campaigners’ Active Network (CAN). The aim is for CAN to become an organisation in its own right, run by blind and partially sighted people independently from these two national charities. Although between 30 and 40 per cent of Northern Ireland’s RNIB middle management are blind, a figure far in advance of other RNIB offices, senior management tend to be sighted, and the hope is expressed that in the future, the RNIB and similar bodies will be run for blind people by blind people.47


Homes and Asylums Simpson’s Hospital for Blind and Gouty Men It is possible that some blind persons from the north of Ireland may have gone to Dublin, or further afield, for residential care. In Dublin there was Simpson’s Hospital for Blind and Gouty Men, founded in 1781 on a bequest from merchant George Simpson. Within a few months of opening, demand for its services was such that the hospital had to move from a house on Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street) to purpose-built premises. Among those whom blindness or gout rendered unable to earn a living, priority was given to patients with ‘respectable’ social status and ‘moral character… unblemished’.48Blind patients had to be wholly blind, and those who had sold liquor or begged were excluded. At this stage there was no financial support from the state for such establishments; rather, they were set up and run – often precariously – on legacies, endowments, donations and subscriptions. Simpson’s Hospital took patients in for life, as long as they abided by its rules, and gave them lodging, food, clothing, medicines and medical care. They were permitted to attend a place of worship of their own choice. By 1911 there was only one blind patient, and the hospital eventually became a home for the elderly.


The Blind Asylum A Blind Asylum was founded in Belfast in 1801, and is mentioned in James Wilson’s account of his own life as the place where he learned upholstery. It was in Burgess Entry, off High Street, and was opened by Dr Alexander McDonnell and managed by a blind man, Denis Maguire. Also called an industrial school, its pupils produced baskets, nets and mops. Its history is hazy, although it is likely that the asylum was short-lived. R.S. Allison contends that it was subsumed by the Ulster Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and the Blind, established in the 1830s, while other sources suggest it may have stayed open less than ten years.49

The Richmond Institution The Richmond Institution for the Instruction of the Industrious Blind was founded in 1809 in Dublin on donations and subscriptions mostly from Protestant clergy, although, as Callery notes, ‘it must have been foreseen… that the great majority of the pupils would always be Roman Catholics’.50 Its aim was to train ‘indigent and welldisposed blind’ in crafts that might earn them a living, as well as house, feed and clothe them.51 Baskets were the principal product turned out by the residents, and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland allotted a portion of Phoenix Park solely to the growing of willows for their use. Neither reading nor music was taught. They worked for twelve hours a day in the summer, and eleven hours in the winter, with one


hour allowed for breakfast and one hour for dinner. At the discretion of the management, a proportion of the money earned by individual residents was set aside, to be paid to them on leaving the institution. While residents, pupils were not to leave the institution without ‘reason or permission’, and their right to visit or ‘go abroad’ could be revoked in punishment for infringing the rules. They were expected to attend ‘their respective places of worship’ each Sunday.52 Subscribers elected residents, who had to apply with a letter from a doctor describing the nature and cause of blindness, and another from a clergyman or other ‘respectable’ person affirming that the applicant had never, or not for a long time, ‘wandered about as a beggar, or played on any musical instrument in the streets, or in public houses’.53

The Macan Asylum for the Blind The Macan Asylum for the Blind in Armagh was set up on a bequest made in 1819 by Arthur Jacob Macan to the Sovereign and Burgesses of Armagh.54 Macan had been the Chief Magistrate of Armagh, then a captain in the 24th Light Dragoons. He served in India, and died there. The asylum, which Macan intended to be ‘open alike to all religious faiths and free from all discipline offensive to the tenets of any’, did not come into being until 1854, since the will was not executed until the death of Macan’s nephew, Richard.55 Macan also instructed that the asylum not ‘indulge sloth’ but rather ‘instruct [the residents] how to earn their living’.56 Trustees representing the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian


Macan Asylum for the Blind, Armagh (1957, photograph © National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Armagh County Museum). The two benches in the foreground were known locally as ‘Blind Man’s Seat’.

Church in Ireland and the Catholic Church were appointed, both laymen and clergymen. They bought and renovated a former fever hospital, and applications for admission were received from people living in Armagh, Down, Tyrone and Louth. Those from Armagh were given priority. In 1888 there were 17 residents, many of whom made baskets, which were sold to Armagh merchants. The Macan Asylum laboured under financial constraints into the twentieth century, and its residents remained few in number. In 1941, with only five residents, four of whom were elderly, its trustees were negotiating the surrender of the building to the Blind Welfare Association (BWA). Delays due to legal difficulties arising from Macan’s original bequest meant that the BWA had not taken over by the time it was liquidated in 1948, and in 1956 only one resident remained. In 1957 the County Welfare Board offered to assume responsibility for the building and make it a home for blind and elderly people. The trustees agreed this on principle, and resolved that the Macan Asylum for the Blind would cease to exist from 28th February 1958. More than a decade of delays in this process led to the main (listed) building being declared dangerous in 1975. Fresh plans to sell it to the Southern Health and Social Services Board (successor to the County Welfare Board) in 1979 were subject to further delays, and in 1981 the main building was demolished. In 1983 the remaining property was sold and the Macan Trust continued with cash assets as a funding body for blind welfare. It still provides grants to support blind and partially sighted people.57


Belfast’s Homes for the Blind In 1891 the Belfast Society for Home Mission Work Among the Blind established two homes for blind people, one for women (then or later at 30 Great Victoria Street) and one

Home for the Blind, run by Belfast Society for Home Mission Work Among the Blind (engraving in annual report, 1892, courtesy of RNIB Heritage Services)


for men. In 1902 Mrs Pim attended the London Conference on Matters Relating to the Blind and spoke about the two homes: The mission workers in [the society’s] early years found the need for a home for those who had no person to look after them, and consequently a very modest beginning was made, a house was taken…Today we have two homes, one for women, in which there are 25 residents, and one for men, in which there are 14. The men are employed at the Workshops for blind people, which are situated about a mile from the home, the walk night and morning proving most enjoyable and beneficial to those whose employment requires them to sit all day. In the women’s home all are busy, those of the stronger ones doing housework, and the others knitting, sewing, or basket-making.58 The women’s home had attached to it a knitting depot, where orders were taken, and a reading and music room. This home, the society proclaimed, was ‘entirely undenominational’, and in it ‘all denominations [lived] together in peace and harmony’.59 Around this time, the Belfast Society for Home Mission Work Among the Blind found that more space was needed to accommodate the blind residents of their homes, and three houses known as Willowmount, on the Cliftonville Road, were bought and renovated, creating ‘apartments for thirty females and twenty males’. These were opened in June


1901. The annual report for 1981 indicates that prior to the move to Cliftonville, the Society had ‘several small houses between Great Victoria Street and Sandy Row’.60 The entry for Cliftonville Home for the Blind in Belfast’s street directory of 1907 commends the men, most of whom worked in the Belfast Workshops for the Blind, for being ‘practically selfsupporting’.61 In 1908 Mrs Pim indicated that most men paid eight shillings per week towards their bed and board.62 In the 1923 edition of the street directory, the home is still full, and the society is described as having ‘grown enormously’, with 500 blind ‘on the books’ for home visits, borrowing Braille books, financial help and mission work. Further, the directory notes curtly and enigmatically, blind children were ‘rescued and sent to school’.63 The residents of the homes were ‘allowed out’, and friends were able to visit ‘at any time’; in the grounds ‘the outdoor blind come up and spend many pleasant evenings with the residents’, and it was Mrs Pim’s belief that ‘these Homes are not an institution, but homes in the truest sense of the word’.64Religious services were held at the homes, and carefully scheduled so that residents could attend these as well as going to their own places of worship. In 1908, at the Second Triennial International Conference on the Blind in Manchester, Mr T.J. Mulholland spoke about the work of the Belfast Society: We have found our Home useful and successful in (a) saving little children from undesirable places where they were neglected, not receiving proper nourishment and care, many of them being utilised for begging


Cliftonville Home for the Blind (undated, Š Crown Copyright, courtesy of NIEA Built Heritage)

purposes; (b) shielding boys and girls leaving school to receive their industrial training in the city from the vices of slum districts… (c) affording comfortable and respectable lodgings for workers… [and] (d) preventing old people from having to spend their declining years in the workhouse.65 In the mid-1940s Cliftonville was in receipt of grants from Ministry of Health and Local Government. In state documents it is noted as having 28 permanent residents and defined as a hostel for blind workers in Belfast.66 In the 1950s the management committee of the Cliftonville Home clashed with the then NIB over collections from the public. They published in the press and in their annual report for 1952 a statement that the home did not benefit in any way from NIB funds.67 Sir Charles Blackmore, then chair of the management committee, maintained an autocratic style. Thomas McGladdery alleges that Blackmore ‘asked Mr Sherman [of the Belfast Workshops for the Blind] to sack some [workers] as a reprisal for their attitude in the Homes’.68 The annual report of 1980 to 1981 shows that at some point the Belfast Society for Home Mission Work Among the Blind had become simply the Home for the Blind. The aims of the Home at this stage were ‘the prevention, alleviation, treatment and cure of blindness and diseases and disorders of the eye’, and ‘to benefit persons suffering from blindness or any impairment of sight’. The listed rules do not refer


to any religious ethos or principle, but in the main body of the report it is clear that the religious underpinnings of the Home remained strong.69 In 1982 the committee were trying to sell the Home at Cliftonville to the neighbouring school, Belfast Royal Academy, with the chair, Gavin Boyd, explaining to James Anderson of the RNIB in Northern Ireland that the building ‘is not in good condition… is too big for our purposes, and is in an area that makes it difficult to obtain staff’.70 When it was discovered that the Department of the Environment had listed the building as of architectural and historical importance, the sale fell through, and eventually the building was bought by HEARTH Housing Association for restoration.71 The RNIB, having been appealed to for funds to help the Home for the Blind buy new premises in Annadale Avenue, resolved in April 1982 to make a grant of £5000, reasoning that ‘support from the Institute would do much to mollify some of the adverse criticism made against the Institute by Bodies and individuals unaware of the services offered to the blind of Northern Ireland’.72

St Brigid’s Home for the Blind St Brigid’s Home for the Blind on the Crumlin Road in Belfast was run by the Sisters of Mercy in a former industrial school and orphanage. A history of the Sisters in the diocese of Down and Connor dates the formal establishment of the Home for the Blind to 1921, when the school children and orphans at the industrial school were transferred to the Sisters’ premises in Whiteabbey. It was intended to house


blind women and girls and blind boys from the age of three. A Sister M. Dympna Fegan, who for some years had been visiting the Catholic blind in non-Catholic institutions in the city, founded St Brigid’s Home on the basis of the state support legislated for in the Blind Persons’ Act of 1920. The first resident, Agnes O’Neill, is said to have come ‘in a dying state’ from ‘a house in Cliftonville Avenue’, probably Cliftonville Home for the Blind. 73She was 38 and had been at Cliftonville Home for eight years. She lived another two years at St Brigid’s. Having set up a School for the Blind girls at St Brigid’s Home, the limitations of the building on the Crumlin Road became increasingly apparent, including its cramped accommodation and recreation space and its situation on a busy road. In 1933 the few children left in the Sisters’ Sacred Heart Industrial School in Whiteabbey were transferred to Middletown and Strabane, and St Brigid’s Home and School for the Blind moved there. In Whiteabbey residents could enjoy six acres of grounds with fences and guide rails, and ‘those adults capable of working’ were taught needlework and handicrafts.74 St Brigid’s offered only limited housing and education for young blind boys, and a question was tabled in the Northern Irish Parliament in 1945 on the inadequacy of state provision for blind Catholic boys aged ten and over.75 Following a fire in the Whiteabbey building in 1953, the older residents were sent to Our Lady’s Home in Beechmount, Belfast, ‘where they remained for good’, and with dwindling numbers of pupils and residents the school and home were closed in 1956.76


Other Organisations Organisations with a more recent history in Northern Ireland include Sense NI, for deaf and blind people; Angeleyes, a support agency run by and for parents of blind and partially sighted children; Fighting Blindness Ireland, formerly the Retinitis Pigmentosa Society; Northern Ireland Talking Newspapers for the Blind; the Macular Society; the Torch Trust; Blind Veterans UK, formerly St Dunstan’s; and Deafblind UK.

Sectarianism and Blind Welfare An unfortunate but ever-present element of the social history of blind people in the north of Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is sectarianism. The social, political and cultural rifts between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, and particularly in the north-east, in conjunction with the tendency for religious organisations to be at the forefront of voluntary welfare provision, meant that blind welfare was inflected and limited by sectarian prejudice. The fraught issue of religious observance and instruction arose in the early history of institutions for blind people on the island. Dublin’s Richmond Institute, which housed some blind people from the north prior to the establishment of homes there, seems to have been dogged by sectarian controversy from the outset. One rule specified that pupils ‘must not revile, or in any manner treat with disrespect,


[another’s] particular profession of belief’. Its documents also refer to ‘proselytizing interference which twice occurred at the institution’, after which the management were obliged to invite the Catholic clergy to attend an investigation to clear them of the suspicion of ‘blame’. As a consequence, the institution had no chaplain. In 1816 it was decided that the Church of Ireland residents needed more religious instruction, and by 1819 visiting ladies were allowed to read Scripture to Protestants ‘only’. In 1827 pupils were forbidden to attend religious or political meetings and efforts were made to stop newspapers coming in, and prevent religious or political discussion. Although nineteenth-century homes and schools such as the Ulster Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and the Blind offered shelter and education impartially, to all the needy regardless of religious background, this nominal impartiality rarely took effect. The ethos and founding principles of these establishments were explicitly religious, and specifically mainstream Protestant, usually Church of Ireland or Presbyterian. Mary Wilson Carpenter points out that ‘the overwhelming emphasis in most institutions was, first, religious instruction’. In the north of Ireland, the Ulster Institution’s managing committee and subscribers conceived it a duty to incorporate religious instruction and worship in the daily and weekly routines of blind people residents, and this presented, therefore, a distinct obstacle to their inclusion of the Catholic blind. Later in the century, documents relating to the setting up of a hospital for eye disease in Belfast allude to the sectarian


operation of charitable efforts for blind people. An existing clinic is recommended to potential benefactor Edward Benn with the emphasis that it is a ‘non-sectarian affair, taken up by men of the most opposite religious views’. The writer implies that his employer withheld funding from another organisation from dislike of its principles and methods, wishing that ‘such a spirit should not be allowed to go unrebuked’. John Bird, a former doctor and himself blind, condemns the nineteenth-century practice of forcing blind residents of homes and schools to attend certain places of worship and not others, resulting in ‘the estranging discord of religious disunion’ with their families and communities. The Catholic Church provided only one home and school for blind women, girls and eventually a limited number of boys in Northern Ireland, St Brigid’s, established in the early twentieth century. Catholics in the north who wished for or needed residential care or schooling prior to this, or who were not accepted in St Brigid’s, were forced to look for places in Catholic homes, asylums and schools in the south of Ireland or in Scotland or England. Education for blind people remained a controversial subject in twentieth-century Ireland, fractured by sectarian attitudes. In the report of a conference on blind people in 1908, a Mr T.H. Dooley, referring to Ireland’s exclusion from the Compulsory Elementary Education Act which legislated for the education of blind children in England, identified ’the bar to progress’ of this kind in Ireland as ‘religious bias’. Elsewhere in the report it is implied that Catholic institutions are unwilling to prioritise education, and object


to the government inspections required for a school to be certified and grant-aided by the state. Mr T.J. Mulholland of the Belfast Society for Home Mission Work Among the Blind states unequivocally that ‘Roman Catholics… do not approve of education and therefore nothing has been done [by them]’, and that furthermore, ‘when we have attempted to do anything we have been frustrated’. The religious underpinnings of blind welfare were maintained well into the twentieth century, and across the island, with the National Institute for the Blind Executive Sub-Committee on Work for the Blind of Ireland stating in a report in 1930 that, ‘nothing can be non-sectarian in Dublin; non-sectarianism is often a cloak for proselytisation’. Even apparently secular organisations sometimes were assumed to be covertly religious in character. The Blind Welfare Association, which nowhere includes mention of religious principles or a religious agenda in its articles of association, was accused in parliament in 1945 of ‘ go[ing] in and read[ing] a portion of scripture to the blind people, and… look[ing] at the blind persons and go[ing] out again without helping them’. The Belfast Society for Home Mission Work Among the Blind, unambiguously an evangelical organisation, ran homes for blind people in Belfast and Carrickfergus, and in 1944 its enforcement of religious observation was the subject of a complaint by one of the homes’ residents. James Gordon wrote to Antrim County Council in 1944 objecting to the inflexibility of the home’s religious rules:


the Committee have sent a letter to say that those who dont [sic] attend prayers twice a day can look for other accomadition [sic] & as I am one of the lot who refuses to do this… I must go out, is it not Mrs Clyde who should give me a written notice, I have not given any trouble nor insolence except saying I will not attend prayers – If I am going to be put out I should like to be treated decently. In the 1950s the NIB was establishing itself in Belfast, and struggling with hostility from the Home for the Blind. The possibility was mooted of acquiring a ‘controlling interest’ on the Home’s management committee through making grants, but the then Appeals Secretary, John Taberner, was concerned about the religious ethos of the Home. He wrote to Thomas McGladdery in 1953 asking whether the fact that ‘Cliftonville Home is strictly a Protestant Institution’ and members of its committee ‘must be of the Protestant Faith’ would damage the NIB’s prospects of raising money from all communities in Northern Ireland. The provision of blind welfare that was explicitly religious and either Protestant or Catholic gradually dwindled. In 1971 Ann Young noted that in the Belfast Workshops ‘the regular reading from the Scriptures has been abandoned’, though she attributes this not to ‘impiety’ but to the inefficiency of shutting down all machinery for a part of each working day. Nonetheless, the taint of sectarianism in organisations lingered. Frank Callery points out that from the midtwentieth century the Irish Association of the Blind and the


National League of the Blind of Ireland supplied radio sets to, and had as members, blind people living in Northern Ireland, presumably, he suggests, ‘those of a nationalist bent’. In counterpoint, however, staff at the RNIB in Northern Ireland indicate that their services are taken up by blind and partially sighted people in the border counties of the Republic of Ireland, simply because of geographical convenience. The Blind Centre, established in Belfast in 1978, made efforts to sidestep the trap of sectarianism by canvassing support from unionist and nationalist politicians. According to former director Margaret Fusco, the charity consistently operated on a cross-community basis, and was accepted as a politically and religiously neutral service. Guide Dogs in Northern Ireland receives applications and donations from all communities in the province, but Andrew Murdock notes that the charity’s profile is higher in east Belfast, where its offices are located, simply because the puppies and dogs begin their training there and are visible in local neighbourhoods. Because of the sectarian nature of Northern Irish geography, this means that their profile is higher among Protestants than among Catholics, though this is neither a strategy nor a desire on the part of the organisation. The RNIB has been perceived by some to be distasteful to nationalist communities in Northern Ireland because of the inclusion of ‘royal’ in its title and the position of the Queen as its patron, but if this is true, there is no perceptible negative impact on the uptake of its services in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland.


Case Study

James Wilson James Wilson was born in 1779 in Richmond, Virginia. His father was from Scotland, and after fighting and being taken prisoner in the American War of Independence, decided to return to Europe with his pregnant wife and son in around 1784. Sadly, Mr Wilson and his wife both died on this voyage. James had contracted smallpox, and explains that ‘for want of a mother’s care and proper medical aid, this most loathsome disease deprived me of my sight’.1 The ship’s captain was forced by bad weather to take shelter in Belfast, and there left James in the care of a local clergyman with money for five years’ upkeep. After an operation, the boy’s sight improved, but a few years later an attack by a cow left him completely blind once more. Thrown on his own resources, the young James found work as a messenger for Belfast’s merchants, and gradually extended his journeys until he was travelling between 30 and 40 miles at a time, when necessary. He took advice to study music, but notes that through this he ‘was obliged to associate with the dregs of society’, and was exposed to moral rather than physical danger.2 Finding a companion willing and able to read to him, Wilson began his literary education, and secured work delivering papers to subscribers. This job too involved travel outside Belfast, and later Wilson


became a travelling salesman, but found that ‘the want of sight made it difficult for me to steer my course aright, and I was often exposed both to hardships and danger’.3 When bad weather threatened, Wilson could not always find shelter. He was able to hear and avoid horses and vehicles, but often injured himself on inanimate objects in or beside the road. His ‘usual rate’ was 15 to 20 miles a day, although he was capable of 30.4 He dwells on the rigours of this life for a blind person: A blind man…will experience much more fatigue, and go over more ground than he who is in his sight will do in a journey twice that length. This is evident from the zig-zag manner in which he traverses the road…In the summer the blind man is subject to shock his whole frame by trampling in the cart ruts that are dried upon the road, and in winter he travels through thick and thin, as it is impossible for him to choose his steps… At one time he bruises his foot against a stone, at another he sprains his ankle…He often wanders out of his way…[And] to the blind…the charms of nature are concealed under an impenetrable veil.5 He cites instances in which he narrowly avoided falling into a canal, the river Finn and an uncovered well. Wilson mentions an ‘Asylum for the Blind’ which he says opened in Belfast in 1800 in order to teach blind people work at which they could earn a living. He apprenticed himself there, and stayed almost until it closed, at an unspecified


date. He then became an upholsterer. He was given free membership of a reading group established by some mechanics, and a friend from this group spent hours reading to Wilson. Wilson’s dedication to learning led him to travel in all weather to be with his friend whenever he could. After being cheated by someone he had entrusted with his ‘domestic concerns’, Wilson recalls his friends urging him to marry, in order to be ‘more comfortable, and be out of the power of such unprincipled people’. He was reluctant, aware that his ability to earn a living was precarious and that ‘it was enough for me to suffer alone – I could not think of entailing misery upon others’. His friends countered with the argument that ‘no one required the kind assistance of an affectionate wife more than a blind man’.6 In 1802 he married a woman who lived in his neighbourhood, and whom he knew to have cared devotedly for her elderly mother. They had 11 children together, of whom only four were alive at the time Wilson wrote his autobiography.



Chapter Two

Eye Health and Medical Care

Mary Wilson Carpenter suggests that eye disease was of little concern to most doctors prior to the early years of the nineteenth century. A procedure called ‘couching’ was known of and practised in treating cataracts, but was carried out by itinerants with little or no formal medical training. It involved pushing the cataract out of the line of vision with a needle. She links the development of ophthalmology as a respectable profession to a number of factors: the creation of a vaccine to prevent smallpox; the epidemic of Egyptian ophthalmia among soldiers serving in the Napoleonic wars; and the spread of a surgical technique to remove cataracts developed in the mid-eighteenth century. Egyptian ophthalmia, an infectious inflammation of the eye, was important not only because it affected the ability of the army to function, but had the potential to leave large numbers of blinded ex-soldiers dependent on state or charitable support, and further, the infection (in some instances due to venereal disease) was being passed to civilians by returning soldiers.91 The new practice of ophthalmology, Wilson Carpenter argues, ‘was in fact to become one of the few success stories in nineteenthcentury medicine’, with the proportion of populations across Europe designated ‘blind’ decreasing throughout the second half of that century.92 Progress in cataract surgery constituted a cure for many cases of blindness, and exact prescriptions for spectacles became possible with the development of equipment to look into the living eye, which resulted in great advances in knowledge and interest. Although smallpox, gonorrhoea and syphilis had for a long time been major causes of blindness in adults and children, Wilson Carpenter believes


that the adult ophthalmia epidemic was the catalyst for the founding of eye hospitals across Britain.

Eye Disease Eye Disease in Adults At a public meeting held in 1871 by the BAEIB, Reverend T.G. Welland noted that in comparison with other countries in Europe and with America, Ireland’s blind population was a high proportion of its total population. According to government figures, in 1861 one person in 843 in the whole of Ireland was blind, and in Ulster it was one person in 1052. He accounted for the large number of blind people in Ireland ‘by the fact that ophthalmia was to a great extent induced by the failure of the potato crop in 1844-45 and in 1848’, and proposed these circumstances as stimulus to further charitable work for blind people. Ophthalmia, in some cases arising from, and certainly spread by, unhygienic living conditions, flourished both during and after the famine, as more and more people were forced into crowded and unsanitary workhouses.93 As well as blindness induced by smallpox, syphilis, gonorrhoea and ophthalmia, adults became blind through cataracts and glaucoma. Cataracts arose when the lens of the eye degenerated through age or malnutrition, but also could be caused by inflammation elsewhere in the eye, general disease or injury. Glaucoma, previously an incurable condition, became treatable in the


nineteenth century. In glaucoma the pressure of the contents of the eyeball is higher than usual, and it eventually results in the atrophy of the optic nerve and thus blindness. A Select Committee on the Health Service in Northern Ireland recommended in 1944 that blindness itself be classified as notifiable disease, statistics be gathered as to its cause, and that all problems with sight in children be reported to the County Medical Officer.94 Free eye tests under the NHS were introduced in 1958 and over 30 years ‘proved to be a valuable mechanism for the early identification of eye disease across the whole population’, key to avoiding some forms of sight loss.95 They were, of course, also important for people on low incomes. Between 1988 and 1989 the universal free eye test was stopped. Citing numbers of blind and partially sighted people in the UK, an RNIB report shows that the vast majority are aged 75 and over. The authors argue that since age is ‘the most significant risk factor for developing eye disease’, older people are put at a serious disadvantage through not being exempted from the eye test fee on the grounds of age alone.96 Interviewee Anna Beamish notes that when she

Children in Mitchell’s Court, off Gardiner Street in lower Shankill area of Belfast (1912, photograph © National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Ulster Museum)


began to lose her sight through macular degeneration in the mid-1990s, she knew nothing about the condition, despite being a GP. This was because, she believes, most people in the past did not live long enough to lose their sight in this way, and when an elderly person became blind, it was accepted as merely a symptom of old age.97 Further, many people do not know that eye tests check the health of the eye as well as vision, and research shows that the cost of the test can be a deterring factor in having it carried out. In 1997 the RNIB also expressed concern that no national standards of practice existed for optometrists with regard to the eye health check; although it is mandatory, the assessments used in the check are decided by the optometrist, and while ‘full inspection of the retina’ is necessary to identify the symptoms of many eye diseases, this is not often done (it requires dilation of the pupil).98 For glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, early diagnosis is crucial to prevention. They warn that: The partial privatisation of optometry and subsequent permission to advertise has led to optometry being perceived in commercial rather than healthcare terms‌ a public education campaign is urgently required to promote the role of eye tests in the early detection of sight loss.99 Focusing on eye injuries rather than eye disease, Yvonne Canavan carried out a survey on cases presented at the Ophthalmology Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital


between 1967 and 1976. 2032 patients were included in the survey, 84 per cent of which were male and 16 per cent female.100 More than one third of these patients had received eye injuries in a road traffic accident, and half in this category were aged under 21. Other causes of injuries were ‘civil disturbance’, accidents at play or sport, industrial accidents and accidents on the farm or at home. In 215 cases one or both eyes were removed, most commonly after perforating injuries. Pointing out trends, Canavan notes that industrial accidents to eyes had decreased in importance: in 1979 they accounted for 15 per cent of injuries; in 1929 they accounted for 70 per cent.101 Car accidents had become far more significant: Road traffic accidents are particularly disastrous as they accounted for nearly one-half of all bilateral injuries in this survey…The use of safety belts and laminated glass windscreens in certain countries have virtually eliminated ocular injuries from road traffic accidents and it is logical that such measures should be strongly encouraged’102 In Northern Ireland today accurate statistics on visual impairment have been gathered by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), with contributions from the 2011 census, through which 30 000 respondents reported themselves to be blind or partially sighted. According to NISRA, there are 48 000 people in Northern Ireland with visual impairment, although optometrist and


RNIB regional manager David Barnes suggests that of these, only 6000 to 7000 are registered as partially sighted or blind. To register, it is necessary to be certified as blind or partially sighted by a consultant ophthalmologist, after a series of tests and checks. This information is shared with the patient’s GP, the local council’s social services department and the Department of Health. David Barnes explains that those thought to be blind or partially sighted but not registered as such, suffer from uncorrected refractive error, or the need for glasses. This group include many with learning disabilities, of whom it is estimated that 50 per cent have an undetected need for glasses. The causes of visual impairment in Northern Ireland are the same as those in the rest of the United Kingdom: principally, wet and dry macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and cataracts, and an ageing population is itself a threat to eye health.103 All of these conditions are, or can be, age-related, although the incidence of diabetes is rising in the population in general, and diabetes is the major cause of visual impairment for adults of working age. Glaucoma, with early diagnosis, can be treated with eye drops, which perform a range of functions; it is still unclear exactly what causes glaucoma, and some drops are intended to unblock drainage channels, while others may reduce the eye’s production of certain liquids. Wet macular degeneration can now be treated with monthly ranibizumab injections, but early diagnosis must be followed swiftly by treatment. The RNIB monitors hospital waiting lists and lobbies the Department of Health when it appears that sufferers of this condition (and others)


will not be treated in a timely way. The charity also takes the lead in convening the government, the civil service, opthalmologists and optometrists and voluntary bodies to discuss strategies to improve the prevention and treatment of eye disease; the result of this work is the Development of Eye Care Partnership, a strategy document which constitutes a blueprint for integrated eye health care over the next five years in Northern Ireland.104

Eye Disease in Children Linked to gonorrhoea, ophthalmia neonatorum was for many years the most common cause of blindness in children. It arises from contact with gonococcus bacteria (associated with, but not exclusive to, gonorrhoea) in vaginal discharges, during or soon after birth. In the late nineteenth century, ophthalmia neonatorum was known to be caused by chlamydia or gonorrhoea in the mother. Ophthalmologists undertook microscopic research to verify this fact, but there was widespread reluctance to refer to it publicly, which significantly hampered the prevention of the condition. In the 1880s Emrys Jones had surveyed the inmates of Henshaw’s Blind Asylum and shown that almost half of new residents had ‘preventable blindness’, and of these, three-quarters had become blind through ophthalmia neonatorum.105 Michael Warboys indicates that ‘only a small percentage of babies suffered from ophthalmia neonatorum, but the disease was the single largest cause of blindness’.106


Conway Street National School, off Falls Road in Belfast (1902, photograph Š National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Ulster Museum). This photograph was commissioned from Robert Hogg by Dr William McKeown to illustrate his opinion of the city’s schools, given in an interview.

