March 8, 2020

3: The Big One - Lily

3: The Big One - Lily
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Lily Nutty (1898–1984) Picture dated 1918

I only ever met Lily once. It was shortly before I went to the States in the early 80s. She was to die within a few years in 1984 at the age of 86, so there was not another chance to get a fuller picture of her story. Around that time, I’d started to investigate the family history and my sister, Ann, had gotten on board with the family tree effort and so, one day, I arrived home and was confronted with the unwavering pale eyes of my great Aunt Lily. Earlier, Ann had gone out to Lily’s home in Drumcondra and invited her to a visit at my parents’ house in Mabestown which was accepted with aplomb.
Periodically, at family functions, I’d heard of Lily, one of the “Maiden Aunts” who lived at 37 Fitzroy Ave, the Drumcondra home of my Great Grandparents. The home had been inherited by Lily and her sister Eileen, the other member of the maiden aunt duo who had passed by the time of this meeting.

Now, when I was confronted with Lily’s direct gaze, I was nonplussed and I don’t recall asking her much of anything about the family history that had precipitated this visit. I’d come late to this gathering and for the most part missed my opportunity to pose questions and Lily wouldn’t have been one to repeat her answers to a late arrival.

I do recall, Lily’s directness, which was unusual for a woman of her era. When asked, if she’d stay for tea, Lily responded in the negative and then turned to Ann and abruptly asked to be taken home. Irish social convention, at the time, would normally have dictated some kind of kabuki exchange where thanks would be proffered, concern expressed for trouble caused and finally desolation communicated at the inability to have a cup of tea. I expect Lily, older than the century, was tired and didn’t feel the need to participate in this palaver. She and Ann packed up and departed in short order. I was never to see her again.

Lily’s name would continue to crop up at family gatherings and between the small details revealed by those interactions, a set of notes compiled from her sister Evaleen/Eva’s recollections and some research, I’ve been able to cobble together a portrait that points to a decidedly non traditional figure.

Lilian Mary Nutty Civil Birth Registry Entry

Lillian Mary Nutty was born on 25 July, 1898 to Robert Nutty and Edith Maggie Hawkins. At the time, the family was living at 2 St Patrick’s Terrace, not far from 37 Fitzroy Ave where Lily would spend most of her life with the exception of those earliest years. She was the fourth child of a total of 12 and the second daughter to be born to Robert and Edith. Tragically her oldest sister, Florence/Florrie died at the age of of seven in 1901 from a respiratory illness. Lily would have been two years old at the time and likely would have had little memory of the event.

Freeman’s Journal April 1901

Florrie’s death and the subsequent birth of eight additional siblings had a profound effect on Lily’s life. As the oldest surviving daughter, Lily was to become a surrogate mother to her younger siblings. By 1901 the small four room household had 5 children under the age of 8. Edith was likely strained by the challenge of caring for this rapidly growing family in a modest four room house and the 1901 census for the household confirms her need for assistance, as a servant by the name of Mary Patterson is listed. Given that husband Robert, worked as a postal sorter, I expect the cost of domestic help would have been challenging for a middle class family’s finances.

1901 Census Record for the Household of Robert Nutty at 2 St Patrick’s Terrace

Some 10 years later, the family has settled permanently at 37 Fitzroy Ave. Although the household had grown to 7 children in addition to Lily, there is no longer any outside domestic help. Lily, now 12 years old has taken on a significant share of the burden which she revealed to my sister, Ann, when asked why she never married? Lily responded: that she’d already experienced the obligations of motherhood by raising her younger siblings and added: “I didn’t want to have done to me, what my father did to my mother” Apparently the thought of being pregnant for 20 years straight, like Edith, did not hold any appeal.

1911 Census for the Household of Robert Nutty at 37 Fitzroy Avenue

The census records give some indication of the challenges life was serving up for Lily. Eva’s notes reveal a little of Lily’s character. She was referred to as the “Big One” by her siblings. It’s clear that the nickname did not refer to Lily’s size as when she visited my parents’ home in the 80s, she was of average height. It’s likely the sobriquet owed more to her forthright nature or her position as second in command in all things domestic.