In 1895 Cecil Shaw explained: Ophthalmia Neonatorum is a form of purulent conjunctivitis occurring in new-born children, due to infection with the specific virus soon or after birth. Its importance can hardly be exaggerated, when we remember that by far the greatest number of all cases of blindness in the United Kingdom are due to this disease; and, furthermore, that when proper prophylactic measures are taken the disease does not occur, and even where these have been omitted early and careful treatment is always successful.107 It was too often treated at home with home remedies, with no regard for the extremely infectious nature of the pus produced by infected eyes. Shaw warned that ‘pus [should be] wiped away with lint or plugs of wool (which should be at once burned)’.108 Medical staff began cleaning a child’s eyes with a strong antiseptic immediately after birth as a prophylactic treatment, and the National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland campaigned to make the disease compulsorily notifiable. Disinfection of the mother’s genitals


and baby’s eyes was inexpensive and soon proved to be effective, and was recommended as a preventative practice in the Final Report of the Royal Commission on the Blind, Deaf and Mute in 1889. Conceiving it their duty not only to assist blind people, but to educate the public on preventable causes of blindness, in 1927 the BAEIB’s Committee of Workshops reported on their campaign to make parents aware of the dangers of eye inflammation in babies in particular. The report notes that: Contagious discharges getting into the eyes during or soon after birth…[account for] more than one-half of the cases of total blindness…and nine-tenths of these cases might have been prevented by the commonest cleanliness at the outset of the disease109 Their advice to parents is to clean babies’ eyes with a rag, ‘used only once, and then burnt immediately’.110 In 1929 legislation was passed in Northern Ireland that required medical staff to notify the relevant authorities of cases of ophthalmia neonatorum.111 Other diseases affecting the eyes and sight especially of children included scarlet fever, measles, and meningitis. They could suffer also from cataracts, caused congenitally or by malnutrition in early childhood when the lens was developing.112 Lack of hygiene was again a factor in eye disease and blindness for older children as for babies. Ciliary blepharitis was an infection of the lash follicles caused by


(among other things) the spread of conjunctivitis or septic sores elsewhere on the body, or ‘personal uncleanliness, bad health and bad hygienic surroundings’.113 It could cause the loss or deformity of the eyelashes and if the eyelashes rubbed against the eyeball, resulted in corneal ulcers, opacity and irreversible deformity. Often it was seen in children living in conditions of poverty, and Shaw recommended that an infected child should be got ‘under favourable conditions for the general health’ as a preliminary to treatment.114 Much later, in the mid-twentieth century, a disease which came to be called ‘retinopathy of prematurity’ began to cause concern. With the development of technologies that allowed babies born earlier and earlier in their gestation period to survive, doctors were confused by the relatively high incidence of blindness among these babies.115 William Silverman defines this ‘previously unknown form of blindness’ as an ‘epidemic’, and explains that retinopathy of prematurity, or retrolental fibroplasia, eventually was linked to increased flows of oxygen into incubators.116 In some babies – but not most – the oxygen damaged the retina, and in the 1950s in the USA, this was the single most common cause of blindness among babies and children. Research from within the last twenty years suggests that some babies are susceptible to this damage and others are not, and so the causes are more complex than the potentially dangerous effect of oxygen. The condition still occurs despite advances in knowledge, as interviewee Torie Tennant, 22, can testify. In the late nineteenth century, Dr William McKeown, of the Benn Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat Clinic, had lectured



medical students in Queen’s University, Belfast, on his belief that placing children in school from the age of five led to a higher incidence of sight loss than otherwise would be the case. He argued that at this age, children’s eyes were better at seeing over distances, and could be damaged by ‘confinement indoors, peering at close text’.117 His views on the importance of educational environments and methods are echoed in a report from the early 1960s on schooling for partially sighted children. The authors of the report warn that increasing reliance on visual aids (as opposed to oral teaching) in schools places the partially sighted child’s eyes under great strain, and in addition to leaving that child ‘educationally handicapped’, his or her sight may be lost completely.118 They recommend that certain activities such as needlework be avoided, and that since ‘unhygienic conditions and under-nourishment’ can cause or exacerbate eye disease, schools for the partially sighted should be ‘wholly residential’,

Dr William McKeown performing a procedure on a man’s eye at Benn Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital (1902, photograph © National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Ulster Museum)


again reiterating nineteenth-century concerns.119 In general, the report attributes the incidence of partial sight in Northern Ireland – which had not been accurately ascertained at that stage – in part to ‘inter-marriage and consanguinity in isolated communities’.120 In 1976 D.B. Archer and J.H. Bryars carried out a survey to determine accurate numbers of blind and partially sighted children in Northern Ireland, in which they identified every person between birth and 20 as of 1st January 1976 with a visual impairment as defined by the International Association for the Prevention of Blindness. 121 This was possible because the province offered a ‘relatively small and confined population…together with a low index of population movement’.122 486 children were shown to have a visual impairment, with 133 described as ‘both mentally and visually handicapped’. The survey suggested that 101 out of 100 000 children in Northern Ireland had a visual disability, the main causes of which were cataracts, albinism and tapeto-retinal dystrophies (hereditary conditions affecting the retina); the main causes of blindness, meanwhile, were diseases of the optic nerve and pathways, retinopathy of prematurity and again, tapeto-retinal dystrophies. Since 1955, the authors explain, retinopathy of prematurity ‘has diminished in importance’.123 In fact, the main difference between the situation in the 1920s and that in the 1970s, the authors suggest, is that post-natally acquired diseases are no longer the principal cause of visual impairment; rather, genetic conditions had come to the fore. Bryars and Archer found ‘definite genetic causes’ in 51 per cent of the cases


they surveyed, which they note is a higher incidence than in any other survey of causes of visual impairment in children apart from in Lebanon and Cyprus, ‘where consanguinity is exceptionally high’.124 Pre- and perinatal factors in visual impairment included pre-eclampsia, slow foetal growth, prematurity, prolonged or arduous delivery, birth trauma, inadequate supply of oxygen and low blood sugar, which contributed to retinopathy of prematurity, cataracts and diseases of the optic nerve and pathways. They conclude that ‘birth hypoxia is… second only to genetic defects as a cause of blindness in children’.125 Presently, the main causes of partial sight and blindness in children still are congenital, including congenital glaucoma and cataracts, albinism and nystagmus (involuntary eye movement). Children are screened for poor vision by a routine eye test in the first year of primary school, although David Barnes indicates that the RNIB would like this test, performed in the school and involving reading letters from a chart, to be expanded into a full eye examination. Henry Mayne, an interviewee who was born in 1949, was diagnosed with severe myopia when he was two or three years old. He was given prescription glasses that enabled him to see as normal, and began his education in a mainstream school. Then, at the age of around eight, he closed one eye and discovered that he could see nothing out of the other. His retina had become detached, the risk of this happening being slightly higher for myopic children than for others. Despite his being able to see with his left eye, Henry’s parents were advised to send him to the Ulster Institution for the


Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and the Blind; he points out that in similar circumstances today special education would be considered unnecessary. Later, just before beginning secondary school, the retina in Henry’s left eye detached. He remembers, ‘there was a bit more warning. I noticed the curtain coming across with the retina being detached’, and he told his parents immediately. He was taken again to Derry, this time to the new Altnagelvin Hospital, and was operated on with success. Six months later, the retina detached again and another operation was not as successful. He returned to the Ulster Institution, which had moved to Jordanstown.126

Eye Hospitals in the North of Ireland Soon after Belfast was incorporated in 1631 a fund called ‘Poores Money’ was set up to help the poor with the cost of medical treatment. In 1776 the Belfast Charitable Society finished building a Poor House and hospital, funded by subscription, and in 1792 a General Dispensary was established, again voluntarily, with the specific aim of inoculating children against smallpox and ‘prevent[ing] blindness, which often was a sequel of that disease’.127 In the Belfast News-letter a prospectus made reference to those blinded by smallpox in pressing the need for funds: If the number of lives annually lost by the ravages of smallpox did not of itself point out the necessity for some association for the inoculation of the children of


the poor, yet another inducement, of the most urgent nature, would be found in the frequent occurrence of blindness from the same causes among the lower classes. How many of our fellow creatures are compelled by this cruel malady, to wander over and disfigure the face of this flourishing country, whose useful labours might otherwise concentrate to the support of families and the public good.128

Belfast Ophthalmic Hospital and Benn Ulster Hospital With public hospitals run by subscription, bequest, endowment and donation, the dispensary and Belfast’s fever hospital were dogged by financial difficulty until 1807, when they became recipients of state aid. With this support, Belfast General Hospital was built, and opened in 1817. In 1816 efforts to open an eye dispensary failed. In 1827 a dispensary to treat children and diseases of the eye was set up in Chapel Lane, and by 1832 50 000 people had been advised and medicated there. However, by 1859 its funds had failed and it closed. In 1845 Dr Samuel Browne took a house in Mill Street on his own initiative and created the Ophthalmic Institute, backed by philanthropists determined to see it succeed. It treated 6450 ophthalmic patients in the next five years. In 1865 one of these backers, Lady Johnson, underwrote the building and equipping of a new purpose-made eye and ear hospital, with the annual income to be raised from subscriptions and donations. Ground was offered in Great Victoria Street, and the Belfast Ophthalmic Hospital opened


Benn Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital on Clifton Street, Belfast (1919, photograph Š National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Ulster Museum)

in 1867. It could accommodate 25 in-patients, as well as outpatients, and was a teaching hospital. In early 1871 Dr William McKeown was operating a small private clinic for free treatment of eye disease among the poor of Belfast on Great Patrick Street. McKeown was to gain an international reputation as an ophthalmic surgeon, developing the use of magnets to remove metal from the inside of the eye. He performed the first operation of this kind on a boy from the Harland and Wolff shipyards in 1873. He also pioneered the forced ‘ripening’ of cataracts in order to expedite their removal. Otherwise, the patient was left to go blind gradually before the opaque lens was operated on. Eventually, McKeown’s method was adopted across Europe and America. Edward Benn, an Antrim-born businessman and philanthropist and himself often in poor health, took special interest in charities set up to help the sick. He received a letter from his agent James Andrews in June 1871 recommending that he give a sum of money to McKeown’s clinic: Seeing how much your feelings have been engaged, for those who have lost their sight, it has struck me, that you would be at least equally, if not more interested in those, whose sight, could by timely treatment be saved or restored.129 Benn funded extensions to the service at Great Patrick Street, then built a larger and better-planned hospital at his own expense on Clifton Street which opened in 1874


as the Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat Clinic. Subscriptions were gathered for its maintenance, and Benn’s brother George donated £1000 and eventually bequeathed £1000 to the hospital. Patient numbers increased rapidly year on year, and it was decided that those who could pay for treatment should pay, in order to avoid running at a loss, with a subcommittee or the Acting Surgeon responsible for deciding whom to admit for free.130 In 1880 the Belfast General Hospital was granted a royal charter and became the Royal Hospital, at which time its ophthalmic ward expanded into a special department within the hospital. The Belfast Ophthalmic Hospital, according to R.S. Allison, was operating in ‘healthy rivalry’ with the Ulster Clinic by the 1880s.131 Both hospitals continued to struggle financially, and the Ulster Clinic was ending each year in debt, despite taking in private patients. Nonetheless, its management committee managed to raise the money to extend and improve its premises, and in 1896 new wards and an operating theatre opened, with space for a shop on the Clifton Street frontage providing a rental income. From this point it became the Benn Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. In 1884 it was designated a teaching institution for eye and ear diseases by the Royal University of Ireland, while Queen’s University recognised the Belfast Ophthalmic Hospital as a teaching hospital in 1911. The requirement for this, easily fulfilled in each case, was that 10 beds should be occupied by patients who could be used as teaching cases. During the war, the two hospitals entered into an arrangement whereby one or the other would be open on


six days of each week, and in 1918 it was proposed that the two would merge. This would have entailed many benefits, including the sharing of equipment and the concentration of expert staff in one place, but ‘legal technicalities’ in the trust deeds for each institution proved insuperable.132 In 1921, with the Benn Ulster Clinic still struggling to balance its books, an appeal to the Recorder of Belfast resulted in its ‘essentially charitable nature’ being recognised, and it was exempted from paying rates.133 Two female collectors had been appointed to the Benn Ulster Clinic in 1910 to canvass subscriptions, and in 1923 the Ladies’ Committee was formally created. The committee collected money, visited patients, donated fresh fruit and vegetables from their gardens and produced nightwear and dressing gowns for the patients. With Harland and Wolff alone referring 117 workers to the clinic in 1906, the Ladies’ Committee targeted this and other firms, including the York Street Spinning Company and the Brookfield Linen Company, to secure subscriptions or increase existing subscriptions. They met with little success. In 1945, the Belfast Ophthalmic Hospital’s centenary year, 15 500 patients were seen there, and record levels of subscriptions were achieved after a special appeal to the public for funds. Then, in 1946, legislation was passed which allowed the hospital to merge with the Benn Ulster Clinic and the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Department in the Royal Victoria Hospital. The management committees of the Belfast Ophthalmic Hospital and the Benn Ulster Clinic were combined in 1949, and lobbied the Ministry of Health to realise its plans to build a new eye, ear, nose and throat


hospital. Beset by delays, foundations were laid eventually on a site in the Royal Victoria Hospital grounds in 1960, and in 1964, the new Eye and Ear Clinic opened. The ophthalmology department at Altnagelvin Hospital in County Londonderry is second only to that at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Patients from the Western and Northern Health and Social Care Trusts are referred there for inpatient treatment and surgery, although the most complex cases are still dealt with in Belfast. There are 22 satellite eye health clinics, for outpatient procedures, across Northern Ireland. According to the RNIB, an area in which ophthalmology services could be improved is casualty. People present with minor conditions such as dry eye or conjunctivitis, most of which can be treated by an optometrist. The reasons for this include the partial commercialisation of optometry, and the public perception that eye tests are optional, expensive and inevitably lead to being fitted with glasses or contact lenses, a further expense. David Barnes points to a scheme piloted in Grampian in Scotland with great success whereby optometrists are funded to offer free examination and treatment for some dozen minor eye conditions, which, it is hoped, can be replicated in Northern Ireland. 134 With 20 per cent of all outpatient appointments in ophthalmology departments relating to glaucoma, the Shankill Wellbeing Centre has been established in Belfast to assume responsibility for glaucoma care in particular. In a new building, with new equipment, the centre offers testing, advice, treatment and where necessary, referral, and is intended to relieve pressure on hospitals and treat patients


quickly and effectively. A scheme for electronic referral between optometrists and ophthalmologists also is under development, bypassing the lengthy process of sending a letter via the patient’s general practitioner (GP). Up to one third of patients referred to ophthalmologists need no further care after an initial check, and it is hoped that this scheme, with its use of photographs of the back of the eye, will enable ophthalmologists to determine and act on patients’ needs quickly and easily.135 David Barnes indicates that Northern Ireland is leading the field in the United Kingdom in provision of Eye Care Liaison Officers (ECLOs), who are working in every Health and Social Care Trust in the six counties. In a post conceived of and recommended by the College of Ophthalmologists, the officers help to make sure patients understand their diagnosis and treatment and are compliant with their medication, as well as offering practical assistance and emotional support. Initially, RNIB in Northern Ireland received central RNIB funding to establish ECLOs, and their effectiveness resulted in the Health and Social Care Trusts assuming financial responsibility for them. Currently, ECLOs are employed by the Trusts and managed by the RNIB, and in Northern Ireland statistics are being gathered to support their spread throughout the UK.136 Speaking of their own experiences in the last fifty years, several interviewees point to the progress made within the hospital system in supporting those diagnosed with eye diseases or becoming blind in adulthood. Hazel Flanagan mentions the ECLOs established in the Royal Hospital in


the early 2000s as having been a great help. Most officers themselves have visual impairments, and guide newly blind people through an adjustment period, offering practical help with communication and accessing resources as well as psychological and emotional help.137 Anna Beamish was diagnosed with macular degeneration in the early 1990s, and was told at the Royal Hospital at that time that there was no treatment for this condition. She was registered blind in 1996. She recalls feeling abandoned after her diagnosis, although she eventually was able to access some support from a resource centre through her GP. Having experienced this sense of isolation herself, she now volunteers at the Eye Help Clinic in Dungannon, where she is on hand to help answer questions about resources, aids and support, drawing on her personal history and her professional knowledge as a former GP. Another interviewee, Claire Bowes, who became blind at 15 through eye injuries inflicted by the Omagh bomb, volunteered and later found paid work as an ECLO, and emphasises her sense that the service is profoundly important. Like Anna, she did not benefit from that type of support at the time of her injury, and relishes the range of skills her job demands, with some service users prioritising practicalities and others foregrounding emotional responses. As Claire points out, ‘people do grieve for their eye loss’. She considers the first task of an ECLO to be meeting with those developing eye diseases or becoming blind as soon as possible after diagnosis, in order to keep them from assuming they will have to leave work, for example, and to let them know that when they are ready, someone sensitive,


understanding and informed will be there to discuss the ramifications of, and potential adaptations to, sight loss. The ECLO service was expanded in 2008 to be available to people at all points at which, and in all places where, diagnosis of sight loss or change is likely to take place, including making contact with people through optometrists. Interviewee Henry Mayne, blinded by detached retinas, became a social worker. For those of his clients with sight loss, Henry explains: There are [some] that you can never manage to motivate… And sometimes too, and I would know this from my own experience, that people that hanker after a medical resolution, a cure… have never accepted… the situation, have never actually faced reality… It’s sometimes a barrier to progress. Henry believes his role, as a social worker, is to offer crucial support at the moment when someone is told that nothing more can be done for them, at which time ‘there is a high level of fear’. Speaking for himself, he explains that the period of time in which he ‘had a little bit of sight’, but it was deteriorating, and he did not know whether he was, or would be, partially sighted or blind, was ‘of only nuisance value’ because it prevented him from accepting and adjusting to his circumstances. Despite the existence of ECLOs, interviewee Gloria feels that blind and partially sighted people are not accommodated adequately at the Royal Victoria Hospital in


particular. Attending every six months for a check-up, she suggests that staff ‘don’t know how to speak to people with sight loss’ and cannot accommodate patients who are unable to see the chairs in the waiting rooms or a chart on the wall.138 Among the group of partially sighted people meeting monthly in the Linenhall Library, of which Gloria is a member, there is a general consensus that although post-diagnosis support has improved, patients are not being directed to it by doctors, and doctors do not give sufficient time to each patient. The RNIB is present at the Royal Victoria Hospital, through the ECLOs, but the group felt that they could not be expected to find and see every person in need of their services.139 Likewise, interviewee Margaret Mann points out that the letters she gets from her local Well Woman Clinic always arrive in a format she cannot read, and because of the sensitive nature of the information they contain, she would prefer to read them privately at first.140


Case Study

James Ford-Smith James Ford-Smith was born in 1939 in Leicestershire. His father was in the Royal Air Force and died during World War Two without having seen his son. James graduated from Cambridge University with an arts degree, and is believed to have begun losing his sight at this time or shortly afterward. He had diabetes and became blind due to diabetic retinopathy. James moved to Belfast to work as Keeper of Modern Art at the Ulster Museum. His mother, Deborah, followed him and they lived near each other in south Belfast. When his sight loss made his work very difficult, he moved to the post of Public Relations Officer for the Ulster Museum. In this capacity he was a regular radio broadcaster, appearing on a Radio Ulster show with Walter Love. Radio was an important medium for him, since he was not able to read Braille easily, lacking the necessary sensitivity of touch. Perceiving a gap in provision between talking newspapers and talking books, in 1977 he set up a talking magazine, Sound Vision Ulster, which continues today. It comprised interviews, stories, advice and information, news of particular interest to blind and partially sighted people, and music. He travelled around Northern Ireland with recording equipment to carry out many of the interviews himself.


In 1978 James helped to set up the Blind Centre. Its first offices were in his home in Belfast. At this stage, he was completely blind, and had been through a process of rehabilitation in England. He intended the Blind Centre to provide a variety of services for blind and partially sighted people across Northern Ireland, services which up to that time had been lacking, in his view. He was concerned not only that blind and partially sighted people in Northern Ireland be offered rehabilitation services such as mobility and equipment training, but that the risks of social isolation be mitigated, and services spread outside of Belfast. To this end, the Blind Centre developed holidays, social clubs and home visits, and established offices in Omagh and Coleraine as well as Belfast. His colleagues remember him as intelligent, fiercely independent and determined. He had guide dogs and lived alone, despite his close relationship with his mother. He was an active member of society, serving on committees, boards and trusts including the Blind Centre, the Northern Ireland Conservative Party and the Eastern Health and Social Services Board. He was awarded an OBE for his many and varied achievements. In 1987, he suffered paralysis in his right side after a stroke, and had to retrain with his guide dog, using his left side. James moved back to England following the death of his mother in around 1990, and died there on 28th December 2010 at the age of 71.7 86



Chapter Three


In the mid-1850s John Bird wrote movingly and at length of the need of a blind person for intellectual and emotional stimulation. He contended that blind people easily suffer from the ‘impoverished, imprisoned, and unemployed mind, or that irritability from incapacity when the needed information is designedly or unintentionally withheld’.141 He described his own plight as dependent on the help of a boy to read and write, someone who must ‘observe as accurately as blind people require… take an interest in what he read, and thus understanding to write without finding it irksome’.142 When such a guide is lost, Bird argued, the blind person sustains a ‘sudden check to all mental exertion’, and if a sympathetic replacement is not quickly found, the blind person is left with a companion ‘to whose level of perception and action their own minds must be limited, cramped, and to harmony with which they must ultimately collapse’.143 He maintained that: Blind schools, so far as the house, the stores, and all the rest of the materialism, are undoubtedly the property of the different corporate bodies and societies…but that enormous amount of human mind imprisoned in blind people and in the deaf and dumb, with its powers of elevation, its capacity for suffering, usefulness, and happiness – in fact, with its privileges of life – is not the property of any self-constituted directors or amateurs, to be stunted, driven wild, mismanaged, or blasted by incompetent supervision or inadequate opportunity.144


As a corollary to his pleas for the sensitive education of blind people, he emphatically refuted the idea that this was possible in what he called ‘exile schools’, or special schools.145 He contended that only a small proportion of the graduates of these schools were able to earn a living, and that they could not offer ‘such genuine confidence… [as can be] gained from the busy, the useful, and well-conducted intercourse with the good and the benevolent in daily life’.146 The first school for the ‘formal academic and vocational education’ of blind children was set up in Paris by Valentin Hauy in 1784.147 In 1790 Louis XVI decreed that it should be maintained at the expense of the state, and Louis Braille was a pupil there.148 Its establishment set a precedent, and many more schools for blind people were opened across Europe in the early years of the nineteenth century. Eric Boulter takes a more positive view of this process than does Bird, describing the development of access to education, special or otherwise, as a ‘turning point’ from which ‘blind people themselves could serve as co-partners’ in the process of meeting their needs.149

Schools for Blind People in the North of Ireland The Irish Harp Society’s School for the Blind The Irish Harp Society (IHS) of Belfast took a keen interest in those blind people who were musically gifted. Music was


an accepted profession for blind people, although as the nineteenth century wore on, the middle classes inclined to the opinion that blind musicians led a degenerate life and playing music was an undesirable means of earning a living. In 1792 a harp festival took place in Belfast at which eight out of the ten harpists were blind, including the famous Denis O’Hempsey (or Donnchadh Ó hAmsaigh) and Arthur O’Neill. Since most of these harpists were also elderly, a group of professional men keen to preserve their knowledge and skills evolved a plan to employ them to train young blind people (mostly but not exclusively boys). To this end they established themselves formally as the Irish Harp Society in 1808 and set up a school funded by donation and subscription in which Arthur O’Neill was to teach 12 young people harp music. Their literary education would also be provided for, and some would board. Bridget O’Reilly, of Virginia in Cavan, was the sole female pupil in the early years. The school soon ran out of funds, and in 1810 further appeals were made for money. In 1812, an anonymous letter to the press alleged that Arthur O’Neill was owed a substantial sum by the IHS and was living in poverty. The society agreed to pay him an annuity of £30, but collapsed in 1813, and O’Neill died in 1816. Some years

Arthur O’Neill, harpist (undated, courtesy of Causeway Museum Service, Sam Henry Collection) 92

later the IHS was restarted with funds from a committee of Ulster-born businessmen living in Calcutta (including Arthur Jacob Macan), and in 1820 it appointed a new harp tutor for six pupils of whom only three are described as blind. 15 men, of whom Alexander Mitchell was one, became trustees of the money from Bengal; they appointed as master Valentine Rainey, a pupil of O’Neill’s in the original school; subsequently Rainey’s own pupil James Jackson became master. He was the last, and by 1839 the school’s funds had all but disappeared, with little support forthcoming locally. Writing in that year to member Edward Bunting, secretary John McAdam expressed concern that the young harpists the school trained could earn their living only by ‘playing in hotels, where they are too liable to contract fatal habits’.150 Patrick Byrne is described by Frank Callery as ‘the last minstrel’ of the IHS. He was born in 1794 in Cavan, and was blinded at two by smallpox. A patron secured him a place in an ‘institution’, possibly the Richmond Institution, and he later spent eighteen months at the IHS school. As an adult he travelled Ireland and Britain playing for public and private audiences, and in 1841 received a warrant as Irish Harper to Prince Albert.

Denis O’Hempsey, harpist (undated, courtesy of Causeway Museum Service, Sam Henry Collection)


The Ulster Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and the Blind In 1831 a school was established in Belfast for deaf children; prior to this, pupils from Belfast and the north were sent with funds to the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb at Claremont in Dublin. Over the next few years it became increasingly difficult to get sufficient money from public subscriptions and donations to run the school and house the children, and it seemed as though the school would have to close. At a meeting in 1835 to discuss this possibility, the idea of admitting blind children to the school was raised. Few formal attempts to educate blind people had been made in the north of Ireland before this. The Irish Harp School had offered a musical education, but music was felt among attendees of the meeting to be a dubious occupation: It was well known that the musical abilities by which many of the destitute blind obtained a precarious livelihood in Belfast and the surrounding country, whether at the splendid ball of the great or at the vulgar dance of the vile and outcast, too often became the means of bringing themselves and tempting others, to a common degradation; and a melancholy event which occurred about this time in the neighbourhood gave force to the [committee’s] appeal. Two blind “fiddlers” returning home from a “whiskey dance” not far from the city perished in the same ditch.151


The idea was accepted and the appeal for funds to maintain and expand the school for the deaf was made through the newspapers in 1836. With an enthusiastic response, the committee responsible quickly had to erect a building – on a site granted by the Belfast Charitable Society in College Street – and constitute themselves as the Ulster Society for Promoting the Education of the Deaf and the Blind. They called the school the Ulster Institution for the Education of

Ulster Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and the Blind, Lisburn Road, Belfast (undated, courtesy of NIEA Built Heritage)


Plan of site and buildings at Jordanstown Schools (probably from early 1950s, courtesy of Jordanstown School

the Deaf and Dumb, and the Blind. With accommodation for 50 boarders, the education they planned to offer was specifically ‘religious and literary’ and would lead to ‘some useful trade’.152 By 1841 the committee opened a public subscription list to raise money to build a bigger school, and a site of five acres on the Lisburn Road was leased. Building began in 1843, and the new school was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon, responsible for other landmark buildings in Belfast such as Queen’s University. It had room for 100 boarders, separate schoolrooms for the deaf and blind pupils and a workshop for teaching trades. All pupils and staff were required to attend ‘family worship’ twice a day. Delegations of pupils and staff were sent out to provincial towns across Ulster to raise money and encourage the establishment of auxiliary schools, of which there were 98 by 1846. Subsequently, annual visits to the auxiliaries were made by groups comprising a clergyman, an assistant teacher and pupils. At this stage the Belfast school had twice as many deaf as blind pupils. Teachers were engaged on the basis of seven years’ apprenticeship, presuming that they had a ’sound English education’ and were qualified to be trained.153 During this period they had to live at the school and spent much of their holidays on secondment to the


auxiliaries. In 1877 one teacher asked permission to marry and ‘sleep out’, and was refused.154 In the early years of the school its management committee found itself at odds with the Claremont Institution in Dublin, which, being an allIreland organisation, had its Juvenile Association canvassing for funds across Ulster. Thus deputations from both schools found themselves in competition for attention and money in provincial towns in the north, and eventually agreed that Claremont would confine its fundraising activities to the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Connacht, while the Ulster Institution would be left alone to establish its auxiliaries and collect money within Ulster.155 Forty years later, the greater part of the Institution’s income was derived from these auxiliaries. Blind children in the school were at a disadvantage from the beginning, despite the fact that sympathy for their circumstances had elicited the subscriptions that allowed the school to stay open. For the first four years they had no teacher, and spent their time making goods and selling them from door to door. Then blind pupils were offered three years’ education, while deaf pupils had five, with the excuse given that blind people were easier to teach. The Society adopted the Braille method of education 20 years after it was established, despite its widespread acceptance as the best method of learning for children. The first experienced teacher of blind people at the Institution came in 1889. In 1902 senior blind children were sent to the Belfast Workshops for the Blind to learn basketmaking, but these visits were soon stopped when it was decided that ‘the influence of the adult


blind was detrimental to the morals of the blind children’.156 The school board remained parsimonious in the matter of buying textbooks for the blind pupils, and in 1947 they were using geography books published in 1878 and 1904. The school was oversubscribed almost from the outset, and in 1850 could accept only 13 of 71 applications for admittance. With a fall in subscriptions during the years of the Irish famine, by 1853 its income was re-established and rising, and the Ulster Society became concerned with finding and admitting eligible children before they became too old; eventually they changed the rules regarding age to allow more children to attend. The rise in the school’s income was due in part to the clever management of the principal, John Kinghan, and in part to the more efficient implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Act for Ireland, which allowed rates raised by the Board of Guardians to pay for the education of destitute deaf, dumb and blind children. The remittances sent by the auxiliary schools were a major source of income, and from 1850 onwards the Institution was supported by legacies in wills. At a public meeting held by the BAEIB in December 1871, Reverend T.G. Welland cited statistics showing the paucity of education and training yet available to blind people in Ireland, referring to a government survey of 1861 which identified 920 blind people in workhouses, of which 329 were educated, and 591 were uneducated.157 In the late nineteenth century, the Ulster Institution made a concerted attempt to have education for deaf, dumb and blind children made compulsory and state-funded. At this time an act


of parliament had made the Society a Corporation with a body of governors, comprising 11 members of the Church of Ireland and 11 members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Legislation was put forward in 1905, but the onset of agitation for Home Rule in Ireland, the First World War and the Irish War of Independence delayed its implementation. In 1908 complaints were made about the lack of state support for technical education; that is, the period of apprenticeship in the Belfast Workshops for the Blind following school and preceding full employment. Apprentices earned no money in their first year, and only in their sixth year attained full wages.158 In 1920 the Blind Persons’ Act led to the Society receiving £20 per year from the Corporation of Belfast County Borough for each blind child resident in the Institution, and by 1921, with Ireland partitioned and Northern Ireland’s own parliament established at Stormont, the Society were hopeful of further advances in education provision. The Institution’s board of governors asked that teachers’ salaries be paid by the education authorities, while it would finance the maintenance and management of the Institution and the pupils’ accommodation. The board also recommended that eye and ear examinations be made mandatory in all primary schools, in order to tackle the preventable causes of blindness and deafness. After repeated lobbying, the Minister for Education finally certified the Institution as the Ulster School for the Deaf and Blind and as a recipient of state aid. Inspectors’ reports from the 1920s and 1930s note a ‘pleasing tone’ in the school and commend the teachers as ‘sympathetic and intelligent’, and ‘capable, industrious,


and earnest’, and the pupils as ‘pleasantly interested’.159 The first reports to consistently distinguish between blind people and the deaf children occur in the late 1930s and indicate that blind girls were taught to cook, while boys were taught ‘handwork’. Both groups learned mental arithmetic, music, especially solo singing, and recitation. Documents from the 1950s show how staff assessed pupils. One boy was around five when he arrived. He was judged to have ‘limited manual skills’ but ‘good vocabulary’ on admittance, and was ‘happy, friendly… with… gay conversation… [and] co-operative’.160 Soon, it was reported that the boy ‘hopes to get by on “charm” or crying helplessly’, and was reluctant to feed or dress himself.161 Initially he would not ‘explore his environment’, but would ‘stand still, occasionally flapping his hands’, and ‘wait to be led to an occupation’.162 When playing, however, he very much enjoyed rhymes and music and engaged in imaginative play ‘very well’.163 Soon he became more independent in movement, first in dancing and then in the outdoors. His family kept in touch regularly with letters and parcels, and he was heard several times reporting his mother’s opinion that he should be nearer home. Another child, a girl, came to the school at just over three years old. She was soon considered to be very intelligent, and began learning Braille at five. Although slow in movement and hesitant in new environments, with a ‘poor’ sense of direction, she was feeding, washing and dressing herself within a year of arriving.164 Early on it was noted that she ‘does not like… to do anything which is not her usual routine’, but a year later


Pupil at Jordanstown Schools learning to type (undated, courtesy of Jordanstown School)

‘is eager to master new skills’.165 In 1953 a house and 22 acres of land were purchased at Jordanstown in County Antrim. Five units were planned: a nursery school and school for deaf children, a school for those with partial hearing, a school for blind children and a school for partially sighted children (it was around this time that the education of partially sighted children was differentiated from that of both blind children and sighted children).166 However, despite a 65 per cent grant towards heating, lighting and maintenance in the teaching buildings from the Ministry of Education, these proposals proved too expensive and were reduced, with ÂŁ100 000 cut from the budget. With a considerable sum to raise from public appeal, the principal, F. G. W. Denmark, emphasised that since the Society had been founded long before partition, children

Pupils and teacher at Jordanstown Schools (undated, courtesy of Jordanstown School)


Pupils at Jordanstown Schools playing (undated, courtesy of Jordanstown School)

Pupil at Jordanstown Schools reading with magnifier (undated, courtesy of Jordanstown School)


from the Ulster counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan would be accommodated alongside those from Northern Ireland at the new school. In 1957 boarders cost the school £81 000, and it received £17 000 towards this cost from the local education authority. In 1961 the staff and pupils moved to the new school in Jordanstown, and during the 1960s the school’s annual deficit called into question whether the Ulster Society could continue to fulfil its aims and objectives as a voluntary organisation. However, new legislation in 1968 provided for public funding for schools run by voluntary groups with the stipulation that the local education authority was represented on their management committee. This meant that from 1969 all the costs of running the day school and teaching the pupils were paid by the government. By 1986 the school management committee became the Board of Governors. The Ulster Society’s Board was a distinct body whose only function was to look after the society’s endowments. Numbers of pupils were falling from this time onwards, due to a policy of educating children with ‘useful residual hearing’ and partially sighted children in mainstream schools, with assistance from Jordanstown Schools. In the early 1960s, a report on education for the partially sighted stated, ‘there is no justification for having the blind and the deaf educated together’. Arguing that in order to sidestep isolation, blind and partially sighted children in residential schools needed weekends at home, sighted visitors and local activities, the authors deemed that in the Jordanstown Schools, they ‘come into contact with a deaf rather than a visual world’.167


Testimonies from interviewees who attended the school within the last fifty years offer a range of perspectives. Alan Owens, who attended first the Ulster Institution and then Jordanstown Schools alongside his twin sister from 1956, considers himself to have been ‘very, very institutionalised’. He notes that ‘I always felt as a boarder… that I missed out on family life… with my other brothers and sisters’. On the other hand, he suggests that residential schooling ‘toughens you up… you were taught to look after yourself… it stood you in good stead… [and] gave you a lot of independence’.168 He thinks that in the 1960s the school failed to support its pupils in seeking out further education or training opportunities, or paid work, and he continued his education in England, studying psychology and engineering alongside Braille, typing and telephony. Brendan Magill began his education at the Ulster Institution at the age of five in 1950, with no alternative but to board. He describes the school as ‘somewhat Dickensian’, with contact with parents restricted to two hours once a month on ‘Visiting Day’, basic meals, separation of boys and girls and large dormitories. However, he enjoyed the range of activities he participated in, from cookery to country dancing and drama, putting on puppet shows and plays. In hindsight, he believes ‘the care and education we received at Lisburn Road was fairly good for its time’.169 Henry Mayne, born in 1949, entered the Ulster Institution on the Lisburn Road after a detached retina cost him the sight in his right eye in the late 1950s. He notes, simply, ‘if I’d had the choice, I wouldn’t have been there’, and believes


that his parents did not want to send him, but followed doctors’ recommendations. He too compares the school to those fictionalised by Charles Dickens, and describes life there as regimented and disciplined, but not unduly harsh. Since Henry was able to see quite well with one eye, and could read print without problems, he ‘kicked up such a fuss’ on returning home for holidays about the prospect of going back for a new term that eventually, ‘the authorities gave in’ and he was re-enrolled in his local primary school. Henry took the transfer test and was preparing to attend Fivemiletown High School when he suffered retinal detachment in his left eye, and was operated on successfully, but a repeated detachment six months later could not be fixed with surgery. His sight was too poor at that point to remain in mainstream education, so he returned to the Ulster Institution, now in Jordanstown. He remembers the new premises as being ‘a very nice environment, completely different from the old setting of the Lisburn Road school’ and further, ‘the whole regime was very relaxed, more family-orientated’. Henry entered the department for children with partial sight, and had enough vision to act as a guide and helper to other children. Later, he notes, his sight deteriorated, and he ‘couldn’t even see with magnification’, but was ‘too reluctant and too proud’ to admit to teachers

pupil at Jordanstown Schools reading Braille book, undated (courtesy of Jordanstown School)


he was not managing in that department. When he was on the point of leaving school he felt very anxious, as he could no longer read print and had not learned Braille.170 Margaret Mann was discovered to be blind at the age of three or four months. Her eyes did not develop fully in the womb, and she was born prematurely and suffered further damage to her eyes in the incubator. Her twin brother, slightly bigger, spent less time in an incubator and did not lose his sight. When she was three, she was sent to the nursery unit of the Ulster Institution on the Lisburn Road. She travelled by taxi, with financial support for this from the school, and believes she was sent at such a young age because she was independent (including being toilet trained) and her mother felt she needed the stimulation. She describes the school as ‘an old barrack of a place… gloomy and… cold’, and was intimidated by the numbers of pupils and mixing both with older children and children with other or additional needs including behavioural difficulties. Some had epilepsy and one friend who had a brain tumour died very suddenly, which Margaret found shocking. Here she began learning to read and write in Braille, and notes that ‘anything that I did completely revolved around me using my hands’. She values the use of Braille, saying that ‘be[ing] able to physically read a book’ outweighs ‘all sorts of electronic aids’.171 Moving to the new premises at Jordanstown at around the age of eight, she remembers those as ‘like a shiny penny… all new’. Here she was separated from the deaf and the partially sighted children. Carrying on with her Braille education, she notes that she went through four different learning processes


for writing in Braille, which was a challenge: beginning with a style and frame, she moved on to a machine called a Stainsby, on which everything was done back to front. After this came two machines called respectively a Lavender and a Perkins. Only the Perkins machine is still widely used. All of them involved a significant physical effort, as did carrying Braille books, bigger and heavier than books in print. Margaret recalls that while one teacher in particular at Jordanstown made every effort to encourage, challenge and inspire all pupils, others told her they would be surprised if she managed to get a job on leaving school. She felt that most teachers focused their energy and attention on children who were gifted academically, while those who could have attained good academic grades with some help were left behind. Margaret herself left school with no qualifications, despite being an avid reader and having ‘good literacy skills’. She identifies three expected pathways for blind school leavers at that time; sheltered employment (such as in the Belfast Workshops for the Blind, later Ulster Sheltered Employment Limited, or USEL), typing or telephony. Wanting to ‘make something of myself’, she moved to an RNIBfunded college in England and studied further, but left early because of an unplanned pregnancy. In her time at the college, she felt that many of her fellow students had been encouraged to get further in their school education than she had. She perceives the staff at Jordanstown Schools to have had low aspirations for their pupils, and to have neglected their education in independence and practical skills, let alone academic subjects.172 Eventually, through determined


effort, Margaret managed to enrol in a mainstream college to complete her RSA examinations in audio and advanced typing and shorthand, keen to get employment and support her daughter. Based on her own experience and her observations of young blind and partially sighted people, she feels that ‘what we should be offering them as well [as an academic education] is courses in self-assertiveness, in believing in yourself as a person, as a human being’.173 Peter Leach was born with congenital glaucoma, and although completely blind in his right eye, retained some sight in his left eye. He began his education in a mainstream school, in Ballyrobert in County Down, but was moved to Jordanstown soon after the new schools there opened. Peter notes, ‘I certainly think I could have coped with mainstream’, especially since teachers were becoming more aware of how to identify and support children with additional needs, but explains that he ‘slightly suspect[s] that they needed to fill [the new schools]’, and so he was transferred. He ‘hated’ boarding there, missing home and encountering hostility from some of the other pupils. Like Margaret Mann, he feels it was problematic to mix various age groups and abilities in one class. With children from the ages of five to 16 educated in only three classes in the partially sighted department, ‘it led to a lot of bullying, a lot of fighting’, of which the teachers ‘weren’t really aware’. Peter’s mother realised his difficulties, and moved to Belfast to live with her parents before finding a home in Greenisland, which allowed Peter to walk to school. This meant that he could walk with sighted children attending local mainstream schools, and ‘part… ways at the last


minute’. He had friends and enemies among these children, some of whom ‘tease[d]’ him for being blind in one eye. In terms of his education, he remembers feeling very much behind his sighted peers until the age of ten or 11: I would have been nowhere near the ten year old living next door on an academic plane. We used to call the place Butlins. We got very little homework. I mean, I was a prolific reader… [but] at school I was still on Dick and Dora. With the arrival of new staff and new classrooms, learning changed at this point, and as Peter describes it, ‘we went from Dick and Dora to Romeo and Juliet; we went from [multiplication tables] to quadratic equations’; further, they began learning languages and were ‘primed for exams’. Peter feels this ‘was a bombshell, but a good one’.174 Like Margaret, he suggests that there was an assumption that the pupils would not need the same level of education as their sighted peers, and would not achieve much in career terms. Peter also considers the schools’ career officers, who were employed by the education and library boards, to have been extremely conservative and discouraging of any career aspirations outside the norm for the partially sighted. He attributes this in part to the merging in education systems of children with diverse needs and abilities, with little or no differentiation made between learning disabilities and physical disabilities, for example. Peter attended the school during some of the years of the Troubles, and emphasises that religious


differences among pupils were known but never made the subject of conflict or bullying. He suggests, ‘we had enough issues, without bringing religion into it’. Religious education at this time was offered separately by denomination for all pupils.175

St Brigid’s School for the Blind St Brigid’s School for the Blind began in St Brigid’s Home for the Blind, a former industrial school, on the Crumlin Road in Belfast. The home catered for blind girls and women and was run by the Sisters of Mercy. The nuns began a small school for blind girls at an unknown date, possibly in the early 1920s, according to a government report. In that (unknown) year the Ministry of Education was asked by St Brigid’s Sister Superior to consider state funding for her school. On a request from the Ministry for detailed information on the school, Sister Dympna replied that there were seven pupils, five under 16 years old and two over 16. All were blind girls, from Belfast, Rasharkin, Greencastle, Downpatrick, Newry and Castledawson. All pupils boarded, and were supervised by Sister Dympna and taught by a lay teacher, Miss K. Brady, with the assistance of an adult inmate of the home, Annie Kelly, for the teaching of Braille. The pupils’ expenses to that point had been paid by the Poor Law Union, and there were no school fees. The school received no money from donations or endowments, the county borough, county or urban councils, the education authorities or the regional education committees. Despite Sister Dympna’s warning that


the school’s expenses were inseparable from the home’s, the Ministry asked that its accounts be published and it be open to the Ministry’s inspection at all times. The first inspection was carried out early in 1926 by Dr Garrett, the Ministry’s Senior Chief Inspector. He describes a large room divided in two, half for a classroom and half for drill, music practice and play. It was furnished with tables and chairs, and the nuns had ordered dual desks and a relief map of Ireland. Apparatus for writing in Braille was there, and a ‘good supply’ of Braille reading material.176 There were two violins, one piano and a typewriter. The girls were taught mental arithmetic, reading and writing, geography and grammar for five and a half hours daily, with music and needlework in the afternoons. The mornings included half an hour’s religious instruction, and two hours for dinner and play were allotted in each day. The inspector notes that the children are taught to read music in Braille, and memorised passages to play. The accommodation was ‘neat and clean’, and the outdoors play area had been adapted to suit the blind children.177 The inspector was impressed, particularly by Sister Dympna’s enthusiasm, spirit and experience in working with blind people, and he recommended that St Brigid’s be placed on the same footing as the Ulster Institution subject to a few changes. The Ministry was motivated to certify and fund St Brigid’s school in part because no residential education opportunities existed for blind children who were Catholic in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Institution offered them only secular education as day pupils, which was unacceptable to


many parents. Later the Ministry issued a list of schools for ‘afflicted children’ which it had certified as suitable; apart from the Ulster Institution and St Brigid’s, the list comprised St Joseph’s and St Mary’s Schools in Dublin and St Vincent’s School in Glasgow.178 Soon further changes were asked of St Brigid’s. It became clear that as a group, blind Catholic boys were at a particular disadvantage. With no schools fully open to them in Northern Ireland, their only option was to board in Dublin or Glasgow, and for those under 10 years old, that option was harsh. In 1928 St Brigid’s accepted a blind boy of six into the school with his sister, and from that point broadened their aims to include the education and boarding of boys between three and nine. The Ministry concurred, for compassionate reasons as well as the fact that this would prove cheaper than sending boys to Glasgow. Later that year Sister Dympna requested permission from the Ministry to admit ‘deaf-mute’ pupils as well, explaining that the school ‘keeps low in numbers’.179 The management committee of St Brigid’s Home decided in 1932 that boys should be discharged from the home and school at eight years old. In 1933 13 blind girls lived and were educated at St Brigid’s. That year Sister Dympna wrote to the Ministry of Education with a proposal to take over a part of the Sacred Heart Industrial School in Whiteabbey as a new school for blind children. She writes: The house is practically a new building, large and thoroughly ventilated, situated on a height overlooking Belfast Lough, with good grounds for recreation


and also the advantage of sea bathing: there is also attached a large vegetable garden.180 Pending renovations to adapt the building and grounds to the needs of blind people, the Ministry agreed. The school at the Crumlin Road premises closed and ‘Abbeyville’ was certified from 1st March 1934. St Brigid’s School struggled financially from this point on. In 1944 Miss Brady retired and the nuns were unable to afford the salary for a qualified teacher. They wrote to the Ministry asking to employ a Sister of Mercy instead. Other letters ask for increased grants, and point out that unlike the Ulster Institution, St Brigid’s had no income from investments or endowments. Despite its difficulties, the Ministry’s inspectors continued to commend the school for its ‘happy and friendly spirit’ and ‘high standard’ of accommodation and education.181 Acknowledging the school’s ‘hand to mouth’ economy, they point out that this is in part due to the small numbers of pupils (11 at that time in a building made to accommodate 120).182 As a result each pupil cost more annually than those in the Ulster Institution.183 In an internal Ministry memorandum, it was suggested that the promise of extra money should be used to spur St Brigid’s to take on blind Catholic boys in Northern Ireland up to the age of 11, or, pending a boarding arrangement with the local Christian Brothers, all blind boys. Further repeated requests for more money in the 1950s were granted eventually, with the grant per pupil per year being raised from £80 to £95 in 1954. Accounts for 1954 to 1955 show an overdraft of £544. The


Sacred Heart Convent and Schools in Whiteabbey, County Antrim, photographed by Robert French (undated, courtesy of National Library of Ireland).

Ministry decided that the school could not continue. In 1955 the assistant secretary at the Ministry wrote to the Bishop of Down and Connor indicating that some of St Brigid’s pupils would be accommodated at ‘St Mary’s Blind Asylum’ in Dublin, pending a Ministry report.184 When St Brigid’s finally closed, six blind girls were sent to St Mary’s, two were sent to St Vincent’s School for the Blind and Partially Sighted in Liverpool, and two boys were sent to St Vincent’s School in Glasgow. St Brigid’s became Immaculata Special School, a school for ‘the educationally sub-normal’, and its Braille books and teaching materials were offered to County Antrim’s welfare committee and the Ulster Institution.185 Interviewee Margaret Bennett began her education in St Brigid’s School in Whiteabbey and was one of those girls transferred to boarding school in Dublin when St Brigid’s closed. Margaret had infantile glaucoma that worsened as she grew, and eventually her right eye was removed at the age of 14 in Altnagelvin Hospital, while her left eye was removed at 17. Despite having residual sight in childhood, Margaret never attended mainstream school. From the age of seven or eight she had a home teacher, who selected the schools she attended, and took her to school and brought her home at the start and end of each term. She recalls being taught Braille by ‘a blind lady’ in St Brigid’s, who would tie a duster over Margaret’s face ‘to make me feel it with my fingers’; as soon as this teacher returned to the front of the class Margaret would remove the duster. Nonetheless, she learned Braille with facility and uses it frequently as an adult. She was one of thirteen students from Northern Ireland at the school


in Dublin, and found this difficult; she would have preferred to go to Jordanstown, but was not offered a choice. Further, Margaret felt the food was terrible – ‘gruel with a wee splash of cod liver oil, ghastly’ – the teaching poor and the pupils harshly treated. Going home during the holidays ‘was the only way you were sane’. She left school at 17.186

Other Schools In 1957 interviewee Brendan Magill was sent to Worcester College for the Blind (as it was then; formerly it had been RNIB New College, and now is New College Worcester). He believes his older brother Adrian (who went from 1955) and he were the first and second pupils from Northern Ireland to attend the college. They flew from Belfast to Birmingham at the beginning of each term and back at the end. Their aunt, who lived in Birmingham, met them at the airport and escorted them to the Worcester train, and Brendan describes the journey as ‘quite an adventure’. Their school fees were paid by Belfast City Council. Brendan considers attendance at Worcester College to have ‘opened up a whole world of broader and more advanced education’, and feels that the levels of independence encouraged by the school prepared him and his brother quite effectively for ‘get[ting] out and about in the world’. A disadvantage of receiving education there was, of course, their separation from their family. Brendan left at the age of 20 in 1965, with one A level in geography, and having residual vision went on to get a job as a physics laboratory technician at the Worcester Teacher


Training College. He settled in the town and lives there still.187

Mainstream and Special Education From the late 1970s attitudes to the education of blind and partially sighted children began to change. The Warnock Report of 1978 on Special Educational Needs (SEN) indicated that although around 20 per cent of children may have had SEN, probably only two per cent needed support beyond what a mainstream school could offer.188 From this point on it became more common for children with visual impairments to receive their education in mainstream schools, with special schools taking an important role particularly in the education of blind and partially sighted children with other disabilities. These changes were formalised in legislation in subsequent decades, and most recently in Northern Ireland with the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order of 2005. This increases children’s rights to mainstream schooling according to their parents’ wishes, and brings Northern Ireland’s schools under the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995.189 Brendan Magill’s two daughters inherited his cataract condition, but as they were attending school in the 1970s and 1980s, had a very different experience of education. Going to mainstream schools was not unproblematic, since, as Brendan notes, local authorities knew very little about blind and partially sighted people and their abilities and needs; however, he was able to ‘provide… guidance and even direction’. As a result:


[O]ur children stayed at home and all their school friends were local; lots of parties, fun, games, arguments and all the normal things of life. I think our children had a better experience of growing up, but whether this would have been the same if I hadn’t had the first-hand experience is a question which cannot be answered. Nonetheless, Brendan still feels ‘that it may be better to be integrated in a special school rather than segregated in a mainstream school’. Working as an employment and disability consultant, he sees many clients who have been educated in mainstream schools, and has discovered that they ‘very often only spent time with their teaching assistants [and] weren’t allowed to play outside with other children in case they got hurt’. He believes that ‘there is still a big lack of understanding of what blind people are capable of’, and special education may serve blind and partially sighted people better when it promotes integration through extra-curricular activity in particular.190 Despite broadening attitudes to the education of children with special or additional needs, interviewee Thomas Quigley, who was moved from mainstream school to Jordanstown in 1990 at the age of ten, feels that his move was ‘nonnegotiable’. He explains that although his mainstream primary school wanted to keep him, ‘they couldn’t put the measures in place to cope with a child with sight problems’. Further, he ‘didn’t know how to deal with not being able to see properly’, and so his transfer was a foregone conclusion. Reflecting on his education, Thomas identifies a problem for


students graduating from Jordanstown; as he puts it, ‘there was nowhere to go’. He expands on this point: It was just perceived that you would go to somewhere in England, or you would just probably do nothing. I suppose at that time [the mid-1990s]… it was that sort of transition from very old-school [education for the] Workshops for the Blind… [or] you would answer the phone or do something quite menial, to, actually there is more you can do, but you’re limited because we still didn’t have any further education available here… [I]f you were totally blind [even sixth form] wasn’t really an option. Thomas applied for and got a funded place at the Royal National College for blind people in Hereford, where he studied for a BTEC National Diploma in Music Technology. He notes that getting funding to study in England quickly became much more difficult, but that even those students who were able to enrol on courses like these had little more hope of actual employment as a result. Presently, Thomas sits on the Jordanstown Schools Board as a representative of the RNIB, for whom he works, although his status as a past pupil is significant too. He is the only blind board member. Current issues under discussion by the school board include the numbers of children with undiagnosed sight problems; Thomas explains that a substantial proportion of children with learning disabilities have sight problems that are not dealt with because ‘once it’s a learning disability thing... then


it’s just, “Well, that’s that”’. Thinking about the respective merits of mainstream and special education for children with visual impairment, Thomas concludes that: It’s not so much the education, it’s the social side of things. Because kids, being kids, are cruel, and that’s it… There are kids at Jordanstown now that I know are there because they were bullied so severely that they couldn’t cope.191 Claire Bowes was blinded by injuries received in the Omagh bomb at the age of 15. When she was in hospital, she was visited by a rehabilitation worker, who advocated a move to board at Jordanstown Schools, believing it was the best place for Claire to learn Braille, information technology skills and mobility, among other necessary life skills. Claire was reluctant to leave home and begin a new life in a strange environment and surrounded by strangers, only visiting her home and family at weekends. She expressed her wish not to go and was supported in this by her mother in particular. It was suggested that she take a year off school and postpone taking her GCSEs, but again she refused, wanting to keep up with her friends and ahead of her younger sister. Despite not having had blind or partially sighted pupils prior to this, her school made considerable efforts to welcome her back and ease her transition into different ways of learning, providing a classroom assistant to guide her from class to class, take notes and read to her where necessary. In addition, the school arranged for teachers to visit Claire at home for extra support,


since she had not learned to use any assistive technology at this stage; several recorded materials on tape for her as well. A peripatetic teacher (now called a vision support teacher) came to her school to teach her Braille and touch typing on a weekly basis for the remainder of her time there. She gave up some subjects, including sciences, as the practical laboratory work was felt to be too challenging, and concentrated on getting the grades needed in six subjects to return to study for A levels. She loved music and a music specialist came from the RNIB in England to show her teachers how to manage her learning and adapt how they worked together with Claire. Claire adjusted well and was able to do A levels. She remembers, however, the difficulty with getting learning resources in accessible formats, which made her quite dependent on her classroom assistant or teachers reading to her. She found the effort involved in learning by listening very tiring, but applied to study music at Queen’s and the University of Ulster, both of which agreed to offer her a place based on two instead of three A levels.192 Choosing a school for children with visual impairment, it is clear, is not always easy. While the decision is for the parents or guardians of the child to make, with advice and information from the Education and Library Boards, a local mainstream school may not welcome children with visual impairments, despite the legal obligation to educate them. The attitude to pupils with disabilities prevalent in the school and in individual staff members and fellow pupils is crucial to the nature of the learning environment, according to Rosaleen Dempsey, children and youth service


manager at RNIB Northern Ireland. Direct discrimination is illegal, but indirect discrimination occurs when it is evident that a child with a visual impairment will not be supported willingly and enthusiastically. Practical support for pupils with disabilities, such as classroom assistants, is not consistently available across mainstream schools, although teachers from special schools may be able to offer their support and expertise on the basis of visits throughout the school year. The accessibility and safety of the physical environment is another factor in the decision, since provision for pupils with disabilities may be only cosmetic in older schools. In Northern Ireland, the religious background of the school is an issue still for many parents, and with Jordanstown Schools remaining the only special school in the six counties, and not a Catholic school, it is considered unsuitable for some children on that basis.193 Joseph Deery, who suffered a detached retina at the age of seven, boarded at a special school for blind and partially sighted children, St Joseph’s, in Dublin, but returned home to his local school for the last two years of his education. He feels that best practice in education for blind and partially sighted people is not necessarily found in special schools with staff trained to teach children with visual impairment, not least since such schools are few. Although it demands extra effort from both the partially sighted and the sighted who teach them, he thinks the outcomes of mainstream education can be better.194 The RNIB have campaigned on the issue of access to resources for blind and partially sighted pupils in mainstream schools, particularly textbooks in accessible formats, with


considerable success. Currently they are advising an All Party Working Group on Visual Impairment at the Northern Ireland Assembly, at which education is one of the main issues addressed.195 Rosaleen considers access to be shaped substantially by individual teachers’ understandings of partially sighted children’s needs, as well as by general awareness of those needs within the school. The RNIB and Guide Dogs perceive training in independence, in terms of mobility and life skills, to be lacking in mainstream schools. Part of the problem is that in Northern Ireland it is unclear whether health authorities, for example, can assume responsibility for training in which they are expert, in a school environment.196 Another area in which access can be limited in mainstream schools is extra-curricular activities. Jordanstown Schools have a range of specialist or adapted equipment which most mainstream schools lack, as well as staff trained to teach physical education in particular to children with visual impairments. In 2002 a seminar on the future of services for blind and partially sighted young people was organised by the Blind Centre. Its report noted that special education programmes in mainstream schools were not possible due to the low numbers of blind and partially sighted children there, and that therefore both mainstream and special schools were vital. Some blind children flourished in mainstream education and parents and staff welcomed the opportunity to acquaint sighted and partially sighted children, although extra work from blind and partially sighted people children and their parents and teachers was required, and classroom


assistants were not always available. Some children struggled to keep up with their classmates in mainstream schools and relished the feeling of being ‘normal’ in the special school environment. Special schools also functioned to raise awareness of disabilities, but lacked resources. At this time, Jordanstown Schools were not connected to the Internet. Concern was expressed that special schools did not expect much from their pupils academically, and were limited in what subjects they could offer. The report concluded that judicious use of technology should be made to assist blind and partially sighted children with integration, and all children should have a chance to experience mainstream education.197 In 2005, Eye Matter (the RNIB Northern Ireland Youth Forum) produced a report called ‘In Our Sights’, highlighting six areas in which action was needed to mitigate blind and partially sighted young people’s experience of social exclusion; these were education, employment, independent living, accessible information, youth services and transport. Eye Matter then lobbied on these issues through a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund called Campaigning For Equality.198 Further and higher education is, of course, open to all students with disabilities, but as with mainstream schooling, the support individual institutions offer to those students is unpredictable and inconsistent. Universities tend to have better services than colleges. However, Southern Regional College, with campuses in Counties Down and Armagh, is considered a model of excellence by the RNIB, in terms of its physical accessibility and the range of formats in which it produces resources. Students with visual impairments can


apply for financial assistance with equipment and services, including audio recorders, speech software for computers and help with taking notes. While the Education and Library Boards in Northern Ireland once offered funding to blind young people wishing to attend specialist colleges in England, these monies have been stopped, with particular impact on those with additional disabilities for whom further and higher education in mainstream institutions would be very difficult.199


Case Study

Arthur O’Neill Arthur O’Neill was born in 1734 at Drumnastrade, near Dungannon in County Tyrone, and dictated his memoirs to a lawyer’s clerk employed by Edward Bunting of the Irish Harp Society at the age of 67. He pierced his right eye while playing with a penknife at the age of two, and his doctors’ administrations left him blind in both eyes. When he was ten he began learning to play the harp, and at 15 he became an itinerant harper. He travelled the country, acquiring patrons among the landed gentry, army officers, prosperous merchants and senior clergy. With mentions of ‘my boy’ in relation to these travels, it seems probable he had a guide, and having been treated ‘as well as itinerant harpers generally are’, he managed to save some money from his first tour of the country and spent a few years with his family. From the years of this first tour he began, he says, ‘to lean a little to the native cordial’, namely, whiskey.8 O’Neill goes on to describe a fellow harper, Ned McAleer, as ‘a slave to that pernicious beverage that generally leaves itinerants in that situation that they will either pledge their own or any gentleman’s harp sooner than want it’, perhaps with a nod to the mores of the time at which he was writing.9 Travelling harpers fell prey to professional jealousy, suffered from the weather, and were taken advantage of by unscrupulous


guides with ‘little dishonest tricks’.10 The female servant of fellow blind harper Rose Mooney, O’Neill alleges, pawned her mistress’s possessions whenever she wanted money to buy drink, and was responsible for the loss of Mooney’s reputation as a respectable musician. O’Neill reports the rumour that Mooney – trained in her youth by Thady Elliott, another blind harper and notorious drinker – died, like her mentor, of overindulgence in alcohol. O’Neill approves the custom of his youth which ensured that ‘whenever any gentleman’s child, or simple man’s child, showed appearances of blindness… [they] be taught the harp’. Acknowledging that ‘every blind man is not gifted alike’, he felt this custom ‘should be and always must be’ continued nonetheless, in order to ‘retain the national Irish music of the harp’.11 After playing at the harp festival in Belfast in 1792, O’Neill was employed by the Irish Harp Society (IHS) as the harp master in their new school in 1808, where he was to pass on his knowledge of, and skills in, ancient Irish harp music to blind young people. The society was soon struggling for funds, and in 1812 a supporter advertised O’Neill’s state of penury in the press, blaming the society for reneging on their obligations to him. The IHS was unable to fulfil its promise of a pension to him of £30 per year because it folded in 1813, and between 1814 and 1816, O’Neill advertised two concerts intended to raise funds to support him. He died in 1816, too late to avail of an offer of help from a group of businessmen from Ulster now living in Calcutta and including Arthur Jacob Macan.


Employment 133

Chapter Four


In 1908, at the Second Triennial Conference on the Blind in Manchester, Mr J. Beattie and Mr T.J. Mulholland, respectively of the Ulster Institution and Belfast Society for Home Mission Work Among the Blind, discussed the methods of educating blind people in Belfast. Beattie complained that ‘the physique of blind children entering our institution is below that of normal children’, and described the exercise regimes established to combat this tendency. Mulholland – himself blind – commended these exercises, which, he said, ‘play an important part in preparing the pupils for industrial life’. He went on to advocate ‘physical drill’ with ‘this end in view’, as well as ‘experience in using tools’.200 This exchange gives a sense of the straitened and inflexible nature of employment for many blind throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries. Eric Boulter perceives a change in attitudes to blind people in the workplace to have taken place during the Second World War, when some jobs left vacant by servicemen and servicewomen were taken by blind workers. He believes that from this point there was: a growing realization that the skills of those who were blind need not be limited to repetitive manual tasks on the industrial shop floor but could extend to the executive, technical, administrative, managerial and clerical levels.201


Blind children using the gymnasium at the Ulster Institution (undated, courtesy of Deputy Keeper of Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, D2266/3)


He continues: It is no longer the case that if a person becomes blind his future occupational life will consist of making baskets or brushes, hand knitting, weaving chair seats, or one of the other crafts based principally on manual dexterity that were the major occupations for blind people in days when work carrying regular remuneration was available only in the segregated setting of a special workshop for blind people.202 This is due to the decline of industry in general in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the decline of these specific craft industries in the developed world, and a broader perspective on blind people’s abilities, talents and ambitions. Boulter notes, nonetheless, that ‘blindness can create considerable financial problems by causing unemployment or a downgrading of work’, and employment for blind people in the twenty-first century is neither widely available nor sufficiently varied. 203

Belfast Workshops for the Blind In the late 1860s Mary Hobson – daughter of Reverend Richard Jones Hobson, once Prebendary of Connor – became interested in the misfortunes of Thomas Cathcart, a Broughshane man blinded in an accident and struggling to earn enough to support his family. Miss Hobson made


attempts to find him basketmaking work in institutions in Dublin, Scotland and Liverpool, without success. The honorary secretary of the Workshops for the Blind in Liverpool responded to her last appeal in 1870 with the suggestion that she set up workshops in Belfast itself: I regret to say that we have no vacancies and further that our rules do not permit us to receive any blind persons who have not resided in Liverpool or its immediate neighbourhood for at least one year before application. Had it been otherwise our institution would have exactly met this poor man’s case. Having already learned a trade, he could have worked amongst us during the day and lived with his friends – all our people are on this footing and earn from 9/- to 15/- per week – something of this kind should be set up in Belfast.204 With a network of influential and wealthy acquaintances (including Edward Benn, whose agent James Andrews received a letter requesting financial assistance), Miss Hobson was able to act swiftly on this proposal, and soon the Belfast Association for the Employment of the industrious Blind (BAEIB) was established.205 It rented premises in Howard Street and adapted them to provide workspace for 20 to 30 blind people (including Cathcart). The workshops were intended to complement the work of the Ulster Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and the Blind, by providing employment opportunities for those blind pupils graduating from the school. Chambers


pointed out in his letter to Miss Hobson that ‘it is of little use having large training schools for these afflicted people when they are not in a position to profit by that which they have been taught’, and the committee concurred.206 Secretary L.M. Ewart described the BAEIB as a ‘benevolent movement’, and explained that ‘there are in Belfast, not to say anything of the rural districts, two hundred blind persons, very few of whom are supporting themselves’.207 Their inaugural public meeting was held in May 1871, and opened with a prayer. With the Richmond Institution in Dublin providing only limited training for its inmates, they argued that ‘Ireland has, by no means, made a sufficient provision as yet for this afflicted branch of the community, especially for the Protestant portion’.208 While the Belfast committee stated in their general rules that ‘persons of all religious denominations without distinction may be admitted to the full benefit of the Institution’, they also stipulated that ‘the Holy Scriptures in the Authorised Version shall be daily read and taught in the Class-room’. This constitution was adopted at the May meeting. Religious feeling and duty were repeatedly played upon in the public rhetoric of the Association, with the Reverend Charles Seever describing its appeal for support as ‘the direct voice of God calling upon [the public] to help their fellow creatures in the way pointed out’, and valuing it as ‘a means of bringing together the members of the various evangelical churches’.209 By 1876 ‘the spiritual benefit of the blind workers’ had been defined as ‘one part of the object of the institution’, as well as providing them means of ‘earning their bread honestly’.210


Rules for employees of the Belfast Workshops for the Blind, issued by the Belfast Association for the Employment of the Industrious Blind (1872, courtesy of Deputy Keeper of Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and Ulster Sheltered Employment Ltd, D3563/D/A/4)


Woman making brushes at Belfast Workshops for the Blind (undated, courtesy of Deputy Keeper of Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and Ulster Sheltered Employment Ltd, D3563/D/C/16)

Young man bundling firewood at the Belfast Workshops for the Blind (undated, courtesy of Deputy Keeper of Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and Ulster Sheltered Employment Ltd, D3563/D/C/16)

The workshops began producing baskets, mats and mattresses, with workers paid per piece at the same rate as sighted workers. However, blind workers generally could not earn a living this way, simply because they could not work as quickly, and their wages were subsidised by the Association. One potential obstacle to the success of the Belfast workshops was identified as the tendency for such goods as were believed to be easily manufactured by blind people to be produced ‘in great quantities’ by prisoners, whose labour was unpaid, and whose goods therefore were sold extremely cheaply.211 The committee indicated that for this and other reasons their enterprise would depend initially on public generosity, estimating that they would need capital of £1000 and annual subscriptions of £200 to pay for premises, engaging a foreman, and materials. Nonetheless, they pointed to the Edinburgh and Liverpool workshops, whose products ‘competed with the market’, as their models in business.212 In Belfast it was proposed to produce baskets, mats and matting, mattresses and bedding, brushes, rope and twine, sacks, and knitted, plaited and machine-sewn goods, suggesting that ‘articles made by the blind have merited the reputation of being stronger and more durable than ordinary manufactures’.213 After the workshops had got underway, Reverend William Johnston emphasised the importance of their industrial as opposed to charitable nature, fearing that if charity was given ‘without making the recipients do something for it’, those recipients’ independence would be undermined.214 By October of 1871 13 Howard Street was leased for the


workshop and salesroom, with work to commence by the beginning of November; the salesroom opened formally in December (albeit stocked with products from the Edinburgh workshops, the Belfast workshops having been slower to produce than expected). By the next public meeting, held in December, 14 blind persons had been admitted to the workshops, 12 of whom were men, and two of whom were women. Of these, eight were basket makers, four were mat makers and the two women knitted, trimmed mats and sewed sacks. The committee were considering applications from three women then residing in the workhouse. By 1876, when the Association was given notice to quit its premises, the committee decided that they should attempt to raise funds for their own building, since applications at this stage far outstripped admissions. Miss Hobson proposed a ‘suite of rooms embracing a warehouse and warerooms, with a set of offices’ on the newly opened Royal Avenue, and these were launched in 1884 with accommodation for 75 workers.215 Some applications from blind people for admittance to the Belfast Workshops during its early years survive. Charles McSorley wrote to the management committee for a second time in 1876, pleading with them to reconsider him for a job. He had been out of work for five months, and the only other employable member of his family of eight was his twelve-year-old son. He offers to teach ‘those who have not already been taught to read the embossed characters’, and although he admits his experience in basketmaking is dated, he insists that he would quickly re-learn the necessary skills, with the ‘great difficulty’ being ‘to have a living till


Premises of Belfast Workshops for the Blind on Royal Avenue (1908, courtesy of Deputy Keeper of Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and Ulster Sheltered Employment Ltd, D3563/D/C/16)


my hand would come into the work’.216 One letter to the committee from George Pogue in April 1876 requests that his pay be increased by two shillings per week, ‘as this department can afford it’. Another, in November 1876, makes abject apologies for his ‘indiscretion’ and he begs to be

Application to Belfast Workshops for the Blind by Charles McSorley (1875, courtesy of Deputy Keeper of Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and Ulster Sheltered Employment Ltd, D3563/D/A/4)


‘restored to his position’, invoking Reverend Kinghan of the Ulster Institution as a character witness and reminding the committee of his five years’ uneventful employment at the workshops.217 It is possible that the ‘indiscretion’ resulting in Pogue being dismissed from his job was his bid for more pay. Blind applicants were asked for medical certification of the nature and cause of their blindness, and this was provided in some instances by Dr William McKeown of the Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat Clinic. Of Mr McVicker of Ballymena, he writes: I found him so blind that he could not distinguish light from darkness – the blindness is due to an infection of the optic nerve, known as optic neuritis – which has been caused by an inflammation of the membranes at the base of the brain – the history given by the patient points clearly to exposure to the cold and wet when camping out as the cause of the disease. This is a common and most sufficient cause… The blindness is incurable.218

Application to Belfast Workshops for the Blind by Hugh Pollock, signed by doctor (undated, courtesy of Deputy Keeper of Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and Ulster Sheltered Employment Ltd, D3563/D/A/4)



In the period after the end of the First World War the BAEIB’s minute books are preoccupied with labour relations, wages and markets. Wages were increased from pre-war rates and the government granted the BAEIB £20 per employee per year in the workshops on condition that blind people were paid trade union rates (this grant was later extended to apprentices also). In this year the brush department went on strike for ten days, and had their requests met in order that urgent orders could be completed. Married women in the workshops successfully petitioned to be paid the same wages as unmarried women, and the management raised the prices of the products to pay the higher wage bill.219 Further, a step towards autonomy for the blind workers took place in the autumn, with a government grant of seven shillings and sixpence per week transferred from the institution directly to the workers. Despite these agreed changes to working conditions, the National League of the Blind, a trade union, came into conflict with the manager and committee of the Belfast Workshops for the Blind in 1920. In minutes from a committee meeting in March James Hewitt, the then manager, reported ‘having had a great deal of trouble with the Blind League through two of their leaders’, Clarke and Flynn, whom he accused of attempting to get themselves elected on to the committee.220 The manager’s report to the committee of February 1920 explains that a dispute over pay resulted in the suggestion by members of the National League of the Blind that the union would levy one shilling per member to make up a minimum wage for all workshop


employees, who were paid as pieceworkers. In order to justify the levy, the union members told the manager, the union would require three representatives to join the management committee. Hewitt notes: This is a purely Protestant Inst. hitherto controlled by a Protestant Committee, with Protestant Trustees, Treasurer, & Hon. Secretaries. If consent is given to this request, they may appoint Roman Catholics, who may give a considerable amount of trouble, & who may organize matters so as, in time, to possess complete control of the Institution.221 He goes on to warn that ‘there seems to be no law to prevent this’, and describes William Clarke, Secretary of the League, as ‘an R.C. and a bitter Sinn Feiner’. Clarke had raised the question of eligibility to vote within the BAEIB by payment of subscription, and Hewitt feared that: if the Blind League, (which is principally controlled by Roman Catholics), pays annual subscriptions of 10/each for 50 or 60 of their own people, they could sweep out the whole Committee in one year, as we have not 60 subscribers of 10/- to oppose them. In response to this report, the BAEIB’s rules were changed. The March meeting’s minutes state that:


the Hon. Sec. was authorised to see Mr Bates and get him to submit a revised draft of the Rules of the Institution, so as to ensure that the management shall in the future, as in the past, be entirely Protestant.222 This was achieved by adding to Rule 17 the words ‘provided that all such members [of the committee] shall be members or adherents of one of the recognised Protestant Churches’, and it may be seen in the Draft Articles of Association of the Workshops for the Blind of 1946 that this amendment endured: 11. …No person shall be qualified to serve on the Council, or shall be selected…for, or elected to, the Council unless he or she be a member or adherent of one of the recognized Protestant Churches. 26. The Council shall ensure that once daily there shall be a reading from the Holy Scriptures, authorised version, in the workrooms of the Company and that all doctrinal teaching conducted by the Company shall be in accordance with the Thirty-nine Articles and the Westminster Confession of Faith. At this time grounds for dismissal from the council included ceasing to belong or adhere to the church to which the council member belonged or adhered when elected.223 Securing the Protestant character of the workshops’ management committee in 1920 reflected the management’s fear of the alignment of class and religious differences, and suggests that of the two, religious difference was to be feared the more.


The religious character of the Belfast workshops manifested itself in other ways. Máirtín Ó Catháin indicates that ‘blind workers were expected to be paragons of piteous virtue – meek and grateful, as well as sober, chaste (with regard to

Testament to the character of John Scott, applicant to Belfast Workshops for the Blind (undated, courtesy of Deputy Keeper of Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and Ulster Sheltered Employment Ltd, D3563/ D/A/4)


others with disabilities), and cheerfully deferential’.224 The strictures on workers’ behaviour and personal lives continued well into the twentieth century. Ó Catháin cites the case of Matthew McKee, a blind mat maker who was suspended from his position for one month in 1943 for ‘keeping company’ with Miss Sadie Dunnigan, a blind brush maker, and leaving his wife. These actions were considered ‘harmful to the [BAEIB’s] interests’.225 The post-war period was characterised by political upheaval, as partition came into effect and civil war developed in the fledgling Free State. In Belfast, a drop in sales for the workshops in the summer of 1920 was attributed to ‘the disturbed state of the city… which has affected the town traveller’s sales’.226 The output of the workshops was affected adversely by the boycotts implemented by southern nationalists in protest at attacks on Catholics and northern support for partition.227 The boycott on bread prevented clients from sending hampers in for repair, and as a result the hamper makers and brush makers had their hours reduced and the hamper makers’ wages were capped. By 1921 the manager, George Sherman, was seeking trade in Manchester and London, although with little success. 61 workers were on reduced hours, 41 of them women, and the cash bonuses that workers had received when business was good were discontinued. Some blind workers on the Lancashire List – which referred to the pay rates of the Brush Manufacturers of Lancashire as the standard for employers to match – complained that this constituted an illegal deduction from their wages and were upheld, with the committee being


judged to have exceeded its legal powers. The workers were recompensed. Later in the year the blind workers themselves ‘waited upon Sir James Craig with the desire to secure orders from the Admiralty’, and public appeals were made to raise the workshops’ funds.228 Despite a War Office order for brushes, and a hamper order from Derry, the situation did not improve, since the workshops filled the War Office order at a loss and were forced by competition to tender with very low prices for the hamper order. During this economic difficulty the workers made and were granted demands that the committee take such steps as fundraising to compensate them for their reduced earnings on short time. By this stage the number of workers on fewer hours comprised twice as many men as women. The minutes record consistent losses on orders for hampers, and register disappointment that the workshops were given the opportunity to fill only a very small proportion of the Belfast Corporation’s total requirements for brushes, for example. In 1922 a new pay scheme was instituted, in which ‘Trade Union wages be paid in all Departments where such exist’ and in departments where there ‘is no scale of Trade Union wages the basis of wages be the District Rates, and in a few cases the estimated worth of the worker to the Department’229 Belatedly, as the Blind Persons’ Act should have come into force in September 1920, at the end of 1922 the Belfast Corporation appointed a sub-committee to meet the BAEIB’s committee to discuss the dispensing of Corporation contracts. The need to save money by reducing workers’ hours began to decrease, and almost all workers were given full-time work


for the month of December. A letter from James Mooney, secretary of the Workers’ Committee, to J. Pim Thompson, secretary of the Management Committee, of 6th June 1923, states that: whilst having differences with the Management as to the methods for the good of the Blind, we desire to place on record our appreciation of the success which has attended the management of the trading side of the Workshops during the past year of acute trade depression and we trust that this success will continue and increase to the credit of the Management and the good of the Blind.230 The shop moved to Bedford Street and opened officially in 1935, with the workshops having been sited in Lawnbrook Avenue since 1934. In 1939 relations between workers and the management committee had become less cordial. The minute books record requests by representatives of the National League of the Blind to meet with the committee and present their views on training schemes, as well as a request for the committee to approach the Belfast Corporation’s Blind Persons’ Act Committee regarding pensions for blind people: these requests are noted with the curt response ‘no good purpose could be served by meeting a deputation on the subject’, and it is noted that the committee had suggested a scheme of pensions to the Corporation already.231 In 1940 female workers protested the gendered discrepancy between war bonuses (they received two shillings per week, while their


male counterparts, including trainees, received four), but ‘on consideration it was agreed that there was no proper cause for complaint’.232 In 1941 two female workers, Elsie Moore and Margaret McCurry, ‘having arranged to be married’, indicated that they would like to continue working. Belfast Corporation, the BAEIB minute books note, did not approve this proposal, preferring that places be made for single persons awaiting admission.233 Preference was also given to younger people seeking work, with a Mr G. McGrath turned away in 1941 at the age of 47. When preparations for war got underway, the workshops were able to employ all their basket makers full-time due to demand. The brush department also benefited. Because of increased prices and the expanded market for the workshops’ products, the League had asked for workers to receive a war bonus in addition to their graded wages, suggesting to the management committee that Belfast Corporation might contribute to the cost of this with a grant. Later the Corporation objected to that notion on account of the ‘Trading profits’ made by the workshops during wartime.234 Despite rising levels of productivity, by October 1940 a weekly average of 55 male and 17 female workers were working reduced hours still, although these figures steadily declined over the next two years. Eventually, by 1942, the war began to restrict access to raw materials, including willow for baskets. By 1969 reduced numbers of workers in the Belfast workshops struggled to keep up with demand for their products. The management committee were considering a


request from Ulster Sheltered Employment Ltd that they expand the workshop premises and take in sighted disabled workers. Its members were keen to act on this suggestion, but required government approval. By the time of the workshops’ centenary, in 1971, 70 men and 20 women were working there still, although, as Ann Young points out, ‘the numbers… still [in] need [of] the highly sheltered conditions of the workshops [were] falling steadily’.235 By the mid-1970s reports admitted that their trades were ‘becoming old-fashioned’, and attributed the committee’s problems in finding sighted workers to this fact.236 As well, as unemployment grew and living costs got higher, fewer people were prepared to buy products like mattresses (one of the workshops’ main outputs) and bought them less often. Likewise, as the government tried to reduce public spending, the workshops’ sales of brushes and mats to government departments, local authorities and hospitals declined. By 1978 it had been decided to allow the Belfast Workshops for the Blind to merge with Ulster Sheltered Employment Ltd (USEL), and legal negotiations were underway. The merger was completed in 1979, and the sales shop on Bedford Street closed in 1980, with all employees retained. The bedding department had flourished, despite such economic difficulties, and the final report notes proudly that ‘the workshops [are] now well-known in the furnishing trade as a supplier of high class divans and mattresses’.237 USEL moved from the Lawnbrook Avenue site in the 1990s and the buildings have since been demolished. It was relocated in the former premises of O’Hara’s Bakery in nearby Cambrai Street, and continues to both employ blind


and partially sighted people on the site and support blind and partially sighted people in open employment .

Blind Workers’ Organisations The National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland was founded in 1894 and functioned as a trade union for blind and partially sighted workers. It campaigned for the state to employ blind people and pay a pension to those who could not work. In 1920, after several years’ lobbying and facing a government reluctant to pass the necessary legislation, the League organised marches from three locations in Britain and Ireland that would meet and demonstrate in London. 60 blind members from Ireland and north-west England set out from Manchester. Pressure from the league contributed to the passing of the Blind Persons’ Act in 1920, and a subsequent march in 1936 played a part in the passing of the second Blind Persons’ Act in 1938. A letter from A. Hoy, secretary of the Belfast No. 2 Branch of the National League of the Blind, to Viscount Craigavon in 1935 points out the ways in which the Northern Ireland government lagged behind Westminster in matters of blind welfare: As an organization we are blind persons who, realising the dire handicap of our class, are banded together to try and obtain for the blind a human and generous treatment…In the sister Isles the Health Department


Letter from the National League of the Blind to the Prime Minister at Stormont, 1941 (courtesy of Deputy Keeper of Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, CAB/9N/3/1)


have set up Advisory Committees which, through their expert knowledge, have enabled much good to be done for the blind.238 A group of blind workers came to the fore in Derry in the 1930s with public protests highlighting their poor working conditions and levels of pay. Prior to 1920, welfare provision for blind people in Derry barely existed. Blind people without support could enter the district workhouse, or institutions in Dublin or Belfast, where residents of each city were given preference.239 In 1925 the National League of the Blind were forced to petition the Derry Corporation to comply with the Blind Persons’ Act of 1920 and provide state welfare for the city’s blind residents. Máirtín Ó Catháin refers to the ‘angry response’ within the Corporation and notes that at four months and again at seven months after making their initial delegation the League had to enquire on the Corporation’s progress, only to be met with evasive replies and then silence.240 By the late 1920s the Derry Organised Association of the Blind (DOAB) was established, with Andrew McDermott as secretary. McDermott had been a member of the IRA since 1913, although he was inactive because of his blindness. Ó Catháin indicates, however, that the politics of the DOAB were class-focused rather than border-focused, as McDermott spoke alongside a war-blinded British soldier on the need for a local blind welfare policy at a public meeting of 1929.241 The Corporation gave way to McDermott’s proposals for sheltered workshops and these were set up in


Gwyn’s Charitable Institution, a former orphanage, under the Blind Persons’ Act Committee. Two representatives of the workshops’ 14 blind employees (McDermott and Margaret Wilson) served on the committee until 1931, after which point it comprised only councilors. The initial years saw repeated requests by workers for increased pay, with the Ulster Blind Persons’ Movement (with members across Northern Ireland) highlighting discrepancies in pay between the Belfast and Derry workshops. William McGovern, of the Derry workshops, wrote to a local paper arguing that ‘Derry’s blind were without doubt “the lowest paid blind citizens in the British Empire”.242 With no progress being made, workers at Gwyn’s organised a protest march to take place on 28th February 1939 from the workshops to the Guildhall (Derry’s town hall and the seat of the Corporation), where the marchers would enter the council chamber and demand that their requests be heard and acted upon. The group were renamed the Londonderry Local Association for the Blind. The protest is not referred to in the Corporation minute book. The mayor told the marchers they were allowed to speak because of their disability, and ‘ordinary’ people would not have been given permission in similar circumstances. McDermott later replied by letter that ‘blind people are “ordinary people” and as such only want “ordinary conditions”’.243 A council deputation visited the workshops and reported that workers’ claims that they were decrepit and unsanitary were false. The workshop manager was ‘authorised… to suspend any trainee guilty of


insubordination’.244 Workers persisted with their complaints, although they garnered little public support and made minimal gains. McGovern continued to write to the press on the subject of rights for blind workers over the next 20 years, and the workshops eventually closed in 1966. Ó Catháin considers the blind workers’ ongoing protests to be ‘revolutionary’ in nature, pointing out that at that time it was common for blind people to perceive their disability in ‘JudeoChristian’ terms ‘of earthly burdens and a gracious reliance on the charity of the seeing world’.245 The Derry protests were carried out against a background of similar agitation elsewhere. In 1930 the Somme Lodge of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes were urging the government to abolish piecework for blind workers and bring their wages up to equal those of unskilled able-bodied municipal employees.246 In 1934 the Blind Persons’ Act Committee of the County Borough of Belfast were discussing whether leafleting by the Belfast Unemployed Blind Persons’ Movement should be allowed, since the statements being publicised were critical of the administration of the act. Peter Short, an employee of the Belfast Workshops, had applied to the committee for an increase in his monies, and was reported to take ‘a prominent part’ in the movement in question.247 In 1945 the secretary of the North of Ireland League of the Blind was writing to the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland requesting that the pensionable age for blind people be lowered to 30 or 40 years of age.