Eva’s notes also reveal a household operated on lines that were far from egalitarian. The girls of the household were treated differently from their male siblings. Eva remarks on reaching courting age, her father required that she be home no later than 10PM. Failure to comply with this stricture resulted in an irate Robert waiting at home with a stick which he used to enforce his authority. There is no mention of a similar curfew being applied to Eva’s five brothers. This inequality perversely extended to the household diet with the girls being relegated to margarine while the boys got butter on their bread.

At some point, Lily rejected the limited paths available to a young Irish woman at the start of the 20th century. Usually, her peers would work briefly after finishing school, then marry, stay at home and raise a passel of children; alternatively there was the church and life as a nun if there was a fervency of belief; finally there was the caretaker roll for aging parents which many young Irish women followed when marriageable prospects were limited, interest was lacking or sufficient guilt was applied. To some degree, Lily chose the last option and continued to live with her parents along with her sister Eileen until Robert’s death in 1941 and Edith Maggie in 1954. However, Lily’s chosen option was non traditional and may have been stimulated by dramatic changes in Irish society at the beginning of the 20th century.

1916 Rising Declaration And it’s call to both Irishmen and Irishwomen — Courtesy of Wikipedia

Lily would have been 17 by the time the Easter Rising took place. Did she read the text of the proclamation with its call to both Irishmen and Irishwomen? Did she know of the role played by Cumann na mBan, the female wing of the rebels, during 1916 and how they facilitated combat communications and caring for the wounded during the brief spasm of violence? What did she make of the prominent roll played by Constance Markievicz, an aristocratic socialist, who refused to be consigned to the roll of messenger girl or nurse, rather armed with a pistol, she opted to take an active roll in the actual fighting around St Stephen’s Green?

While revolutionary forces swept through Ireland in the early decades of the 20th century opening the possibility of more equality for Irish women, the Catholic Church was observing the momentous changes and waiting for the opportunity to reassert its position. The church had lost standing in Irish society during the struggle for independence when it opposed violent insurrection. However the rise of Eamon de Valera in the political sphere presented the church with an opportunity which they exploited effectively in the guise of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

Eamon De Valera and John Charles McQuaid — Courtesy: Irish Press

De Valera and McQuaid had formed a friendship during the 1930s during the latter’s tenure at Blackrock College a school attended by both De Valera and his sons. As both men rose through their respective political and religious hierarchies, they frequently worked in concert. The combination of De Valera’s rigid, white knuckle Catholicism allied to McQuaid’s ambition for mother church resulted in the creation of a virtual theocracy. A miasma of dour Irish Catholicism descended over the new state with little sympathy for the social issues that would improve the status of Irish women. Any progressive forces unleashed by 1916 were muted for another half century. Indeed with the exception of Countess Markievicz’s tenure as Minister for Labor (1919-1922), no Irish woman would serve again in a ministerial role until 1979.

Countess Markievicz (1865–1927): Courtesy of Wikipedia

Did this early century movement towards liberality impact Lily as she came of age? To what degree did she sympathize with the rebels and the Rising? Many Dubliners were outraged by the destruction which left parts of the central city in smoldering ruins. The collective anger of the citizenry was further stoked by the fact that numerous households had young men serving in the British army during the World War I. For some, the Rising felt like a stab in the back to their young men serving on the Western Front who had signed up in response to the promise of Home Rule in exchange for their service. That rage would quickly morph to sympathy and outrage with the drawn out executions of the rebel leaders and result in Britain losing control of Ireland after seven centuries of rule.

Dublin in Ruins — General Post Office following 1916: Courtesy Wikipedia

Bill and my grandfather Fred/Da, Lily’s two older brothers were serving in France at the time of the Rising. Eva’s notes are mute on how the family felt about the Rising and subsequent War Of Independence. The household may have been less than sympathetic with their boys serving at the front in France. The notes only refer tangentially to the Rising when Eva describes being pushed up against the bayonet of a British soldier while queuing for bread. Most likely, that incident resulted from shortages in Dublin food supplies as a result of the conflict and its aftermath. Mention is also made of the death of a friend of Charlie Nutty, the household’s youngest sibling. Apparently the young boy climbed over the fence into nearby Croke Park on Bloody Sunday in 1920. The parents of the child only realized the fate of their missing son when his glasses were found.