Developing Employment Opportunities By the late 1970s Jordanstown Schools had a careers guidance programme and a member of staff arranging work experience for pupils and helping with job placements for school leavers. In the 1990s the school engaged UK charity Blind in Business to advise their staff and pupils on post-school opportunities for further training and work. Blind in Business saw supported access to information technology as key to surmounting inequality. They identified what they called ‘severe difficulties’ for blind people looking for work. These included being channelled into ‘traditional’ occupations such as piano-tuning, and more contemporary occupations such as computer programming and physiotherapy. Low expectations of blind workers presented another obstacle. Blind in Business warned at this stage of ‘another generation – up to 15 000 people – [being] consigned to unemployment’ if such difficulties were not dealt with, pointing out that most potential employers of blind and partially sighted people simply did not know how visual impairment would affect their ability to work.248 In 2002 the Blind Centre organised a residential seminar on employment for blind and partially sighted young people, bringing them together with management and staff from the care sector and education and employment agencies.249 The report notes that there were 4400 blind and partially sighted people of working age in Northern Ireland at this time, of which three-quarters were unemployed; further, half of employers surveyed said that they would not employ


someone with sight loss. A particular difficulty with making the transition from school to work was identified, with inadequate resources for assessing, let alone addressing, young people’s needs for career guidance and opportunities. The Equality Commission’s Director of the Disability Unit acknowledged the specific problems for people with sight loss in getting work. Obstacles included the inaccessible formats of job advertisements and application forms and employers’ ignorance and prejudice. Graham Heslip, who was educated at Jordanstown Schools, New College Worcester and the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE), went on to work at BIFHE. In the 2002 seminar he testified to the positive impact this job had on his daily life: Because I work full-time I meet people every day and have regular contact with the public, this helps build my confidence when talking to people. Through employment I have met a lot of friends… [It is] at work that [people] can see what we are actually capable of.250 However, Graham was concerned that his blindness would prevent him from being promoted; already receiving help with reading documents from a support worker, he worried that his employers would perceive promotion in his case to be too expensive and too inconvenient to management and fellow workers. Attendees at the seminar agreed that blind people entering the workplace tended to get low-paid jobs with few or no career prospects. The consensus was that


employers ignored fair employment legislation and were uninformed about incentives to employ blind and partially sighted people, as well as resources and support. In addition, those with physical or learning disabilities received the bulk of support available. Suggested improvements included public visual awareness campaigns targeting employers especially, changes of policy to make all job advertisements and application forms accessible, trained support and mentoring and job-share posts.251 Martin O’Kane, employment and technology manager for the RNIB, identifies a number of challenges facing blind people seeking employment in Northern Ireland today. These include self-doubt and low self-esteem within blind and partially sighted people themselves, which often result in lack of drive or direction; poor standards of education; lack of work experience; fear of stepping outside the benefits system; and on employers’ part, ignorance of what people with sight loss can do, and inaccessible recruitment methods. Employers may also fear the costs of adjusting to the needs of a blind or partially sighted employee. These obstacles exist despite legislation established by the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, which obliges employers to make recruitment processes accessible and make ‘reasonable adjustment’ to the work place, which might include changing the layout of furniture, changing lighting or installing computer software. The state offers some funding to the RNIB and other organisations to help people with sight loss find work and stay in work. The RNIB also receives some money from the European Union. With these monies it can employ staff


members specifically to help blind and partially sighted people in this field. Other staff members are funded to assess the needs of the partially sighted in various work places, make recommendations for how these environments can be made easier to negotiate and more welcoming and then train the person in question in adapting. The RNIB also offers visual awareness training to the colleagues of a blind or partially sighted person, and encourage employers with ‘prejudiced notions’ to take on blind and partially sighted workers on a trial basis. For those with sight loss who do not or cannot support themselves financially, the state offers ‘permitted work’, in which a certain number of hours’ paid work is allowed with no effect on benefits, including Disability Living Allowance, Income Support and Housing Benefit, depending on individual circumstances. Martin notes that: There is a lot of uncertainty and worry among blind and partially sighted people at present about how their eligibility for certain benefits is changing as a result of the [coalition] government’s Welfare Reform agenda.252 He refers in particular to the shift from Incapacity Benefit to Employment Support Allowance; those in receipt of the former are being reassessed and in many cases, being asked to find work. In Northern Ireland the Department of Employment and Learning offers funding through the Access to Work programme for employers to adapt their work environments to the specific needs of a partially sighted worker.


Martin believes that people who receive the right support in gaining independence at home and at school, and are able to secure a good education, have better opportunities of finding work than those who rely heavily on family and friends, have not been well educated and may be ‘socially immature’.253

Experiences of Employment Alan Owens, born in Belfast in 1951, was trained in light engineering after schooling in the Ulster Institution, later Jordanstown Schools. He hoped to return to Northern Ireland to find work in open industry. He was unsuccessful, describing the process as having his ‘eyes well and truly opened’, and eventually he had to request to be moved into sheltered employment.254 He views the situation pragmatically, saying, ‘there was no options, because there was no work, and it hasn’t changed a lot’. Becoming aware of union activity at the Belfast Workshops for the Blind, he involved himself and since 1983 has been the secretary of a branch of the National League for the Blind and Disabled. In this role he has travelled all over the United Kingdom, and has been responsible for settling disputes in the workplace, monitoring employees’ timekeeping and liaising between employees and management. He views the present situation for blind people wishing to work as very difficult, pointing out that ‘we’ve had to fight very hard to keep our workshops open’, an achievement which has necessitated putting all


workers on to a four-day week and foregoing wage increases for the last five years. Henry Mayne graduated from the Ulster Institution with a recommendation from the school’s employment support service that he should enter light industry; that or sheltered employment were the two options given. Having been in the department for the partially sighted throughout his time in school, Henry had not learned Braille, but unknown to his teachers, his sight had deteriorated to the extent that he could no longer read print. With the help of a home teacher assigned to him on leaving school, he studied Braille and enrolled at a government-run training centre to learn how to operate a lathe and other tools. He explains that independence was ‘part of [the] whole family ethos’, and he feels it is good ‘for people to take control of their own situation’, rather than wait for others to perceive need and offer help. In the period of waiting to begin training he took the opportunity to learn home maintenance skills from his father, who was building a new family home, and helped on the family farm. Once trained, he interviewed for and got a job with International Computers and Tabulators (TAB, later International Computers Limited, or ICL) in Belfast, helped by a Placement Resettlement Officer working for Employment Support Services. He says, ‘I was so thrilled to have a job’. He was not offered mobility training in Belfast, but managed to get home to Tyrone most weekends while he worked there.255 Later, after being made redundant by ICL, he studied to improve his English and maths skills and dabbled in computer programming, and got work in Dunmurry. After three years


there, in around 1980, he was made redundant again, he believes because ‘the light engineering industry was on the decline’. He decided he would like to train in the field of social services as a rehabilitation worker for blind people, feeling he would be good at it, but he struggled to convince senior social workers that he would be capable. They doubted his ability to travel and visit people in their homes, for example, although Henry notes that their doubt was ‘another good impetus… Someone saying, “No, you can’t do that”, another side of you says, ‘Well, I jolly well will do it!”’. He got the necessary O levels at Rupert Stanley College of Further Education in Belfast, and then completed a year’s training in Leeds. After this, he was unemployed for around five years, but kept busy with studies, training, helping on his family’s farm and hobbies such as running. Then, a post appeared in east Belfast and he applied and was successful. He thinks he was the only applicant with a visual impairment. While working in this job, Henry studied for and got a degree and further qualifications in social work. In relation to the people he works with, he feels that: Sometimes you think it can be a bit damaging… the fact that you can’t see and can hold down a job… But on the other hand, too, it can also lift people and give them a bit of incentive. Another interviewee, Brendan Magill, compares his and his brother Adrian’s situation with that of their father. All three have a cataract condition that led to being registered as


blind. Brendan’s father, William, had one artificial eye and partial sight in the other eye. He was educated at the Ulster Institution and left at 14 in 1932 to work as a brushmaker at the Belfast Workshops for the Blind. Although he told Brendan that he was glad to be able to support his family and ‘it gave him pride’, he was determined his two sons would not work there. He developed stomach ulcers, which were thought to be linked to the chemicals used in making brushes, and he was retrained in the wire department, later becoming a commercial traveller for the workshops. Brendan attributes his enjoyment of the travelling sales position to his confidence and independence. Adrian and Brendan attended Jordanstown Schools, then Worcester College for the Blind; Brendan worked in IT, eventually managing his own business and consultancy firm, and Adrian worked for ‘a defence research establishment’, both career trajectories very different from their father’s. For his 47 years of continuous employment Brendan credits his own drive, his father’s support, encouragement and example and his education. 256 Interviewee Enid Maxwell, 73, who was born blind when her optic nerve failed to develop in the womb, worked as a shorthand typist. She lived in Exeter for a time, and then moved to London to begin work in the civil service. She notes that ‘no routes’ were shown to her, and the early days were ‘absolutely dreadful’. Eventually a ‘home teacher’ was assigned to give mobility training, but allowed Enid to walk into obstacles in the street, saying that if she had been using her cane correctly it would not have happened. Enid says that at the time, she thought the cane ‘was something to let


other people know that I couldn’t see’, not a tool. Later, she got a guide dog and returned to Northern Ireland. She began work at the Law Courts in Belfast, and points out that with no local support for guide dog users at that time, she had to rely on colleagues to teach her the route from Great Victoria Street train station to the Law Courts. Since these colleagues were sighted, the routes they chose were not necessarily the easiest for a blind person and guide dog to negotiate.257 Margaret Cooper, 61, a fellow guide dog user, started work before getting a dog, and recalls feeling ‘very insecure’. She was shy and found it difficult to make friends, and at lunch breaks was confined to the building since she had not been given any mobility training in the area. She remembers, ‘I just knew what my brother showed me, how to [get] to the office and how to get home’. Eventually she decided to make her way home and back each day at lunchtime, walking ‘from C&A to Wellington Place… in a busy rush hour, through all the shoppers and everything, and with a short cane it was an absolute nightmare’. When she got a guide dog, her instructor stayed in Belfast for a few days, walking with Margaret and her dog along the routes she needed to know, and taking her father with them so that ‘he would know exactly what I needed to do and how the dog worked’. She used the dog to get out at lunchtime, and build her confidence in shops.258 Margaret Bennett, who had both eyes removed when she was a teenager, went from boarding school in Dublin for five years’ training in England at RNIB-funded training centres and colleges. This was paid for by Tyrone County


Council. She speaks highly of her experiences, explaining that independence was strongly encouraged and that receipts from excursions were kept and gained trainees points, with a prize of £10 at the end of the year to the trainee who had gone out the most. She also travelled to and from home on her own during this time. When she returned to Northern Ireland she got work in the Royal Victoria Hospital, but as the Troubles intensified, she sought work elsewhere and eventually found a place in an engineering firm in Newry. She moved there alone, simply because she wanted the work and wanted to be independent.259 Margaret Mann struggled to complete qualifications after leaving Jordanstown Schools, feeling that she had underachieved there. After having had two children while still a teenager, she managed to finish her training in typing and shorthand with the help of an open-minded and encouraging tutor, and commenced looking for work. Her first interview was at the medical records department of Belfast City Hospital, and she made sure that she brought her own typewriter for the typing test, anxious not to be at a disadvantage with an unfamiliar machine. She was successful, and found her colleagues and managers very supportive. She moved from that job, which lasted only four months, to work in a solicitor’s office, where she stayed for five years, after this moving to the Ministry of Defence. She feels that the traditional occupations to which blind people were given access stifled the full range of aspirations and talents they had to offer, and that she herself, had she been sighted, would have become a midwife.260


Bill Foster lost his sight as an adult, from retinitis pigmentosa. He was working at that time in engineering, and managed junior staff members. He remembers that ‘as soon as I told people in work that I was going blind… those people were removed from me’, and his managerial work was compromised because colleagues and subordinates believed he simply could not carry it out as he had done before. He took on a problem that had not been solved at work and studied it at home. Finding a solution, he demonstrated his success to his colleagues, but did not explain how he had done it. One person asked to be shown, and Bill complied, feeling that this would prove his competence and value. However, credit went to the colleague in place of Bill. Eventually Bill took early retirement and developed training schemes in computer use for people with sight loss. 261 Claire Bowes, who lost her sight after being injured in the Omagh bomb, graduated from Queen’s University in Belfast in 2004 with a degree in music, and after some weeks travelling returned home to look for work. She recalls that: That was the first time that it really hit me… That it wasn’t going to be easy. A lot of friends… found work… and I still had nothing… It was souldestroying.262 At interviews she was asked about her sight, and when she was unsuccessful she was not sure whether her blindness had been the main factor, or a factor at all. She felt the onus was on her to ‘prove’ to an employer she could do a job.


Eventually she had an opportunity to train with an RNIB specialist in music in working with children and music, and subsequently she volunteered with the RNIB’s children’s service and later the Eye Care Liaison Officer (ECLO) service while she looked for work. When she was coming to the end of post-graduate study, a part-time post as an ECLO appeared and she applied for and got it. She found the work so fulfilling that she decided to set music aside. Claire notes that during her long search for paid work, she volunteered fulltime, simply because she ‘was so glad that people wanted me to help, and that I could help’. Hazel Flanagan lost her sight after a car accident in 2002 caused bleeding in the backs of both eyes and detached her retinas, and in interview explained her search for new employment. She had been a florist, but could not continue with her work because it was necessary to coordinate and match colours. She did a course in computer use and advanced audio typing through the RNIB, and subsequently English GCSE and A level. However, Hazel feels ‘employment has turned its back’ on her, suggesting that in a difficult economic climate with high demand for jobs, an applicant with a disability is bound to be unsuccessful. The challenges of travelling also limit a blind person’s work opportunities.263 Thomas Quigley left Jordanstown Schools at the age of 17 in the mid-1990s to study music technology at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford in England. He believes, however, that although students were encouraged to think that their training would fit them for, and inevitably lead to, employment in the music industry, for example, this


was a fallacy. The course itself, he notes, was well run and well resourced, but ‘we just didn’t have a clue that actually no one will end up [working in that area]’. When this became clear, Thomas became ‘disillusioned with everything’, and ‘had no idea really what I was doing’. Back in Northern Ireland, unemployed and lacking support in finding work, Thomas heard through his rehabilitation worker about the first meeting of the RNIB’s Youth Forum; attending it, he foresaw an opportunity to be employed to manage some of the proposed projects, and he began volunteering. Eventually he found first part-time, and then full-time work with the RNIB, and notes that he may have been ‘the first totally blind person to be employed by the RNIB here’. Thomas went on to take over production of Sound Vision Ulster, the monthly audio magazine initiated by the Blind Centre, which now reaches listeners on CD, online and by podcast.264 Despite – or perhaps because of – his good fortune in getting paid work in some way relevant to his interests and training, Thomas has a clear perspective on the consequences for blind and partially sighted people of failing to get work. He thinks that ‘the majority of people my age are doing what I was doing eight or nine years ago, [bumming about]’. Because of technological advances, he believes that opportunities for employment for blind and partially sighted people should have multiplied, but have not, perhaps because education is lacking still. He concludes, ‘I would be 95 per cent sure that most blind people, especially those now that are unemployed, economically stagnant, would have serious mental health issues’.265


Andrea Begley’s story provides a counterpoint. She developed glaucoma in both eyes as a child and is registered as blind. She works for the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Department of the civil service as a staff officer, focusing on health policy and legislation and often dealing with parliamentary correspondence such as questions put to the Minister for Health at the Assembly. Andrea cannot read, or write by hand, but can manage almost entirely by computer, with the occasional help of a sighted colleague. Before she started this job, RNIB support workers assessed her needs and recommended computer software packages as well as giving visual awareness training to her colleagues. Andrea travels in the UK and Europe for her job, sometimes accompanied and sometimes alone, and quickly overcame her initial fears. She describes her colleagues as ‘extremely supportive and helpful’ and her work environment as ‘good’. Andrea’s line manager points to her confidence and independence, and acknowledges that employers ‘need to broaden their knowledge of what blind and partially sighted people can do in the workplace’.266


Case Study

Alexander Mitchell Alexander Mitchell was born in 1780 in Dublin, and moved with his family to Belfast in 1787. Finding the teaching at his school ‘mediocre’, he taught himself mathematics, geometry and trigonometry, then began attending the Belfast Academy.12 Here, biographer Francis Bigger claims, ‘his sight, always defective, declined rapidly, being especially injured by the Greek alphabet’.13 By 16 he could no longer read, and by 21 he could no longer write. Bigger attributes his blindness to paralysis of the optic nerves. Mitchell ran a modest business in manufacturing bricks for 30 years, and during this time undertook a stream of mechanical experiments. He had married young and had five children, and played flute and accordion. His breakthrough in engineering terms came at the age of 52, when a friend asked him to propose a plan for repairing vessels at a dock he had built in Belfast. Mitchell patented his plan in 1833. In place of the dock, Mitchell designed screw piles and screw moorings whose use became widespread. In 1837 he became an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and in 1848 was elected a member. In the late 1830s he designed and had built Great Britain and Ireland’s first lighthouses, applying the same principles of screw piles and moorings to these and to building piers and beacons. In


1844 his lighthouse at Carrickfergus was raised and lighted. Others of his in Ireland included Kish Bank in Dublin, two in Dundalk Bay and Queenstown Lighthouse. In 1854 he patented an improved form of screw propeller, offering increased speed and decreased fuel consumption for steam ships, and in 1855 was awarded the Paris Exhibition’s silver medal for his screw mooring. A remarkable feature of Mitchell’s engineering career, given his blindness, was his insistence on visiting his lighthouses while under construction in small rowing boats. Bigger paints a picture of such a visit: He would seat himself in a small boat, tossed high by the waves, arrive at a half-built lighthouse, scramble up a ladder, and crawl on his hands and knees over the few horizontal planks, feeling whether they were of sound wood, and whether the iron-work was good in every particular.14


Chapter Five


The Impact of Conflict


As seen in chapter two, the development of ophthalmology as a respectable medical discipline stemmed in part from the epidemic of ophthalmia among soldiers fighting in Egypt during the Napoleonic Wars. The First World War saw increased numbers of soldiers receiving injuries to the eyes through gunshot, shrapnel, explosions and illness, and during the Second World War both women in particular and civilians in general received eye injuries in new contexts. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, in which the throwing of stones and other missiles, the use of plastic and rubber bullets and bomb explosions were commonplace, also took effect on the numbers of people blinded by injury.

The First World War and the Irish Civil War During the First World War the numbers of soldiers blinded in battle and from illnesses contracted at the front were substantial: Suzanna Biernoff suggests that ‘many soldiers were shot in the face simply because they had no experience of trench warfare’, and were not prepared for the rapid machine-gun fire they met when putting their heads over the trench.267 Fiona Roman notes that most patients with eye problems presented at field hospitals with ‘traumatic injury’, and due to the lack of ophthalmic surgeons, many eyes were removed which, with skilled and knowledgeable treatment, could have been saved.268 Even when an eye was not hit directly by shrapnel, it could be ‘grossly mutilated [and even] destroyed, presumably by the pressure waves from


the blast’.269 One-eyed soldiers were discharged from duty, although some argued that since their chances of receiving an injury in the healthy eye were minimal, they should be retained. Night-blindness was another phenomenon observed among soldiers, mostly those fighting in the Middle East. It was attributed to ‘general debility’, ‘monotonous diet and overtiredness’, and perhaps alcohol.270 Some cases of blindness were shown to be psychological in nature, and were labelled by one ophthalmologist as ‘wounds of consciousness’.271 In relation to the psychological fallout of physical injury, however, Biernoff cites a contemporary surgeon’s opinion that of all the patients undergoing treatment for facial injuries, ‘only the blind kept their spirits through thick and thin’.272 This was presumed to be because blind people, of course, could see the effects of their injuries neither on their own faces nor in the responses of others. The same surgeon, Harold Gillies, remarked of a gravely disfigured patient that with dark glasses and a prosthetic nose, ‘at least he was presentable enough to be a blind man’, and Biernoff points out that for war veterans, dark glasses (or an artificial eye) ‘c[ould] signify (and indeed draw attention to) visual impairment, while at the same time concealing any visible deformity or difference’.273 Máirtín Ó Catháin, writing about the limitations of blind welfare provision in Derry and the resultant protests by blind workers, notes that after the First World War ‘several [exservicemen] returned blind to [Derry] either through shrapnel injuries or mustard gas attacks on the western front’.274 With Derry Corporation under the control of unionists, Ó Catháin


believes these former soldiers played a significant part both in publicising the plight of blind people in the city, and securing concessions from the Corporation for all employable blind people. In the period following the First World War Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland experienced domestic conflict arising from the Irish War of Independence and subsequent civil war. In 1920 the country was partitioned but the border took effect only to a limited extent, due to internal struggles in the new Irish Free State. This resulted in uncertainty and disaffection among both Protestants and Catholics near the border and living side by side in cities, towns, villages and rural areas across Northern Ireland, and in many cases triggered violence. In June 1922 the Belfast Association for the Employment of the Industrious Blind’s minute books show that ‘the disturbed state of the city’ was such that blind workers living in Ballymacarrett and York Street were allowed to leave 20 minutes earlier than the other workers. Later that summer one worker, an H. Edgerton, was sufficiently ‘affected’ by a bomb exploding to be given paid sick leave for three months.275

The Second World War The Second World War also took effect on blind people in Northern Ireland, principally those living and working in Belfast during the German bombing raids in the spring of 1941. Preparations for this eventuality began from the outbreak of the war, however.


In 1939 Belfast Corporation granted a War Bonus for blind people, and it was announced that guide dogs were to be allowed in air raid shelters, and would receive a ration of cereal.276 The Belfast Workshops for the Blind addressed the possibility of air raids and their effects on their premises and employees. A Major Hamill was interviewed on what precautions and protections would be necessary. Some stock was shifted from vulnerable buildings, and an air raid shelter was planned for the Howard Street premises in 1941. The managers of the Macan Asylum for the Blind in Armagh wrote to the managers of the workshops offering accommodation for up to 30 workers, should evacuation be necessary. During the German bombing of Belfast later that year one of the shop’s large windows was smashed ‘by enemy action’, with the workshops on Lawnbrook Avenue also sustaining damage to slates and glass.277 The workshops’ own staff and workers were employed in fire watching around the buildings at night, and a blind employee of the workshops, Frank Roberts, was killed in his own home. The Blind Welfare Association wrote to Antrim County Council in 1945 requesting financial assistance for Daniel Osborne, a blind man who had left Belfast on medical advice after the bombing raids and moved to Lisburn. His nerves had been affected.278 In July 1941 the BAEIB received a letter from the National Institute of the Blind in London about helping civilians blinded as a result of air raids. The letter was acknowledged with thanks and a statement that ‘so far no cases of blinded civilians have come to our notice’.279 However, in 1952 the


Belfast Telegraph reported on the story of a Civil Defence warden who received injuries to one eye from a bomb dropped on Ravenscroft Avenue. After the injury he saw an optician and started to wear glasses, but his eyesight worsened rapidly and soon he found he could not continue in his work as a librarian. Eventually, with the help of the National Institute for the Blind, he was sent to a residential centre for rehabilitation in Devon. In 1941 the National League of the Blind asked for arrangements to be made to pay the blind workers ‘Grade figures’ should the workshops be destroyed by bombs, and more immediately, that hot drinks be provided to those workers having to remain in the air raid shelter for long periods of time. In 1943 profits were reduced due to the volume of products lost ‘by enemy action’.280 The Benn Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat Clinic also suffered during the bombing of Belfast. It had its roof set alight, and one wall of the hospital air raid shelter collapsed. With state money, a house was leased in Dunmurry, and in-patients were transferred there. Outpatients continued to be seen at the clinic on Clifton Street, and the Salvation Army used its top floors as a hostel for members of the armed forces. In 1945 all patients returned.281 Like the workshops and hospitals, the Ulster Institution was sited close to the city centre in Belfast. In 1939 the school made evacuation plans for its pupils, arranging to move them to the holiday homes of Belfast Central Mission and North Belfast Mission in Donaghadee in County Down. Air raid shelters were erected at the Institution and male


teachers were given a course of Air Raid Precautions lectures. Late in 1941 the school in Belfast closed and it re-opened after Christmas in Donaghadee. The buildings it occupied offered little space, and as a result pupil numbers were the lowest they had been since the opening of the Lisburn Road premises in 1845. The staff and pupils returned to Belfast in 1945, and pupil numbers rose, but teachers were in short supply and reports complain of the expense of maintaining the building.282

St Dunstan’s/Blind Veterans UK In 1910 Sir Arthur Pearson, a newspaper baron, began to lose his sight, and by 1912 glaucoma had left him completely blind. Seeing himself as ‘a blind man with a mission to help other blind people’, he began visiting soldiers blinded in the early battles of the First World War while they were still in hospital.283 Pearson realised that these men, mostly young, had different needs, psychological and material, from other blind people, and he determined in 1915 to establish a new organisation for the ‘re-training, re-settlement, relief and after-care of blinded soldiers, sailors and air-men’.284 St Dunstan’s took in blinded servicemen from Britain and Ireland, as well as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, some of whom were instrumental in establishing offshoots of St Dunstan’s and other blind welfare organisations on their return home. The hostel soon was filled, and he looked for a place with ‘large and beautiful grounds’, finding what he


needed in American financier Otto Kahn’s house in Regent’s Park, St Dunstan’s. Kahn gave the house and grounds to Pearson to be used as he saw fit, and the house gave its name to the hostel and thence to the charity. Pearson arranged with the War Office for all eye casualties to be send to the Second London General Hospital, where they ‘came under the care’ of St Dunstan’s immediately and were visited with a gift of a Braille watch. Visits continued daily for the duration of the patient’s hospital stay, and lessons were given in Braille and ‘hobby occupations’.285 Once transferred to the hostel, the blinded men – numbering 150 in 1916 – were trained in Braille and typewriting, and then received further training in ‘some occupation useful in their future lives for pleasure or profit’.286 Occupations learned included massage, telephony, making mats and brushes, poultry-keeping and market gardening. They spent mornings studying and afternoons in workshops, and great emphasis was placed on sporting activity, including football, athletics and rowing. David Castleton notes that ’a feature of training in that first year was the recognition of the enormous value of the blind teaching the blind’.287 Pearson explained this principle thus: The remarkable speed within which the occupations taught in the workshops are acquired… is attributable principally to the influence of the blind teacher. The feeling of helplessness which overwhelms a strong, healthy, newly-blinded man is incredibly relieved when he finds that the one who is to instruct him in some


St Dunstan’s members learning about poultry farming (undated, courtesy of Blind Veterans UK)



profitable employment is suffering from the same handicap himself.288 The charity aimed to care for and financially support (where necessary) all blinded ex-servicemen and their dependants for the rest of their lives. It found members employment where it could, and arranged for the sale of goods they produced. Funding was a constant struggle, and at times grants and allowances to members were cut. During the Second World War many more employment opportunities opened up, and by the end of 1942 more than 100 blind men and women trained to operate industrial machinery were working in factories. During the Second World War women were blinded in significant numbers for the first time, on duty and at work in munitions factories, and St Dunstan’s took them in along with civilians in auxiliary services, often blinded during air raids, and prisoners of war blinded by privation.

St Dunstan’s members learning about anatomy in preparation for becoming masseurs (undated, courtesy of Blind Veterans UK)


Northern Irish St Dunstan’s members at the first Northern Irish reunion, Belfast (1925, courtesy of Blind Veterans UK)


In Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, the first St Dunstan’s reunion meetings – when those who had been rehabilitated at the hostel together met again – took place in 1925. Every member in Northern Ireland – 27 in total – attended the first Belfast meeting.289 In 1926 St Dunstan’s Review reports on the second ‘After-care Re-union for the Ulster men’, held in Thompson’s Restaurant in Belfast. A message of welcome from the charity’s chair was read, speeches were given, music was played and competitions held. Men told stories over tea, and the national anthem was sung in closing.290 An obituary for a Samuel Holmes


Northern Irish St Dunstan’s members at the second Northern Irish reunion, Belfast (1926, courtesy of Blind Veterans UK)

of Belfast, who died in 1936, offers a glimpse of what St Dunstan’s offered its members. Blinded when he contracted influenza while serving in France, he took some time to recover sufficient health to enter St Dunstan’s, which he did eventually in 1919. He was married and had three children, and had been a joiner on car bodies. He left St Dunstan’s ‘fully trained as a joiner’ in 1922. A ‘first-class workman’, he was employed as a joiner until his sudden death.291 In 1927 the editorial notes of an issue of St Dunstan’s Review, the charity’s monthly publication, show that its chairman, Captain Ian Fraser, had been lobbying the Government of Northern Ireland on behalf of blind people in the province to expedite the distribution of free wireless licences (legislated for in 1926).292 St Dunstan’s were offering to supply evidence of the ‘genuine blindness’ of their members, and pointed out that anyone in receipt of a blind person’s pension would need no investigation to ascertain their eligibility. The pressure the charity was able to apply in Stormont led to instructions to each county borough and county council in Northern Ireland to compile a register of blind persons in their area, but the councils continued to lag in their duty. In 1945 George Sherman, manager of the Belfast Workshops for the Blind, reported on a research visit to workshops in London, Manchester and Liverpool, undertaken with a view to broadening the range of employment offered at the Belfast workshops.293 He mentions St Dunstan’s members. These people, Sherman believed, were ‘a type of pupil superior to the general civilian blind person, the former having had, in most cases, an elementary standard of


education, if not secondary’. As a result, they were easier to place in ‘open industry’ rather than sheltered employment, and St Dunstan’s, Sherman notes, were against the segregation of blind workers, arguing that ‘in the majority of cases blind people can accustom themselves to the difficulties of their handicap and live otherwise normal lives’.294

The Troubles Yvonne Canavan’s survey of eye injuries presented at the Royal Victoria Hospital from 1967 to 1976 gives some statistics for injuries suffered as a result of what she calls ‘civil disturbances’. This term may be assumed to refer in the main to sectarian conflict, including riots, clashes with the security forces, bombings and shootings. More than a quarter of injuries to both eyes, simultaneously or on separate occasions, occurred during civil disturbances. Injuries to eyes as a result of Troubles-related violence accounted for almost a quarter of all enucleations (in which one or both eyes are removed), with road traffic accidents accounting for more than a quarter. Canavan acknowledges a ‘high enucleation rate’ in the survey group, which, she indicates, ‘reflects the severe ocular damage that often follows road traffic accidents and certain injuries associated with civil disturbances’. These injuries may have included penetrating wounds to the eye from shrapnel or other debris in bomb blasts, and shootings from rubber or plastic bullets.295 Canavan points out that:


Although injuries due to the civil disturbances were responsible for less than 10 per cent of the injuries in this survey, they accounted for one-quarter of all enucleations and, if these are excluded, the enucleation rate falls to 6.8 per cent, a more acceptable figure.296 1972 was the year in which most patients were admitted (252). Patients admitted with eye injuries resulting from civil disturbances also reached a peak in this year, which was a particularly violent year generally in terms of the Troubles. The Troubles took effect on the already-blind too. Lawnbrook Avenue, where the Belfast Workshops for the Blind were sited by the late 1960s, was ‘in the midst of one of the most troubled areas’ of Belfast at the time.297 The committee were concerned both for the premises and the safety of their blind workers, whose journeys to and from work were made difficult by barricades and lack of public transport. The annual report for 1969 mentions that some blind workers lost their homes and could not always find

Alan Scott and Dorothy Moore of the National Federation of the Blind with a Braille machine rescued from their offices, wrecked in a bomb blast (1973 © Belfast Telegraph)


accommodation close to work. The report states, however, that: there was no break in the harmony which has existed for many years between our workers who are of many different persuasions but all with the common affliction of blindness.298 At times from this point on the workshops’ own delivery vehicle was used to transport workers to the city centre, and early closing times became necessary. Production was hindered by the workers’ reduced hours, by significant incidences of sickness and by a difficulty in finding sighted workers for the offices. The reports for the 1970s continue to refer to the special problems attending travel around the city for blind people, and observe that riots obstruct the receipt of materials and delivery of their goods. On three occasions bomb hoaxes caused the workshops to be cleared and searched. One other effect of the Troubles is noted, namely the great demand for wire mesh window guards, and although shop sales decreased because of turmoil in Bedford Street, sales as a whole were at a historic high in 1972. Like other businesses, the workshops were brought to a standstill for two weeks during the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike of 1974, with lack of power making production impossible. Sales representatives were prevented from calling on their customers at this time, too. At this stage, Lawnbrook Avenue’s location in an interface area became a serious obstacle to securing workers,


as people from both Protestant and Catholic communities felt it to be unsafe, and civil disturbance in the city as a whole discouraged blind people from outside Belfast from coming there to live and work. By the late 1970s the sales shop on Bedford Street found itself outside the gated area of the city centre, within which many people preferred to remain when shopping, and suffered further decreases in sales. The reports emphasise throughout the dedication of the blind workers to their jobs, and their excellent records of attendance, despite the obvious dangers and difficulties, with ‘a number of blind walk[ing] long distances in the early hours of the morning rather than be late for work’.299 The Belfast Telegraph reported in September 1973 on the recovery of Braille records and equipment from the offices of the Northern Ireland branch of the National Federation of the Blind, which were ‘shattered’ in a bomb blast. The chair, Alan Scott, had been blinded in service during the Second World War, and could not climb into the building to retrieve the files; he got help from Canon Robert Turner, of nearby St George’s Church in High Street.300 In the early 1980s the management committee of Cliftonville Home for the Blind was endeavouring to sell the building, citing its location in a particularly troubled part of Belfast among other reasons.301 James Anderson, a member of staff at the Northern Irish branch of the RNIB, reported to head office in London on the position of the Home after being approached by the committee for financial assistance in buying new premises. He describes his visit as ‘harrowing’, explaining that ‘approximately twenty people have been


murdered during the past twelve years within a radius of less than a quarter of a mile from the Home’ and noting that many more than that would have been injured by ‘crossfire or punishment shootings’. Also, some residents had been caught up in a robbery of the local post office. As a result, it was difficult for the committee to attract ‘the right kind of staff’, and Anderson discovered that the matron often was the only sighted person in the building at night. Further, the fire escape and screens protecting the building from bomb blasts had been vandalised. He urges the then Director-General of the RNIB to help in whatever way it can in removing the residents to ‘one of the more select areas of South Belfast where there is easy access to public transport, Churches, Day Centres and other amenities’.302 Andrew Murdock, public policy officer with Guide Dogs, notes that the charity’s location in east Belfast, predominantly Protestant, proved problematic for some Catholic dog users during the years of the Troubles. He explains that although at this time training was offered on the east Belfast premises, Guide Dogs made sure that those who felt uncomfortable in that area were given training in their own homes. There was no additional training for dogs and owners who had to travel through the city centre, for example, where they were at risk every day of route closures and bomb scares, if not actual explosions, but they continued to work with the support and advice of Guide Dog Mobility Instructors. Andrew believes that one guide dog was retired during this time due to the trauma resulting from an explosion.303


Interviewee and guide dog user Margaret Cooper, 61, who worked in Belfast during the Troubles, reflects on the impact of the violence on her dog: My first dog was very aware of [bomb scares] and, if there was anything going on, because I worked beside a window… of course everybody would run to my window and look out, and then the dog would get really agitated and she would jump up on the windowsill with them and try to see what was happening. And then of course when the [fire] bell went, she would have jumped up and run out the door without me, she was so scared. And I would never, never want to put a dog through that again, never, it was horrible. After being put out of the building where she worked because of bomb scares and actual explosions, Margaret recalls ‘you were never allowed to go home, you had to wander about’. Often she was refused entrance into restaurants, and she remembers the experience as ‘terrible’. At another time she and a friend left work and unknowingly walked in the direction of a bomb. Margaret heard it explode, heard glass shattering and then silence. She recalls feeling completely panicked, unable for the moment to understand why no one was talking to her (she presumes now her friend was simply shocked), and attempted to run from the scene. Once when out for lunch with colleagues she was left alone after the meal, and found herself in the middle of a bomb scare not knowing where she could go, terrified and ‘just


crying my eyes out’. On this occasion a friend ‘happened to come along and rescued me’. Margaret remembers ‘dreading’ her commute to work each day, but carried on, feeling responsible for financial contributions at home.304 Fellow guide dog user Enid Maxwell, 73, was working at the Royal Victoria Hospital for some of this period. She recalls that when rivet guns were being used in building work on the hospital grounds she found it hard to tell the difference between these sounds and the shots from a weapon, and the noise made her dog nervous. She wrote to the Exeter offices of Guide Dogs, and was told to reassure her dog and treat all noises as matters of fact. Since the noises worried her as well, she felt this advice was inadequate. During riots the covers for drains were used as missiles, and as Enid crossed Cavendish Street one day her dog did not see the open drain and she fell into it up to her knees.305 Both Enid and Margaret note that since Guide Dogs had no office in Northern Ireland until 1984, they relied on the English offices for support during this time. However, staff there simply did not understand the special pressures put on guide dogs and their owners by these incidents and experiences. The women agree that not only were dogs frightened by the sounds of bullets, explosions and alarms, but by the anxiety their owners and others were going through as well.306 Margaret Bennett worked in the Royal Victoria Hospital in the early years of the Troubles, and found that her guide dog, Loxie, suffered. She remembers ‘there were bullets going over our heads and poor Loxie, she couldn’t hack the ammunition, she was vomiting all the time’. Margaret herself


fainted during a shooting incident near the entrance of the hospital.307 Margaret Mann worked at a city centre solicitor’s office through some years of the Troubles. She did not use a guide dog, and found the possibility of being re-routed on public transport very frightening. She recalls, ‘I would have ended up in a blind panic because I just didn’t know where I was’. Fortunately, bus drivers and fellow passengers got to know her route and destination and helped her whenever they could. Walking was hazardous too when broken glass

Royal Avenue in Belfast in the aftermath of a bomb blast (1988 © Belfast Telegraph)


and debris littered the pavements after riots or bomb explosions.308 At the age of 15, interviewee Claire Bowes suffered eye and facial injuries in the bombing of Omagh in August 1998. She remembers that ‘initially I just thought it was dust or dirt or debris or something in my eyes’, but in fact a piece of metal had cut across her left eye and embedded itself in her right eye, and she was taken straight from the scene of the bomb to the Royal Victoria Hospital. After a series of surgical interventions Claire was told that her right eye had had to be removed, at which news she was ‘devastated, totally devastated’, not least because of her age and her fear of what visual impairment would mean for her future. Her friends’ accepting attitude towards the news helped her to regain some equilibrium, and there was hope still that the sight in her left eye could be saved with procedures including a corneal graft. Claire returned home after a couple of weeks in hospital, and began adjusting to everyday life with visual impairment and in the aftermath of trauma. In September 1998 a final operation was unsuccessful, and Claire and her family and friends knew that she would be blind for the rest of her life. Claire emphasises her determination not to think of and experience this trauma as the ruin of her hopes and effectively her life, and describes her family and friends as continuing to offer ‘absolutely fantastic support’. There were ‘things I thought I’d never achieve’, including marriage and a family, with the teenaged Claire convinced that no one was ‘going to want to go out with somebody who can’t see’. She is now a wife and mother


of two, has a music degree, has travelled internationally and works for the RNIB. She ‘relied on sighted guides’ for the first three years following her injury, she believes because she was ‘actually quite afraid’ to be on her own due to the circumstances in which she lost her sight. She describes it as ‘the fear of [not knowing] if there was somebody there’, and felt incapable of going out alone or even being in her house alone. When she knew that she would be attending university, she planned to live with friends in Belfast and used a guide dog to gain confidence in getting around. Presently, she and her husband have told their children that she is blind, but are waiting until they are older to explain the circumstances of the injuries that cost her her sight.309


Case Study

Richard Moore Richard Moore was born to Catholic parents in Derry in 1962. He lived in the Creggan area of the city with his parents and siblings. In May 1972 he was shot in the face with a rubber bullet on his way home from Rosemount Primary School. He and his friends had entered a derelict building near to Rosemount RUC station and a British Army sangar, and as he climbed out of a window, ten or twelve feet from the army look-out post, he was hit on the bridge of his nose. His nose was smashed and his eyes put out. Later his right eye was removed, but his parents persuaded the surgeons to leave his left eye in place, in hope that somehow it might be restored. Moore attributes some of his ability to recover from and accept his sight loss, physically and psychologically, to the circumstances of the injuries. His case was taken up by John Hume, together with the Rosemount and Upper Nassau Street Tenants’ Association, and brought to senior army and police officers and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw. They refuted the army’s claims that the boys had been stoning the sangar, and pressed for a review of regulations on rubber bullets. Moore received sympathy and support from people all over Ireland and internationally, and funds were raised to send him with his parents and younger brother to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in the



winter of 1972. As a ten-year-old boy, this attention made him feel ‘important and special’.15 He suggests too that both his age and the atmosphere of love and forgiveness in his family home helped him immensely. At that time he had no thought for the impact of blindness on his future, but lived in the present, ‘elated’ by his ability to continue riding his bicycle on shouted directions from friends, and ‘devastated and frightened’ by ‘the thought of never again seeing my mammy and daddy’s faces’. The family had experienced Richard’s injuries as traumatising, and his mother, who had lost a brother on Bloody Sunday some months earlier, suffered a breakdown in the aftermath. Nonetheless, Moore ‘never heard them say an angry word about the soldier or the British army’, and they urged their children to let go of resentment.17 Within this framework, Moore learned to live as a blind person, using a heightened sense of hearing, acquiring new ways of moving, studying guitar and Braille reading and typing. He had his secondary school education in Derry, with extra-curricular help from teachers and a social worker. Eventually he went into business with two of his brothers, running two pubs. He married Rita and they had two daughters, Naoimh and Enya. Moore found that the births of his children ‘starkly reinforced in me the knowledge of what blindness had robbed me’.18 In 1996 he set up Children in Crossfire, a charity working with children in Asia, Africa and South America caught up in conflict. Richard was included in a group of victims of Troubles violence chosen to meet the Dalai Lama on a visit to Derry in 2001, and established


a personal rapport with him. They met again in Belfast, and later the Dalai Lama became a patron of Children in Crossfire. Richard had spoken with him about his forgiveness of the soldier who had caused his injuries. Eventually, he managed to get in touch with this soldier, a man named Charles, and after some correspondence, they met. Moore emphasises the healing impact of hearing words of regret spoken sincerely by Charles at this meeting. In concluding his memoir, he reflects that he ‘can’t separate [his] blindness from all that is good in [his] life’.19


Home Life and Leisure Activities


Chapter Six


Technological developments have made possible significant changes for the better for blind and partially sighted people, in terms of education, work and leisure. However, these changes are not always implemented, sometimes due to lassitude or ignorance, and especially when the costs of new technologies are seen as prohibitive by schools, workplaces, welfare organisations and the state, as well as individuals. Some technologies develop in ways that make them less accessible to the partially sighted. Home life and leisure, nonetheless, are being affected mostly beneficially by the increasing availability of software and hardware for communication and entertainment that incidentally or deliberately takes the needs of those with sight loss into account. Sports and other hobbies are affected by technology, but also, and more importantly, by physical resources and facilities, and the willingness of the sighted to address the needs of the partially sighted. Mobility is a significant theme in this category, with access to any activity outside the home restricted if transport is a problem. Independent mobility becomes, in these circumstances, even more important. Finally, home life, like school and work life, is inflected with particular challenges for blind and partially sighted people, not least in parenting. The greatest challenge, however, may be the discouraging attitudes of others.


The Impact of Technology Talking Books Talking Books were developed in 1920 for those who could not read by Braille, but most inventions in this line proved too expensive or were otherwise impracticable. St Dunstan’s and the RNIB funded half the cost of experimental work, and eventually the gramophone and amplifier were settled on as the best method of recording and distributing in the mid-1930s. These were already commercially viable, as shown by the music industry, and with standard designs for the records and players, Talking Books in the United Kingdom could be interchanged with those in America, for example. Existing standards for records were modified, since at 78 revolutions per minute, only five or six minutes’ reading could be recorded. By contrast, a 12-inch disc at 24 rpm offered 25 minutes’ reading on each side. By 1936, specially designed machines were offered to blind people at manufacturers’ cost prices, and the Publishers’ Association allowed a merely nominal copyright fee for works recorded, provided the records were used only for blind people. Talking Book libraries became very popular; membership was free, and once a machine was bought, the records were received and returned by post in special containers. In Northern Ireland, Herbert Quin was an early user and advocate of this technology, and through the Blind Welfare Association, raised funds to help with the purchase of the machines. In the mid-1950s, the Belfast Workshops for the Blind were buying the machines


for re-sale to blind people in Northern Ireland, and had about 50 sets in circulation.310 Several interviewees testify to the ongoing importance of talking books in their lives. Lisa enjoys them because she can do other things while listening, and Margaret, who has partial sight and can read a little, still prefers talking books because sustained reading makes her feel nauseous.311 Talking Book machine at the Braille Centenary Exhibition in London, (1952, courtesy of RNIB Heritage Services)


Radio In 1926 the Wireless Telegraphy (Blind Persons’ Facilities) Act was passed to enable blind people in England and Northern Ireland to receive free wireless licences, in recognition of the importance of the wireless in blind people’s lives as a means of being informed and entertained. A 1927 issue of St Dunstan’s Review castigates the Government of Northern Ireland for its apathy in relation to this legislation, which had not been put into effect almost a year after being passed.312 In 1928 another issue of the Review indicated that in fact, Belfast Corporation had acted on the new law immediately, and ‘144 blind persons, including blinded soldiers in Belfast, have been and are in enjoyment of the privileges which those licences give’.313 In 1929 the RNIB worked with the BBC to set up the Wireless for the Blind fund, with appeals issued annually on the radio, and from 1954 on television as well. Blind people were allowed free wireless licenses, and later wireless sets bought by the Fund were exempted from purchase tax. In Northern Ireland there were few or no organisations to help distribute sets in rural areas, and one individual, William Sweeney, took on this work with the help of the Blind Welfare Association. From 1948 the Belfast Workshops for the Blind made space for the storage of wireless sets on their premises and took over responsibility for their distribution, maintenance and replacement. They delegated much of this work to local welfare authorities and the Home Teachers Service.314


Computers In 1967 interviewee Brendan Magill, then 22 years old, got a job in the field of information technology (IT), and believes that he was only the second or perhaps the third person registered blind to get employment in this area. He became a trainee computer programmer and became ‘very interested in the technical side of computing’. After his initial application, he was told he had not sufficient sight to do the job; he demurred, and was put through a ‘tough’ selection process, which resulted in him being given the job. He considers his early experience with computers to have been technical (linked to previous work with amateur radio) and managerial rather than mathematical. He later became a technical support manager for the local council, and in 1980 ‘started playing’ with desktop computers, using a magnifier to read the screen. In relation to his visual impairment, Brendan notes that no accommodations were made by any of his employers, and those he needed he ‘intuitively worked out’. He read print with a magnifying glass, and travel had to be undertaken by train or through a lift from a colleague; he did not feel he was ‘imposing’, in another interviewee’s words, because he was able to do his colleagues favours in turn. In time Brendan set up his own IT-based business, providing hardware, software and services, and took on six employees. He sold this in 1992 and became a free-lance IT consultant, developing database software for the financial and further education sectors. Through securing IT teaching work at the Royal National College for the Blind, Brendan’s consultancy switched its focus


from IT to employment and disability.315 Henry Mayne, born in 1949, worked with International Computers Limited (ICL) after he left school. He was made redundant after eight years with the company, when it was modernising in order to keep up with the IT market. He was able to borrow books from Jordanstown Schools and began studying English and maths and also ventured into computer programming.316 Interviewee Bill Foster, working as an engineer when he began to lose his sight through retinitis pigmentosa, found that when he could no longer read print, he could still read computer screens, which at that time showed green text on a black background. After taking early retirement, Bill taught himself to train others with sight loss in using computers, and notes that: They say they’ve learned more from me‌ than they have from the sighted people, because, if they get into difficulty, the sighted people just come and use the mouse to get out of it. Whereas people who are using the keyboard all the time will find [a way] round the keyboard.317 Developments in computer technology are not always an unmixed blessing for the partially sighted. In the early 1990s, when the Internet as it is known today was in its infancy, it was an information medium and all web pages were made up only of text. These were relatively easy for blind and partially sighted people to access and use.318 However, when pictures began to replace text rather than illustrate it, screen


readers became less effective, and those using them were not able to retrieve much of the information contained on websites. Interviewee Hazel Flanagan notes that PDFs are an unhelpful development for blind and partially sighted people, for example, since they are photographic and cannot be read by a screen reader.319 Although accessible PDFs have been developed, they are not widely used. Brendan Magill, with more than 40 years’ experience in IT, believes that technology is functioning now to make not only computers, but ‘the workplace and world in general more visual and thus less accessible’. He believes that ‘the IT world is going to become increasingly difficult for people who are vision impaired’.320 Tim Berners-Lee, credited with the invention of the ‘Worldwide Web’, from the outset ‘felt that access for people with disabilities was an “essential aspect”’ and this led to the creation of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). 321 The WAI published in 1999 the first set of internationallyrecognised guidelines on making websites fully accessible to people with disabilities, including: providing text alternatives for non-text content; providing captions for multimedia elements; creating content that can be presented in different ways without losing meaning; making the website operable entirely from the keyboard of the computer; and making the content appear and operate predictably.322 Currently, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) offer a system of accreditation that awards the most accessible sites with an AAA grade. In the 1990s Jordanstown Schools for blind people and Deaf undertook to make information technology (IT) a priority in the education of its blind pupils,


acknowledging its staff’s lack of expertise in the area. Charity Blind in Business emphasise that blind people need to access reliable independent advice on what technologies to use and how to use them. Further, with help they can specify, evaluate and even adapt and customise their own IT packages, but need ongoing product support. However, in 2002 a report published by the Blind Centre showed that Jordanstown Schools were not connected to the Internet.323 Martin O’Kane explains that the most significant developments in technology since the 1990s relate to how blind and partially sighted people can access computers. He identifies two computer programmes in particular: JAWS is a speech software package that speaks out all information on a screen and input on a keyboard; and Zoomtext is a magnification package allowing alterations in the size, colour and font of text, which individuals can use according to their own needs. Of further benefit are handheld and desktop magnifiers, which allow those with partial sight to read text on paper, and scanners, which enable the transfer of information printed on paper to a computer, where it can be read using software. Martin points out that Apple, a leading computer design and production company, builds accessibility options such as magnification and speech recognition into many of its machines, notably tablets. Some websites, he notes, are too complex to be accessed easily with speech and magnification software. Nonetheless, he believes that rather than technological developments leaving those with visual impairments behind, blind and partially sighted people, especially when elderly, may become ‘digitally excluded’ from


society simply through being unaware of the ways in which they could use technology. Anna Beamish, 90 years old, undertook a course in computer use and touch typing with the RNIB, but explains that she was prevented from progressing because funding was reserved for those seeking work, contributing to her technological marginalisation.324 The RNIB are lobbying the Health and Social Care Trusts to extend their funds to train those in non-work situations as well.325 Another factor in exclusion is the cost of hardware and software, which blind and partially sighted people often have to pay for themselves if for private use. The advantage of Apple products currently lies in their inclusion of software that otherwise would have to be bought separately. Claire Bowes, blinded in 1998 at the age of 15, speaks of the advances in mobile phone technology as a great benefit. She indicates that text messages had to be read to her in the initial years after her injury, and that this compromise of her privacy, as a teenager living at home, was difficult. Interviewee Gareth, registered blind at the age of two with congenital optic atrophy, notes that when touch screen phones appeared he wondered how these could be used by a blind person. However, when he tried, he found it ‘actually quite intuitive’; when the screen is touched, ‘it tells you what you’re touching… and then you double tap, to activate’.326 However, interviewee Margaret Mann expresses concern about young people’s increasing reliance on technologies such as speech recognition, suggesting that they are ‘sacrificing… numeracy and literacy skills’ through not bothering to learn Braille.327


Sport Over the decades since the mid-twentieth century, the range of leisure pursuits supported and encouraged at Jordanstown Schools have broadened. A report to the board of governors from the principal in 1978 notes that the pupils demonstrated ‘greater enthusiasm for work’ in that academic year, which the principal attributes to ‘the increased confidence gained from new activities’. These included archery, and the flourishing club at the school owed its existence to proactive pupils, who consulted with the Northern Ireland Sports Council, costed equipment and raised the money to buy it. In the 1980s and 1990s Jordanstown Schools organised ski trips for their pupils, raising funds themselves and receiving a contribution from the Blind Centre. Stephen Clarke, the staff member responsible for the trip, indicated that trying out the varied sports on offer ‘opened a new dimension to our deaf and blind children, and enabled them to participate on an equal footing with their non-handicapped peers’.328 Prior to the trip, he had taken advice from the British Ski-ing Club for the Disabled, the majority of whose members were blind. They recommended the use of a guide or instructor for each blind skier, and warned that some ski resorts were more suitable for blind people than others. Other school trips during this time took place to Blackpool and Belgium, offering ‘necessary experiences to children who by the nature of their handicap were experientially deprived’.329 In 2009 the RNIB NI published ‘It’s Good to See You Out’, a survey that asked whether the sports and recreational needs


of blind and partially sighted people in Northern Ireland were being met. Introducing the research, the survey notes that: As a society we are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of regular physical activity and mental stimulus, and the dangers of obesity and inertia. People with disabilities face particular challenges in this respect, whether they simply want to walk down the street, go to the cinema, play football or go hang gliding.330 The main obstacles identified by respondents were inadequate information, ‘lack of a companion with whom to undertake the activity’, little or no understanding of their needs from service providers, inadequate public transport, and costs. The RNIB in Northern Ireland currently facilitates a number of sports clubs especially for blind and partially sighted people, including two soccer clubs, two tandem cycling clubs, walking and running clubs and a monthly sports club which encompasses new age kurling, boccia and goalball. The Northern Ireland Blind Golf Association also works to promote and facilitate participation in golf.331 Sport Northern Ireland (SNI), a public body working to promote sport and sport activity across the population, formed a partnership with Disability Sports Northern Ireland (DSNI) in order to ‘increase participation in sport and physical activity and improve sporting performance among people with a disability’.332 As a result, SNI and DSNI, together with RNIB NI, formed Blind Sports Northern Ireland (BSNI). BSNI is described as a ‘forum’, intended to ‘exchange information


Kelly Gallagher skiing with a guide (undated, courtesy of RNIB NI)

on current opportunities’, to identify and consider barriers to participation, ‘to… draw up a development plan’ for increased participation, and to find funding to implement this plan.333 SNI published research addressing the issue of sport and physical activity for blind and partially sighted people in particular in 2012, acknowledging that existing information in this area was limited. In the year previous to the research


Mark Pollock (on left) competing in the Round Ireland Yacht Race in 2010 (courtesy of Mark Pollock)


survey, most respondents had walked and significant numbers had been swimming, making use of a gym, bowling, cycling, dancing and doing archery, among other activities. Smaller numbers had been playing golf and football, doing athletics, rock climbing and sailing. Several prominent sportspeople in Northern Ireland are blind, including skier Kelly Gallagher; Janet Grey, who won the World Disabled Water Ski Championships three times; sprinter Jason Smyth, who won two gold medals for Ireland at the 2008 Summer Paralympics; and Mark Pollock, a veteran of endurance races and a Commonwealth Games medal winner in rowing, self-described as an ‘adventure athlete’.334

Mobility Taking up the theme of mobility and access to transport, interviewee Anna Beamish indicates that ‘the loss of your independence is the big thing… the loss of a car and being able to get here and there whenever you wanted to’. She considers being ‘dependent on lifts’ a significant barrier to a range of activities because of her and others’ reluctance to ‘impose’ on friends and families.335 Margaret Bennett, blind since adolescence, married a blind man and had four children with him. They lived in Newry. With no bus passes, Margaret walked everywhere she could with, as she puts it, a child on her back, her guide dog on her left and a trolley on her right. She makes the point that public transport services are much more limited in rural than in urban areas, which makes life


more difficult still for blind and partially sighted people.

Guide Dogs and Mobility Reflecting on her early experiences, some thirty years ago, interviewee Margaret Cooper explains that she did not feel her first dog was a good match for her, but was convinced to bring her home. Later, she asked for an assessment of how her dog was behaving, and Guide Dogs staff came (from England) and stayed with her for the duration of a walk with the dog. Margaret’s time for this was limited by her work, and since the dog behaved well for short periods, she felt a true picture of their relationship (or lack of it) did not emerge.336 Enid Maxwell, 73, concurs that when training and support was not available locally, the process of getting and working with a guide dog was much more difficult. Living in England, she waited for three years for an opportunity to train with a dog, and nine months after getting the dog came to Northern Ireland to work. It was another three years after finishing her training before she met again with staff for support and assessment. She says, ‘I can remember being put on the train in Exeter with the dog, and the tears were tripping me, I never felt so lonely in my life’.337 Margaret and Enid explain that although training with the dog used to take place in residential centres, these have now closed, and hotels are used instead. Both women preferred the centres, for the comfortable environment and the camaraderie with fellow guide dog users; in hotels, they point out, it is difficult to work a dog in spaces crowded with


other members of the public, and some hotels do not allow dogs to work in the public parts of the building. Further, trainees had to be oriented in the hotel first of all with a long cane, and as Enid indicates, ‘I never felt so conspicuous in my life’. Margaret says, ‘I think guide dog training is stressful enough without having to go through all that’. Training is also

Guide dog and trainer (undated, courtesy of Guide Dogs)


offered at home, now, which was an immense improvement in Margaret’s experience.338 Margaret, Enid, Andrea and Torie Tennant discuss at length the challenges of public transport, and emphasise the help they receive from Translink staff. Margaret recalls a time when bus drivers would move off from a stop as soon as passengers were on board, regardless of whether they had all found seats, but notes that this is no longer the case. Enid’s experience with public transport in London was very different to her experience in Northern Ireland; in London, she explains, members of the public tended to avoid helping her, and on occasion refused direct requests for help. By contrast, she missed a bus in Belfast one day, because her dog was ageing and slowing down, and was helped to an unexpected degree: Not too long after [the bus had gone]… this chap came along and said, “Well, here’s a bus now, right, you can get on”, so I got on it, and just to make conversation I said, “Not many on the bus today”, and he says, “No, my dear, there’s only you and me… We put this bus on to take you to Lisburn to connect up with the bus… to Aghalee”… I just couldn’t believe that! Likewise, Andrea explains that when she lived in Birmingham she rarely received help from bus drivers, even when she explicitly asked for it, but that in Belfast she finds that bus drivers and train conductors make special effort to get her where she needs to go, alerting her to stops, making special stops and escorting her through stations. Andrea credits


her guide dog in particular with making her attendance at university in Belfast a much easier and more enjoyable experience because of the confidence she gained in using public transport. Torie, 22 and blind from infancy, took her ‘first independent bus journey’ this year, and describes her experience: I was sitting panicking, going, is the bus driver going to tell me where the stop is, please let him tell me where the stop is. And then I heard him shouting, ‘There’s a wee girl that’s blind, can you help her off’, to the other passengers. And then… we walked down, and he said, ‘This man’s going to take you into the station’, and we were right at the door.339 Andrew Murdock, public policy officer with Guide Dogs in Northern Ireland, identifies some remaining obstacles to independent mobility for blind and partially sighted people, including the lack of audio visual information on buses; unregulated pavement cafés and increasing numbers of A-boards; cars parked on pavements; the positioning of tactile paving, not always appropriate; shared surface streets; pathways shared with cyclists; and the increasing use of hybrid and electric vehicles, which often are too quiet for blind and partially sighted people – and guide dogs – to hear.340


Home Life, Social Life and Hobbies ‘It’s Good to See You Out’, the RNIB’s 2009 report, revealed that most blind and partially sighted people were undertaking activities with each other (as groups) or with

Hillwalkers in the Mournes, with a blind member of the party being helped across a stream (1980 © Belfast Telegraph)


their families. Holidays in particular were not being taken independently. In terms of simply getting outside, ‘poor building design and cluttered pavements’ were seen as recurrent problems. Offering a purpose-built holiday and activity environment, the Blind Centre chalet at the Share Village in County Fermanagh was refurbished and improved following the merging of the Blind Centre with the RNIB. In addition to being the centre for RNIB-run activities for children and young people, including its Duke of Edinburgh programme, the centre is available for private holidays for blind and partially sighted people and their families at little or no cost.341 Holiday accommodation in Northern Ireland can seldom offer facilities to this level, however. Further, the report considers theatre and cinema to be ‘largely inaccessible’, not only due to their programming being unavailable in large print, Braille or audio formats, but also to the lack of audio description.342 Alan Owens, a blind engineer and trade union activist, mentions his enjoyment of performances at Belfast’s Grand Opera House and Waterfront Hall, during which audio description has been provided. He would like audio description to be made available in cinemas too. He recalls an impromptu version of this service being provided by a friend on the terraces at football matches when he was younger, and notes how much he appreciated it.343 Interviewee Elsie Pearson, whose always-poor eyesight degenerated quickly after an accident resulting in skull fractures, praises the support for the partially sighted using facilities at Armagh City Library and Armagh Museum; she says that library staff order any talking books she wants,


and the museum provide craft classes and welcome partially sighted people to exhibitions, offering guided tours and talks.344 According to the RNIB report, the most popular hobbies for blind and partially sighted people were reading or listening to audio books, listening to music and walking. Interviewee Henry Mayne, whose partial sight in early childhood resulted from myopia and a detached retina, eventually became blind when his second retina detached and operations to fix it were unsuccessful. He credits his family with imbuing him with independence and a determination to fulfil his own needs where possible, and spent time after school helping his father build a new house and working on the family farm. The time he spent in mainstream education at his local primary school, added to the time he spent at home after graduating from the Ulster Institution, perhaps contributed to his sense that in his local area, he was ‘never excluded’. He and his friends ‘would go to the dances and go here and there, go to the Young Farmers’ Club events’. He describes himself as ‘just one of the boys’, and emphasises that he will ‘always appreciate that’. He suggests that ‘attitude’ is the ‘biggest barrier’ in his life, meaning sighted people’s attitudes to him and able-bodied people’s attitudes to disabilities in general. He says that he experiences

Henry Mayne (on left) and trainer, Eddie Johnston, pausing at sponge station during the Belfast Marathon (1984 © Belfast Telegraph)


limitations in attitude ‘almost every day’, with sighted people asking him unsolicited and intrusive questions that reveal their expectations of him as a blind person (alerted to his visual impairment by his cane). He reflects: If you could just throw people’s minds completely open… and I’m not being boastful, but if I was able to take time and stop that person, and say, “Wait till I tell you a bit about my lifestyle now, and the things I’ve done and the places I’ve travelled and the marathons I’ve run and the skiing I’ve done”, I don’t think they’d believe me, for a start. Henry reveals that he feels a ‘responsibility to promote a positive image of blindness’ because he is outside and making frequent use of public transport, so he will always accept help when it is offered, even when he can manage perfectly by himself. Further, he enjoys the company and conversation.345 When Bill Foster began losing his sight through retinitis pigmentosa, he felt that with a young family to support and a mortgage to pay, he had no choice but to ‘get on with it’, and credits his ability to adapt to his background in engineering. He was determined, therefore, to continue with activities he enjoyed as a sighted person, and persisted with gardening, sailing and cycling (now tandem cycling on a weekly basis); further, he has taken flying lessons, flown gliders and developed an interest in mountain climbing. He explains, ‘there’s virtually nothing you can’t do, and that is my attitude to life’. He states, ‘I say to people, don’t join a blind club,


join a sighted club’. This is partly to educate sighted people about what those with visual impairment can do, what they need help with and how they should be treated, and partly in order to take advantage of the greater range of activities and opportunities available through clubs to the sighted.346 A fellow member of a group for the partially sighted which meets monthly at the Linenhall Library, Jim Bradley, suffered rapid loss of sight at the age of 16, with the onset of a genetic condition causing atrophy of the optic nerve. He has ‘tried most things’, including sailing, snow skiing and waterskiing.347 Gloria, another group member who was born prematurely and lost most of her sight through successive conditions, notes that ‘I don’t like anything to beat me, if I can do it, I’ll do it’; she sails, abseils and walks, and as she is married with three children, enjoys ‘just normal family life’.348 Betty, partially sighted through glaucoma, plays golf and bowls, although she specifies that ‘when I say I play golf, it’s fresh air and exercise, really, at my age’. She relies on ‘the help of friends’ for these activities. Keen on gardening, she uses this as a measurement of deterioration in her sight, indicating that ‘I know from one year to the next what I can see in my garden and what I can’t’, and on occasion pulls up new growth in place of weeds. Her son is helping her to redesign the garden to suit her changing levels of sight.349 Margaret Bennett speaks of meeting her future husband, Peter, while working in Newry. When she moved there to work, she got involved in singing to raise money for charity. One night as she returned from the stage to her seat, ‘this man grabbed my arm… and he had his name, his address


and his phone number in Braille… so I had no excuse’. Peter was blind too, due to a neglected scratch on his eye which developed into ulceration in both eyes. When they got married, Margaret was advised not to have children and her social worker (whom she called a home teacher at the time) suggested she should be sterilised. She went on to have four children with Peter. She remembers that bringing up their children was a struggle. When Peter was working she looked after the children all day on her own, and was far from family and friends in Tyrone. Then, Peter was made redundant from his work as a telephonist shortly before the birth of their third son. Margaret points out that ‘after that incident with the social worker, we were deaf against getting help’, and were not offered much in any case. The health visitor who came to check on the children always brought a student with her, excusing herself with the explanation, ‘It’s just a strange thing and nurses will never get to see this, a blind couple bringing up children’.350 Claire Bowes discusses the challenges her blindness presents in bringing up her two children, explaining that while she cannot easily take them to the park, she can use the garden, and stories can be made up rather than read; further, she finds it as easy to tend to them at night as during the day, since darkness makes no difference to her, and can tell if their temperatures are high by the sound of their breathing. She has told her son, Oran, that she is blind, because she realised that given her competence he might not be aware of it.351 Margaret Mann, blind since infancy, had her studies at a further education college in England cut short at the age


of 17 when she became pregnant unexpectedly. When she moved to England, it was the first time she had left Northern Ireland, and the furthest she had ever been from her family. She feels that her education at Jordanstown Schools lacked training in independence and practical living skills, and explains that at home, her mother did all the cooking, laundry and housework because she could do it more quickly and easily than could Margaret. When Margaret got pregnant, she married and moved with her husband into his parents’ house, but they separated after the birth of their second child, a daughter, when she was 21. She left her son with his grandparents and came back to Northern Ireland with her daughter, later remarrying and moving to Antrim. It was a town she did not know, and ‘that was when I truly felt I had my independence’. She was taught to cook by her mother-inlaw, and her second husband, also blind, encouraged her to take on new tasks. She remembers: For the first time ever I felt in charge. I wasn’t asking people to do things for me, I was doing things for myself. I was running my home… I was looking after my husband, I was looking after myself. After she had had her daughter, Margaret felt that she could bring her up and work full-time, so that is what she did. It was challenging for a time, given the vagaries of her commute from Antrim to Lisburn during the Troubles, but became easier once the family moved to Lisburn. She had two more children with her second husband, and when he was made redundant,


he looked after the children while Margaret worked. Speaking of raising children, Margaret emphasises that she and her husband have avoided relying on them as they grew, and have instilled in them a sense of independence. They did a range of activities with their children, taking them to theatres and cinemas and on day trips to the sea, for example, not wanting them to feel limited by having blind parents. Margaret has never lost the sense of independence that led her to start school at three, and suggests that she sought out and worked hard for the opportunities she has had in work and in leisure. She sings in two choirs and has participated in televised competitions and festivals, and recently travelled with one choir to America. She also goes to a gym and does yoga.352 Like Margaret, Peter Leach felt that his experience at school was lacking in encouragement and expectation. Once he left, he explains, he was determined not ‘to be at the back’. As a result, he has been a Venture Scout leader and helped lead the first Northern Ireland Jamboree for Scouts.35



Case Study

Kelly Gallagher Kelly Gallagher is 28 years old. Born with oculocutaneous albinism, she was registered blind at the age of four or five. Around this time she moved with her family from London, where her father had been training to be a pilot, to Bangor, in County Down. Her parents are from Donegal, so Kelly spent her weekends there throughout her childhood. She attended mainstream primary and secondary schools in Bangor, and went on to university in Bath, in England. After she graduated she returned to Bangor and has lived there since, in the midst of a large and close extended family. Kelly found mainstream primary school frustrating at times. She expected to be able to stand beside the teacher at the blackboard in order to be able to read what was being written, and could not understand why she was not given permission. She was also surprised that other children could read the board from their desks. Her difference from others had not been made so obvious in her family, where her siblings and parents accommodated her additional needs without comment. She made an effort to be confident and extroverted during childhood, to ensure her visual impairment did not lead to being marginalised or isolated. Within her family of seven siblings, she felt that she did not differ to any great



extent. Kelly’s parents always enjoyed music, and she learned to play saxophone, clarinet and piano as a child. Her father, who died in 2012, was an aviation enthusiast and flew all types of aircraft. Kelly attributes her passion for ski racing in part to his example, and his expectation that where she had the desire for an activity, she also had the ability. As a child she developed interests in all sorts of physical activities, including bicycling, roller skating, dancing, sailing, shooting and fishing, as well as cultural activities like drama and music; when she asked to be involved in each of these, her mother would be apprehensive, while her father would be certain not only that she could do anything, but that she would be good at anything too. Although Kelly always liked new pursuits, she was not interested in sport particularly until she was introduced to skiing, at the age of 17 on a visit to Andorra with her parents. She explains that she ‘adored’ it immediately, finding it intuitive and exhilarating.20 It seemed to open up exciting possibilities for movement and independence, and she continues to value skiing for these reasons. Since then, she has competed as an alpine skier at the Winter Paralympics in 2010, the World Championships in 2011 and 2013 and the World Cup in 2013. With her team she has achieved gold, silver and bronze medals in slalom, giant slalom, downhill, super-combined and super-giant slalom events, some of them firsts for British skiers at certain levels. She is the first person from Northern Ireland to compete at the Winter Paralympics. Disability Sport NI is her governing body, through which she can apply to Sport NI


for financial backing. She is an athlete member of the Sports Institute Northern Ireland too, and commends each of these organisations for their support. Since November 2009 she has been on a career break from her job as a statistician with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, in order to ski full-time.



It is clear that from the early nineteenth century to the present day, the circumstances of blind and partially sighted people’s lives have improved, generally. While those born into middle- and upper-class families may have been able to avail themselves historically of a range of opportunities in education, employment and leisure, for those with modest or no means, opportunities were very limited. Individuals with exceptional drive and some luck may have been able to surmount certain obstacles, but the majority struggled to access learning, to gain financial independence and to explore their interests and develop their talents. Throughout the nineteenth century, where support was found for blind and partially sighted people on low incomes, it tended to stem from overtly religious organisations or from churches. This extended the existing sectarian social structure in the north of Ireland to blind welfare, and constrained the possibilities for religious expression (including no religious expression) among residents of asylums, homes and schools and employees of workshops. Where the offer of help was ostensibly simple, for example of shelter, nineteenthcentury attitudes to philanthropy ensured that much was expected still of the recipient; he or she was to be morally unimpeachable, obedient and docile, religiously conventional and willing to repay help by performing a narrow range of mostly menial tasks. Literary education was tied to religious education, and subordinated to the ultimate aim of educating the working-class blind for employment in sheltered industry. Workshops, meanwhile, demanded observance of religious ritual and standards of behaviour dictated by a religiously


conservative middle class. Care for eye health and treatment for eye disease were offered relatively freely, although the religious motivations of the founders and funders of hospitals meant that patients were exposed to prayer and Bible reading, for example, from visitors. These attitudes, evident at the core of much nineteenthcentury charitable work, underwent gradual and limited change in the first half of the twentieth century. The state began to take responsibility for funding education and providing pensions to maintain blind people in their own homes as well as in institutions, although the mechanisms for providing state-funded welfare continued to be charitable bodies in many cases. Representatives of blind workers’ organisations were heard by management on a regular basis on the matters of workers’ rights and wages, and some concessions were made, although steps were taken in Belfast to entrench the explicitly Protestant character of the workshops. As the century wore on, the role of religion in education in the Ulster Institution, later Jordanstown Schools, did not disappear, but became less apparent. In medical terms, significant progress was made in understanding, preventing and treating eye disease and injury. In the second half of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first century, attitudes and access to resources and facilities changed again. Residential institutions and asylums for blind people became all but obsolete, and help was put in place for those born blind, or becoming blind in childhood or adulthood, to stay at home. The notion of educating blind and partially sighted people solely for industrial work


was abandoned, and academic and vocational learning came to the fore. Extra-curricular activities increased and support began to be offered for children with sight problems to remain in mainstream schools. Opportunities for work broadened somewhat, initially including secretarial and administrative work and telephony; presently, a diverse range of occupations are open to blind and partially sighted people in theory, and the government’s Access to Work programme funds support for blind and partially sighted people in the workplace. Public spaces in principle are designed with the needs of people with sight loss in mind, and the availability of guide dogs and other forms of mobility training have made independent mobility easier. With further advances in the treatment of eye problems has come the recognition of the psychological impact of sight loss, and practical and emotional support is offered on diagnosis and funded by the state. Despite these advances, life for blind and partially sighted people is made, still, more difficult than need be. Help is not offered consistently, geographically or temporally, and accessing what help exists is not always straightforward. Educational attainment lags behind that evident among the sighted population, and further education in special colleges is not available in Northern Ireland. The world of employment is deeply problematic for blind and partially sighted people. The demise of traditional occupations such as making baskets, brushes and mattresses and telephony, simultaneously has restricted the number of paid jobs available and opened out the notion of what blind and


partially sighted people are capable of doing; however, employers still discriminate, consciously or unconsciously, despite legislation and government incentives to employ the partially sighted. Education still fails to prepare children with sight problems for employment, and numbers of blind and partially sighted people out of work remain high. Technological developments have been used to assist blind and partially sighted people at home, at school and at work, but access to training and equipment can be limited. Medical and social care can be compromised by ignorance of, or insensitivity to, people’s needs when being assessed and treated, and especially in the matter of providing accessible information and correspondence. Attitudes to those with sight loss have improved, broadly, but interviewees testify to the prejudice they encounter still. Guide dog owner Enid Maxwell believes that blind people ‘don’t exist’ for sighted people when they are accompanied by a friend or relative, but that with guide dogs, they appear as autonomous human beings and the sighted public ‘talk to you’.354 Interviewee Gloria suggests that ‘the public don’t know how to treat blind people. They think you’re stupid, if you’re blind you’re stupid as well’.355 Joseph Deery expands upon this point: As blind people, we are in the minority, let’s not make any bones about it… So we have to ask why are sighted people sometimes not particularly good at dealing with blind people… They don’t know how, and the reason they don’t know how is that they aren’t exposed to it.


It is very, very simple, and if somebody who is sighted wants to learn… we can work with you. However, there’s a lot of people out there who can’t be bothered. We cannot work with an attitude like that… We’re living in a sighted world, we have to try to see it as much as possible from a sighted point of view.356 It is arguable, as Joseph implies, that concomitantly, sighted people ought to see the world as much as possible from a blind point of view. In the 1850s John Bird wrote with passion on the subject of the challenges, obstacles and limitations imposed on blind people in a ‘sighted world’. He concluded: Like all educated blind of mature years, I see how thoroughly, I may almost say, blasted are the prospects of blind people from our cause being entirely in the hands of five-sensed amateurs, or officials insufficiently educated.357 One measure of the progress made in the last two hundred years in understanding and responding to the needs of the partially sighted is the recognition that blind and partially sighted people themselves are uniquely qualified to contribute to, work for and manage both state and voluntary welfare organisations. If their continuing underrepresentation here is addressed and rectified, it is likely that a future social history of blind people in Northern Ireland will be a story of further progress still.




1 John H. Dobree and Eric Boulter, Blindness and Visual Handicap: the Facts, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982, p115. 2 Luke Davidson, ‘”Identities Ascertained: British Ophthalmology in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century’, pp313-333 in Social History of Medicine, vol.9, no.3, 1996, p325. 3

Ibid., p326.

4 Captain Ian Fraser, ‘Foreword’ in Philip F. Skottowe, The Law Relating to the Blind, London, Butterworth & Co., 1933, pvii. St Dunstan’s was established to rehabilitate and care for blinded veterans of the First World War, later broadening its remit to include all those blinded on military service or through war work. Captain Fraser was himself blinded during the First World War. 5 Quoted in Davidson, Identities Ascertained, p326. Davidson indicates that ophthalmologists, practitioners of a specialism then in its infancy, made extreme claims for the importance of sight and the catastrophic nature of blindness partly in order to boost the status of their own profession. 6

Fraser, Foreword, pviii.

7 Máirtín Ó Catháin, ‘“Blind, But Not to the Hard Facts of Life”: the blind workers’ Struggle in Derry’, pp9-21 in Radical History Review, vol.94, no.4, 2006, p10.



Dobree and Boulter, Blindness and Visual Handicap.

9 Quoted in Mary Carpenter, Health, Medicine and Society in Victorian England, Oxford, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2010, p133. 10 John Bird, in James Wilson, The Autobiography of the Blind James Wilson, Author of the “Lives of the Useful Blind;” with a Preliminary Essay on his Life, Character and Writings, as well as the Present State of the Blind by John Bird (Blind), Member of the College of Surgeons, England, and Day’s Pensioner, London, Ward and Lock, 1856, pxxv. 11

Wilson Carpenter, Health, Medicine and Society, p133.

12 PRONI D3563/A/D/21, Welfare of the Blind in Northern Ireland (1946). 13 From Report of the Second Triennial International Conference on the Blind and Exhibition, 1908, quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 14



PRONI D3563/A/D/25, the Blind Persons Act, 1920.

16 PRONI D3563/A/D/21, Welfare of the Blind in Northern Ireland (1946). 17

Unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of the author.

18 Blind Veterans UK Collections and Archives, Perry Barringer, ‘Editorial Notes’, in St Dunstan’s Review: a Monthly Record of Work and Sport, vol.12, no.126, December 1927, courtesy of Rob Baker. 19


20 PRONI CAB/9/N/3/1, file on the care and maintenance of the blind, Ministry of Health, memo on Bill of Amendment for Blind


Persons Act (1920), 24th September 1936. 21 PRONI PM/2/4/125, letter from Elizabeth Doherty to Lord Craigavon, 2nd April 1927. 22 PRONI PM/2/4/125, letter from H. Diamond to J. Taylor, Stormont, 12th April 1927. 23 PRONI, LA/1/3/AH/3, Northern Ireland Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) House of Commons Official Report (unrevised), vol. 28, no.10, Tuesday 20th March 1945, (Belfast, His Majesty’s Stationery Office on behalf of the Government of Northern Ireland), pp514 and 515. 24

Quin, in ibid., p522.


Quin, in ibid., p519.

26 PRONI D3563/A/D/21, Welfare of the Blind in Northern Ireland (1946). 27 PRONI LA/1/3/AH/3, Antrim County Council Scheme for the Exercise of the Council’s Powers Under the Blind Persons Act, 1920…and the Blind Persons Act (N.I.), 1938… for Promoting the Welfare of Blind Persons Ordinarily Resident within the County of Antrim. 28

PRONI D3563/A/D/25, Blind Persons’ Act, 1920.

29 PRONI, LA/1/3/AH/3, Antrim County Council Scheme for the Exercise of the Council’s Powers Under the Blind Persons Act, 1920…and the Blind Persons Act (N.I.), 1938… for Promoting the Welfare of Blind Persons Ordinarily Resident within the County of Antrim. 30 PRONI D3563/A/D/21, Welfare of the Blind in Northern Ireland (1946), p5.


31 RNIB Archives, Home Teachers of the Blind (Northern Ireland) Report of Annual Conference on 6th and 7th October 1955, City Hall, Belfast, p6. 32 RNIB Archives, The Faithfulness of God as proved in Mission Work among the Blind, booklet printed by W.M. Strain and Sons, Belfast, 1892. William Moon was born in 1818, and having suffered from sight problems throughout childhood became totally blind at 21. In teaching blind boys he found existing systems of embossed type inadequate and developed his own. It is based on the shapes of the Latin alphabet and is used still by those who have not the sensitivity of touch to read Braille (www.rnib.org.uk/aboutus/aboutsightloss/ famous/Pages/william_moon.aspx, accessed 26th November 2012). 33 RNIB Archives, Belfast Society for Home Mission Work Among the Blind, Report of Home Mission Work Among the Blind of Belfast, 1887, p2. Nonetheless, one ‘infidel’ would not allow the society entrance to his home for two years (The Faithfulness of God as proved in Mission Work among the Blind). 34 Ibid., p4. Charles McSorley, whose application to the Belfast Workshops for the Blind is quoted from in chapter four, is mentioned in this report as having proposed a vote of thanks to the Belfast Society at a tea for blind people organised by the society in December 1886. He died the following week. Another man, John Evans, is singled out. Mrs Pim refers to him as ‘the leper at Lisburn… isolated in a small dwelling and a high enclosed paling’. He was identified as deserving of visits by the Belfast Society because he was blind, and they found him ‘a most intelligent man’ (ibid.). 35 The source for this history of the Guide Dogs is its website, www.guidedogs.org.uk/aboutus/guide-dogs-organisation/history/, accessed 21st January 2013.


36 Personal communication from Andrew Murdock, public policy officer with Guide Dogs in Northern Ireland, 5th June 2013. 37 PRONI, COM/40/2/1768, Blind Welfare Association, Memorandum of Association. 38 PRONI, LA/1/3/AH/3, Mr Quin, in Northern Ireland Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) House of Commons Official Report (unrevised), vol. 28, no.10, Tuesday 20th March 1945, (Belfast, His Majesty’s Stationery Office on behalf of the Government of Northern Ireland), p519. 39

Personal communication from Margaret Fusco, 1st October 2012.


HiLights (Blind Centre’s quarterly magazine), vol. 8, no. 1, 2002.

41 RNIB archives, B29/7, Northern Ireland Branch, ‘Policy and General’, Northern Whig, 24th November 1957. 42 RNIB archives, ‘Northern Ireland branch of the National Institute inaugurated’, p215 in The Beacon, 15th November 1950. 43 RNIB archives, B29/7, letter from Herbert Quin to J.C. Colligan, November 1951. 44 RNIB archives, B29/7, letter from Edward Gilmore to Herbert Quin, undated. 45 RNIB archives, B29/7, NIB Office and Branch Memorandum, signed by Thomas McGladdery, 23rd June 1952. 46 RNIB archives, S256, ‘Cliftonville Home for the Blind’, extract from Appeals Secretary’s Report on Visit to the Liverpool Office, Belfast Office and the Cliftonville Home for the Blind, Belfast, 10th, 11th and 12th March, 1953. 47 Personal communication from staff members at RNIB Northern Ireland, 1st October 2012.


48 For the histories of the various asylums and homes for blind people in Ireland, as well as other material, we are greatly indebted to Frank Callery, who has been very generous with his research into the history of blind welfare in Ireland. Here he quotes G.N. Wright. 49 R.S. Allison, The Very Faculties: a Short History of the Development of Ophthalmological and Otorhinolaryngological Services in Belfast (1801-1964) with special reference to the Belfast General Hospital, Ophthalmic Hospital, Great Victoria Street, and Benn Ulster Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital, Belfast, W.G. Baird, 1969. 50

Unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author.


Quoted in ibid.


Quoted in ibid.


Quoted in ibid.

54 George Henry Bassett, County Armagh One Hundred Years Ago: a Guide and Directory, Belfast, Friar’s Bush Press, 1989. 55 Quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 56 From a history of the Macan Asylum for the Blind, written by Harry Reid, 16th September 1983, courtesy of Stephen Day of the Macan Trust. 57


58 From Report of the Conference on Matters Relating to the Blind, 1902, organised by the Gardner’s Trust, quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 59 Blind.

The Faithfulness of God as proved in Mission Work among the


60 RNIB archives, S256, letter from Gavin Boyd to James Anderson, 17th February 1982. 61 Belfast Street Directory, 1907, quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 62 From Report of the Second Triennial International Conference on the Blind and Exhibition, 1908, quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 63 Belfast Street Directory, 1923, quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 64 From Report of the Second Triennial International Conference on blind people and Exhibition, 1908, quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 65


66 PRONI D3563/A/D/21, Welfare of the Blind in Northern Ireland (1946) 67 RNIB archives, S256, ‘Tributes to Home for the Blind’, Northern Whig, 21st May 1953. 68 RNIB archives, S256, Northern Ireland Branch of NIB office and branch memorandum from Thomas McGladdery to John Taberner, Appeals Secretary, 18th February 1953. 69 RNIB archives, S256, Home for the Blind’s annual report, 1st February 1980 to 31st January 1981, p 2. 70 RNIB archives, S256, letter from Gavin Boyd to James Anderson, 17th February 1982. 71

Ibid., letter from John F. Irvine to Gavin Boyd, 11th March 1982.

72 RNIB archives, S256, excerpt from minutes of finance committee meeting held at the Institute on 2nd April 1982.


73 Sister M. Dympna, quoted in Sister Marie Duddy, RSM, The Call of the North: a History of the Sisters of Mercy, Down and Connor Diocese, Ireland (from the Founding to the Mercy Irish National Union, 1854-1994), Belfast, Ulster Historical Foundation, 2010, p188. 74

Ibid., p191.

75 PRONI ED/30/1/6, Roman Catholic Deaf, Dumb and Blind Children. 76

Duddy, The Call of the North, p194.

77 Quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 78



Wilson Carpenter, Health, Medicine and Society, p133.

80 PRONI, D3113/6/32, three letters concerning the Belfast Association for the Employment of the Industrious Blind, the Benn Ulster Eye and Ear Clinic and the Belfast Ophthalmic Hospital, letter from James Andrews to Edward Benn, 18th June 1871. 81 Bird, in Wilson, The Autobiography of the Blind James Wilson, pxxxiv. 82 From Report of the Second Triennial International Conference on the Blind and Exhibition, 1908, quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 83 Quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 84 PRONI, LA/1/3/AH/3, Mr Thomas Henderson, in Northern Ireland Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) House of Commons Official Report (unrevised), vol. 28, no.10, Tuesday 20th March 1945, (Belfast, His Majesty’s Stationery Office on behalf of the Government of


Northern Ireland), p474. 85 PRONI, LA/1/3/AH/3, letter from James Gordon to William Leetch, 4th May 1944. The dates between which the home for blind people at Dunloskin in Carrickfergus existed are unclear, but it is possible that it functioned as a temporary premises for Cliftonville Home for the Blind during the war years. 86 RNIB archives, S256, letter from John Taberner to Thomas McGladdery, 20th February 1953. 87 Ann Young, Centenary of the Workshops for the Blind, Belfast, Belfast Association for the Employment of the Industrious Blind, 1971, p8. 88

Unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author.

89 Personal communication from Barry Macaulay, senior services manager, RNIB Northern Ireland, 8th August 2013. 90 2012.

Personal communication from Margaret Fusco, 1st October


Wilson Carpenter, Health, Medicine and Society.


Ibid., p131.

93 PRONI D3563/A/A/1, Belfast Association for the Employment of the Industrious Blind (BAEIB) Minute Books, January 1871 to September 1878. 94 PRONI D3563/A/D/21, Welfare of the Blind in Northern Ireland (1946). 95 Sue Grindey and Steve Winyard, Losing Sight of Blindness, London, RNIB, 1997, p1. 96 Ibid., p1.


97 Personal communication from Anna Beamish, interview with Armagh Museum Visual Impairment Group, conducted 9th November 2012. 98

Grindey and Winyard, Losing Sight, p18.


Ibid., p17.

100 Yvonne Canavan, A Ten-Year Retrospective Study of Eye Injuries in Northern Ireland (1967-1976) with Particular Reference to Blunt Injury of the Globe, a thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Medicine at the Queen’s University of Belfast, 1979. 101 Ibid., p200. 102 Ibid., p199. 103 Personal communication from David Barnes, regional manager, RNIB Northern Ireland, 29th May 2013. 104 Ibid. 105 Michael Warboys, ‘Unsexing Gonorrhoea: Bacteriologists, Gynaecologists, and Suffragists in Britain, 1860-1920’, pp41-59 in Social History of Medicine, vol. 16, no. 1, 2004, p53. 106 Ibid. 107 Cecil E. Shaw, Diseases of the Eye: a Practical Handbook for the Use of General Practitioners and Students, London, J. & A. Churchill, 1895, p12. 108 Ibid., p14. 109 RNIB Archive, BAEIB’s 56th annual report, 1927. 110 Ibid. 111 PRONI D3563/A/D/21, Welfare of the Blind in Northern Ireland (1946).


112 Mary Wilson Carpenter notes that the development of cataract surgery was especially significant for children with congenital cataracts, blind from birth. If they received an operation while they were still young, they were able to ‘learn’ to see. Those who did not receive operations until early adulthood often reported a subsequent inability to tell a cat from a dog, or a cube from a cone, for example, by sight (Wilson Carpenter, Health, Medicine and Society, p141). 113 Maurice H. Whiting, Ophthalmic Nursing, London, J. & A. Churchill, 1935, p41. 114 Shaw, Diseases of the Eye, p41. 115 William Silverman, ‘Premature Infants and the ROP Epidemic: a History’, ppxiii-xxvii in Mary Lou Dickerson (ed.) Small Victories: Conversations about Prematurity, Disability, Vision Loss and Success, New York, AFB Press, 2000. 116 Ibid., pxxi. 117 Allison, The Very Faculties, p74. 118 Jordanstown Schools archives, Report Prepared by and Expressing the Views of J. Anderson and L. Park on the Education of Partially Sighted Children, undated. 119 Ibid. 120 Ibid. 121 That is, ‘a visual acuity of 6/18 in the better eye with the best spectacle correction’ (J.H. Bryars and D.B. Archer, ‘Aetiological Survey of Visually Handicapped Children in Northern Ireland’, pp26-29 in Transactions of the Ophthalmological Societies of the United Kingdom, vol.97 no.1, 1977, p26). 122 Ibid.


123 Ibid., p28. 124 Ibid., p28. 125 Ibid., p29. 126 Personal communication from Henry Mayne, interview conducted 3rd December 2012. 127 From the General Dispensary’s ‘Prospectus’, published in the Belfast News-letter of 10th April 1792, quoted in R.S. Allison, The Seeds of Time: Being a Short History of the Belfast General and Royal Hospital, 1850-1903, Belfast, Brough, Cox and Dunn, 1972, pp6-7. 128 Quoted in Allison, The Very Faculties, pv. The group of philanthropists involved in setting up the dispensary included Dr James McDonnell and Henry Joy, who were also founding members of the Irish Harp Society, discussed in chapter three. 129 PRONI, D3113/6/32, three letters concerning the Belfast Association for the Employment of the Industrious Blind, the Benn Ulster Eye and Ear Clinic and the Belfast Ophthalmic Hospital, letter from James Andrews to Edward Benn, 18th June 1871. 130 ‘The Belfast Hospitals No. 2: the Benn Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital’, pp119-122 in Ulster Medical Journal, vol. 6 no.2, 1937. 131 Allison, The Very Faculties, p25. 132 Ibid., p61. 133 Ibid., p86. 134 Personal communication from David Barnes, regional manager, RNIB Northern Ireland, 29th May 2013. 135 Ibid. 136 Ibid.


137 Personal communication from Hazel Flanagan, interview with Armagh Museum Visual Impairment Group, conducted 9th November 2012. 138 Personal communication from Gloria, interview with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December 2013. 139 Personal communications from various, interview with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December 2013. 140 Personal communication from Margaret Mann, interview conducted 28th November 2013. 141 Bird, in Wilson. The Autobiography of the Blind James Wilson, pxxi. 142 Ibid., pxxxi. 143 Ibid. 144 Ibid., pxxxviii. 145 Ibid., pxiii. 146 Ibid., pxv. 147 Dobree and Boulter, Blindness and Visual Handicap. 148 E.R. Scott, The History of the Education of the Blind Prior to 1830, London, College of Teachers of the Blind, undated. 149 Dobree and Boulter, Blindness and Visual Handicap, p118. 150 Quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 151 Historical Sketch of the Ulster Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and Blind, Belfast, Belfast Newsletter, 1933, p3. 152 J.G. McClelland, History of Jordanstown Schools, 1986,


courtesy of Jordanstown Schools. 153 Ibid. 154 Ibid. 155 Historical Sketch, p6. 156 Ibid. 157 PRONI, D3563/A/A/1, BAEIB’s Minute Books, January 1871 to September 1878. 158 From Report of the Second Triennial International Conference on the Blind and Exhibition, 1908, quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 159 Jordanstown Schools archives, inspection reports of J.M. Bradshaw, 13th June 1927, and S. Weatherup, 6th September 1934. 160 From Jordanstown Schools archives, Sunshine House Case Book. 161 Ibid. 162 Ibid. 163 Ibid. 164 Ibid. 165 Ibid. 166 Report Prepared by and Expressing the Views of J. Anderson and L. Park on the Education of Partially Sighted Children. 167 Ibid. 168 Personal communication from Alan Owens, interview conducted 3rd December 2012. 169 Personal communication from Brendan Magill, interview conducted (by email) 8th April 2013.


170 Personal communication from Henry Mayne, interview conducted 3rd December 2012. 171 Personal communication from Margaret Mann, interview conducted 28th November 2012. 172 Ibid. 173 Personal communication from Margaret Mann, interview conducted 28th November 2012. 174 Personal communication from Peter Leach, interview conducted 13th November 2012. 175 Ibid. 176 PRONI ED 23/1, Ministry of Education file, inspection report of H. Garrett, 27th February 1926. 177 Ibid. 178 PRONI ED 23/1, Ministry of Education file, certification of five schools issued by Ministry of Education for Northern Ireland, 21st September 1926. A later report (15th February 1955) claims that St Joseph’s and St Mary’s had never been approved by the Ministry. 179 PRONI ED 23/1, Ministry of Education file, letter from Sister Dympna to H. Garrett, 21st November 1928. 180 PRONI ED 23/1, Ministry of Education file, letter from Sister Dympna to the Secretary of the Ministry of Education (received by Ministry 20th October 1933). 181 PRONI ED 23/1, Ministry of Education file, inspection report of J. McG. Jackson, 4th March 1952. 182 PRONI ED 23/1, Ministry of Education file, memo to Mr Ewing, 11th November 1952.


183 PRONI ED/30/1/6, parliamentary question by Mr Campbell, to be answered by 31st July 1945. 184 PRONI ED 23/1, Ministry of Education file, letter from J.M. Benn to Most Reverend D. Mageean, 13th December 1955. 185 PRONI ED 23/1, Ministry of Education file, letter from W. Rigby Foster to Sister M. Aloysius, 18th October 1955. 186 Personal communication from Margaret Bennett, interview conducted 14th February 2013. 187 Personal communication from Brendan Magill, interview conducted (by email) 8th April 2013. 188 www.specialeducationalneeds.co.uk/UsefulInformation/SENEducationInfo/warnock.html, accessed 9th May 2013. 189 www.education-support.org.uk/parents/special-education/ sendo/, accessed 9th May 2013. 190 Personal communication from Brendan Magill, interview conducted (by email) 8th April 2013. 191 Personal communication from Thomas Quigley, interview conducted 13th November 2012. 192 Personal communication from Claire Bowes, interview conducted 6th December 2012. 193 Personal communication from Rosaleen Dempsey, children and youth service manager, RNIB Northern Ireland, 9th May 2013. 194 Personal communication from Joseph Deery, interview with Linenhll Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December 2012. 195 Personal communication from Rosaleen Dempsey, children and youth services manager, RNIB Northern Ireland, 9th May 2013.


196 Ibid. 197 Shaping Futures Together: One Life‌ Live It!, report of a seminar on the future of services for the young blind, 15th-17th March 2002, courtesy of Margaret Fusco. 198 Personal communication from Barry Macaulay, senior services manager, RNIB Northern Ireland, 8th August 2013. 199 Personal communication from Rosaleen Dempsey, children and youth services manager, RNIB Northern Ireland, 9th May 2013. 200 From Report of the Second Triennial International Conference on the Blind and Exhibition, 1908, quoted in unpublished research by Frank Callery, courtesy of author. 201 Dobree and Boulter, Blindness and Visual Handicap, p165. 202 Ibid., pp162-163. 203 Ibid., p163. 204 PRONI D3563/DA/1, letter from James Chambers to Mary Hobson, 22nd September 1870. 205 PRONI D3113/6/32, three letters concerning the Belfast Association for the Employment of the Industrious Blind, the Benn Ulster Eye and Ear Clinic and the Belfast Ophthalmic Hospital, letter from L.M. Ewart to James Andrews, 15th August 1871. 206 PRONI D3563/DA/1, letter from James Chambers to Mary Hobson, 22nd September 1870. 207 PRONI D3563/A/A/1, BAEIB Minute Books, January 1871 to September 1878. 208 Ibid. 209 Ibid. Seever was speaking at the BAEIB’s public meeting of


December 1871. 210 Reverend Dr Hannay, quoted in ibid. 211 bid. 212 Ibid. 213 Ibid. 214 Ibid. Johnston was speaking at the BAEIB’s public meeting of December 1871. 215 Quoted in Young, Centenary of the Workshops for the Blind, p7. 216 PRONI D3563/DA/4, applications to the Belfast Workshops for the Blind, 1875-1915. 217 Ibid. 218 Ibid. 219 Married women remained vulnerable in the workplace, however, as the BAEIB’s minute book records a recommendation to the committee from the manager that they be put on half-time in November 1920, presumably as a money-saving measure (PRONI D3563/A/A/6, BAEIB Minute Books, March to October 1920). 220 PRONI, D3563/A/A/6, BAEIB Minute Books, March 1920 to October 1927. 221 PRONI, D5363/A/A/6, Manager’s Report to Belfast Workshops for the Blind Management Committee, 5th February 1920. 222 Ibid. 223 PRONI, D3563/A/B/4, Draft Articles of Association of the Workshops for the Blind, 1946. 224 Ó Catháin, Blind, But Not to the Hard Facts of Life, p12.


225 PRONI D3563/A/8, BAEIB Minute Books, September 1935 to March 1946. 226 PRONI D3563/A/A/6, BAEIB Minute Books, March 1920 to October 1927. 227 W.H. Crawford, Brenda Collins, Philip Ollerenshaw, Trevor Parkhill, Industry, People and Trade in Ireland, 1650-1950: Essays in Honour of W.H. Crawford, Belfast, Ulster Historical Foundation, 2005, p206. 228 PRONI D3563/A/A/6, BAEIB Minute Books, March 1920 to October 1927. 229 Ibid. 230 Ibid. 231 PRONI D3563/A/8, BAEIB Minute Books, September 1935 to March 1946. 232 Ibid. 233 Ibid. 234 Ibid. 235 Young, Centenary of the Workshops for the Blind, p14. 236 RNIB archives, BAEIB’s 104th Annual Report, 1975, p3. 237 RNIB archives, BAIEB’s 108th Annual Report, 1979, p3. 238 PRONI CAB/9/N/3/1, file on the care and maintenance of the blind, letter from A. Hoy to Viscount Craigavon, 2nd December 1935. 239 Ó Catháin, Blind, But Not to the Hard Facts of Life. 240 Ibid., p13. 241 Ibid., p13.


242 Ibid., p15. 243 Ibid., p17. 244 Ibid., p17. 245 Ibid., p12. 246 PRONI CAB/9/N/3/1, file on the care and maintenance of the blind, resolution by the Somme Lodge of the RAOB, passed 19th December 1930. 247 PRONI LA/7/29/BA/120, file on Belfast Unemployed Blind Person Movement, 1934-35. 248 Jordanstown Schools archives. 249 Shaping Futures Together. 250 Quoted in ibid., p11. 251 Ibid. 252 Personal communication from Martin O’Kane, employment and technology manager, RNIB Northern Ireland, 3rd June 2013. 253 Ibid. 254 Personal communication from Alan Owens, interview conducted 3rd December 2012. 255 Personal communication from Henry Mayne, interview conducted 3rd December 2012. 256 Personal communication from Brendan Magill, interview conducted (by email) 8th April 2013. 257 Personal communication from Enid Maxwell, interview conducted 18th January 2013. 258 Personal communication from Margaret Cooper, interview


conducted 18th January 2013. 259 Personal communication from Margaret Bennett, interview conducted 14th February 2013. 260 Personal communication from Margaret Mann, interview conducted 28th November 2013. 261 Personal communication from Bill Foster, interview with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December 2012. 262 Personal communication from Claire Bowes, interview conducted 6th December 2012. 263 Personal communication from Hazel Flanagan, interview with Armagh Museum Visual Impairment Group, conducted 9th November 2012. 264 Personal communication from Thomas Quigley, interview conducted 13th November 2012. 265 Ibid. 266 RNIB Northern Ireland, ‘This IS working in Northern Ireland: how people with sight loss participate successfully in the world of work’, report published June 2013, pp6-7. 267 Suzannah Biernoff, ‘The Rhetoric of Disfigurement in First World War Britain’, pp666-685 in Social History of Medicine, vol. 24, no. 3, p666. 268 Fiona Roman, ‘Ophthalmologists at War, 1914-1918’, p132 in British Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 78 no. 2, 1994, p132. 269 Ibid. 270 Ibid. 271 John Herbert Parsons, quoted in Tracey Loughran, ‘Shell-


Shock and Psychological Medicine in First World War Britain’, pp79-95 in Social History of Medicine, vol. 22 no. 1, 2009, p84. 272 Biernoff, The Rhetoric of Disfigurement, p674. 273 Gillies, quoted in Biernoff, and Biernoff, The Rhetoric of Disfigurement, p681. 274 Ó Catháin, Blind, But Not to the Hard Facts of Life, p11. 275 PRONI D3563/A/A/6, BAIEB Minute Books, March 1920 to October 1927. 276 www.guidedogs.org.uk/aboutus/guide-dogs-organisation/ history/, accessed 21st January 2013. 277 PRONI D3563/A/8, BAEIB Minute Books, September 1935 to March 1946. 278 PRONI LA/1/3/AH/3, correspondence on welfare provision for blind persons, and minutes and reports of Blind Welfare Association Council, 1939-1942. 279 Ibid. 280 Ibid. 281 Allison, The Very Faculties. 282 McClelland, History of Jordanstown Schools. 283 David Castleton, Blind Man’s Vision: the Story of St Dunstan’s in Words and Pictures, London, St Dunstan’s, 1990, p3. 284 Dobree and Boulter, Blindness and Visual Handicap, p205. 285 Castleton, Blind Man’s Vision, p11. 286 St Dunstan’s Annual Report of 1916, quoted in ibid., p10. 287 Ibid., p14.


288 Quoted in ibid., p14. 289 ‘Reunions for Review’, by Rob Baker, collections and archives officer at Blind Veterans UK, courtesy of author. 290 Blind Veterans UK Collections and Archives, report titled ‘After-Care Re-unions’, St Dunstan’s Review, 1926, p13, courtesy of Rob Baker. 291 Blind Veterans UK Collections and Archives, ‘In Memory’, St Dunstan’s Review, 1936, p4, courtesy of Rob Baker. 292 Barringer, Editorial Notes. 293 PRONI D3563/B/B/4, general correspondence relating to the BAIEB. 294 Ibid. 295 Y.M. Canavan, M.J. O’Flaherty, D.B. Archer and J.H. Elwood, ‘A 10-year Survey of Eye Injuries in Northern Ireland, 1967-1976’, pp618-625 in British Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 64, 1980, p623. 296 Ibid., p200. 297 RNIB archive, BAEIB 98th Annual Report, 1969, p3. 298 Ibid. 299 RNIB archive, BAEIB 106th Annual Report, 1977, p3. 300 ‘A cleric climbs to the rescue’, p1 in the Belfast Telegraph, 8th September 1973. 301 RNIB archives, S256, letter from Gavin Boyd to James Anderson, 17th February 1982. 302 RNIB archives, S256, letter from James Anderson to Edward J. Vann, 5th March 1982.


303 Personal communication from Andrew Murdock, public policy officer with Guide Dogs in Northern Ireland, 5th June 2013. 304 Personal communication from Margaret Cooper, interview conducted 18th January 2013 and conversation had 6th June 2013. 305 Personal communication from Enid Maxwell, interview conducted 18th January 2013. 306 Personal communications from Enid Maxwell and Margaret Cooper, conversations had 6th June 2013. 307 Personal communication from Margaret Bennett, interview conducted 14th February 2013. 308 Personal communication from Margaret Mann, interview conducted 28th November 2012. 309 Personal communication from Claire Bowes, interview conducted 6th December 2012. 310 RNIB Archives, Home Teachers of the Blind (Northern Ireland), Report of Annual Conference on 6th and 7th October 1955, City Hall, Belfast. 311 Personal communications from Lisa and Margaret, interview conducted with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, 3rd December 2013. 312 Barringer, Editorial Notes. 313 Blind Veterans UK Collections and Archives, Perry Barringer, ‘Editorial Notes’, in St Dunstan’s Review: a Monthly Record of Work and Sport, vol. 12, no. 129, March 1928, courtesy of Rob Baker. In the same article, the death in the previous month of the council chairman, Councillor R.T. Harpur, is noted with regret, since it is believed that ‘the sightless people of Belfast have lost a sympathetic and generous friend’


(ibid.). 314 RNIB Archives, Home Teachers of the Blind (Northern Ireland), Report of Annual Conference on 6th and 7th October 1955, City Hall, Belfast. 315 Personal communication from Brendan Magill, interview conducted (by email), 8th April 2013. 316 Personal communication from Henry Mayne, interview conducted 3rd December 2012. 317 Personal communication from Bill Foster, interview with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December 2012. 318 Julie Howell, ‘Get the Net’, pp54-55 in New Beacon, no.85, September 2001, p54. 319 Personal communication from Hazel Flanagan, interview with Armagh Museum Visual Impairment Group, conducted 9th November 2012. 320 Brendan Magill, ‘Forty-Three Years and Still Counting’, April 2010, courtesy of Brendan Magill. 321 Ibid., p54. 322 2013.

www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG20/glance/, accessed 6th February

323 Shaping Futures Together. 324 Personal communication from Anna Beamish, interview with Armagh Museum Visual Impairment Group, conducted 9th November 2012. 325 Personal communication from Barry Macaulay, senior services


manager, RNIB Northern Ireland, 8th August 2013. 326 Personal communication from Gareth, interview with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December 2012. 327 Personal communication from Margaret Mann, interview conducted 28th November 2012. 328 Jordanstown Schools archives, letter from Stephen Clarke to B.W. Harding of Ski Travelaway, 9th March 1992. 329 Jordanstown Schools archives, School ‘Holidays’: a Working Party Report. 330 RNIB, ‘It’s Good to See You Out’, 2009, courtesy of Barry Macaulay. 331 New age kurling is kurling adapted for any smooth indoors surface, and boccia is a sport related to bowls and pétanque, originally designed for those with cerebral palsy. Goalball was developed for blind players, specifically to aid the rehabilitation of solders blinded or visually disabled during the Second World War; it entails two teams throwing or rolling a ball in which a bell is embedded, and sighted players can use eye shades to compete on a par with blind or partially sighted players. The latter two are now Paralympic sports. 332 Sport Northern Ireland, Disability Sport: Promoting Sport and Physical Activity for Blind and Partially Sighted People, 2012, courtesy of Barry Macaulay. 333 Ibid. 334 www.markpollock.com, accessed 13th August 2013. 335 Personal communication from Anna Beamish, interview with Armagh Museum Visual Impairment Group, conducted 9th November 2012.


336 Personal communication from Margaret Cooper, interview conducted 18th January 2013. 337 Personal communication from Enid Maxwell, interview conducted 18th January 2013. 338 Personal communications from Andrea Hope, Torie Tennant, Margaret Cooper and Enid Maxwell, interview conducted 18th January 2013. 339 Personal communications from Andrea Hope, Torie Tennant, Margaret Cooper and Enid Maxwell, interview conducted 18th January 2013. 340 Personal communication from Andrew Murdock, public policy officer with Guide Dogs in Northern Ireland, 5th June 2013. 341 Personal communication from Barry Macaulay, senior services manager, RNIB Northern Ireland, 8th August 2013. 342 RNIB, It’s Good to See You Out, 2009. 343 Personal communication from Alan Owens, interview conducted 3rd December 2012. 344 Personal communication from Elsie Pearson, interview with Armagh Museum Visual Impairment Group, conducted 9th November 2012. 345 Personal communication from Henry Mayne, interview conducted 3rd December 2012. 346 Personal communication from Bill Foster, interview with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December 2012. 347 Personal communication from Jim Bradley, interview with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December


2012. 348 Personal communication from Gloria, interview with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December 2012. 349 Personal communication from Betty, interview with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December 2012. 350 Personal communication from Margaret Bennett, interview conducted 14th February 2013. 351 Personal communication from Claire Bowes, interview conducted 6th December 2012. 352 Personal communication from Margaret Mann, interview conducted 28th November 2012. 353 Personal communication from Peter Leach, interview conducted 13th November 2012. 354 Personal communication from Enid Maxwell, interview conducted 18th January 2013. 355 Personal communication from Gloria, interview with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December 2012. 356 Personal communication from Joseph Deery, interview with Linenhall Library Visual Impairment Group, conducted 3rd December 2012. 357 Bird, in Wilson, The Autobiography of the Blind James Wilson, pxxxiii.


Case Study Endnotes

1 James Wilson, Biography of the Blind: Including the Lives of All Those, from Homer Down to the Present Day, Who Have Distinguished Themselves. as Poets, Philosophers, Artists, &c., &c., Belfast, D. Lyons, 1821, pp6-7. 2

Ibid., p10.


Ibid., p19.


Ibid., 22.


Ibid., pp22-24.

6 James Wilson. The Autobiography of the Blind James Wilson, Author of the “Lives of the Useful Blind;” with a Preliminary Essay on his Life, Character and Writings, as well as the Present State of the Blind by John Bird (Blind), Member of the College of Surgeons, England, and Day’s Pensioner, London, Ward and Lock, 1856, pp71-72. 7 Personal communications from Don Bannister, 28th August 2013, and Deane Houston, 2nd September 2013. 8 Donal O’Sullivan, Carolan: the Life and Times of an Irish Harper Volume II: II The Notes to the Tunes and The Memoirs of Arthur O’Neill, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958, p150. 9

Ibid., p151.


Ibid, p172.


Ibid., p153.


12 Francis Joseph Bigger, Alexander Mitchell: the Famous Blind Engineer of Belfast (originally a paper presented to the Natural History and Philosophical Society), Belfast, 1907, p5. 13

Ibid., p6.


Ibid., p20.

15 Richard Moore, Can I Give Him My Eyes? A Memoir, Dublin, Hachette Books, 2009, p74. 16

Ibid., pp66 and 77.


Ibid., p80.


Ibid., p153.


Ibid., p276.


Personal communication from Kelly Gallagher, 16th June 2013.


A Sense of the Past looks at the social history of blind and partially sighted people in Northern Ireland from the early nineteenth century to the present day. This history draws on a range of archival sources, including memoirs, personal letters, government papers, and the reports of charities and voluntary bodies. However, the documentary evidence for how blind and partially sighted people lived in the past tends to have been produced by, and often for, sighted people. The book also incorporates contemporary oral history, weaving in memories, experiences, opinions and feelings contributed by blind and partially sighted interviewees from across Northern Ireland to enriching effect. The result is an overview of a history sometimes unwritten and unrecorded, both personal and collective, private and public, and always complex and ongoing.

This project was funded by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund

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