All these currents of violence, social change and the dominance of Catholic conservatism would have swirled around Lily, but there actual direct impact is unknown. However, we do know from Eva’s notes that Lily was “very clever”. Her intelligence seems to have given her entree into the world of stocks as she was employed by Lillis & Harrington Stockbrokers whose offices were located in Church Lane a short walk from the nearby Dublin Stock Exchange on Angelsea St. Additionally the notes cryptically indicate that she was “permitted to go to the stock exchange”. While the stock broker business was dominated by men, the Dublin Stock Exchange lays claim to admitting Oonah Keogh the first woman to hold a membership on any global exchange.

Oona Keogh (1903–1989): Courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1925 Oona Keogh applied to become a member of the exchange. This request appears to have caused some consternation on the all male trading floor. However the new Free State constitution included a clause supporting equality of opportunity and being the daughter of Joseph Keogh, an established member of the exchange, would have facilitated approval. While Ms Keogh served on the exchange for 14 years, like Countess Markievicz, the door seemed to slam shut for other women. No woman would rise to a similar position on the exchange for another 40 years.

Given the small scale of the Dublin Exchange, it’s likely that Lily would have known Ms Keogh. Lily may have looked to the younger woman as a role model in carving out a life in a male dominated world. Anecdotal conversations indicate that Lily’s role at Lillis & Harrington may not have been limited to clerical activities reserved for women. While Lily was not a member of the exchange, it seems that she issued trading instructions to male colleagues who had access to the floor of the exchange.
Lily appears to have enjoyed the monetary returns of her career.

She happily recounted shopping trips to England and how she would evade the attention of customs officials on her return to Ireland. At the time, Irish travelers would attempt to age their off shore acquisitions in an attempt to evade the attention of duty men that monitored reentry to Ireland. Lily believed this subterfuge was counter productive and a more brazen approach was required. She opted to wear her newly acquired finery reasoning that she would be assumed to be wealthy and likely not be stopped by officious types wary of giving offense to a person of means.

Bob Nutty — Lilly’s younger brother

If Lily was inclined to get married, she would have have been “vigorously encouraged” to give up her lucrative position. While the new Irish Constitution may have been supportive of equality of opportunity, married women were expected to leave employment and to confine themselves to a life of domesticity. Given Lily’s distaste for the married experience of her mother, I expect she opted for financial independence. Lily was not shy of making her views on marriage known to her siblings and their partners. Eva’s notes refer to Lily’s refusal to attend her wedding.

When her younger brother Bob got married at the age of 35, Lily was forthright about her dissatisfaction over the change. Indeed Bob’s wife, Mary Catherine Maher, remarked about not feeling particularly welcome at Fitzroy Avenue and the source of discomfort was not traditional mother-in-law animus rather it emanated from Lily.
This hostility towards marriage may ultimately have created the conditions which led to my Dad knowing almost nothing about his paternal grandparents. I imagine his prickly mother Emma Behan, my Nana, taking quick umbrage to any kind of a frosty greeting emanating from her in-law’s home. Since Nana would have been the primary caretaker of the children, I expect she may have limited access to their paternal grandparents and ultimately sealed off the family history from my generation. While Nana may have terminated contact, Da maintained some kind of relationship as he is listed as being present at the deaths of both his parents.

One wonders about Lily’s apparent lack of pragmatism in the face of traditional domestic relationships. Did she expect her siblings to continue to live together in their tiny 2 bedroom home in some form of monastic celibacy? Clearly she was a woman of both intelligence and strong character operating in a culture that could hardly have been described as woman friendly.

Lily’s Will dated Aug 13, 1982

Lily’s will gives a final view in to her life. By the time she passed in 1984 at the age of 86, her estate was valued at 57 thousand pounds. Given her age, I expect that her finances had been depleted by an extended retirement and the scale of her success in the stock market is now a matter for speculation. The bulk of the estate was directed to her younger brother Henry with some minor bequests to her sister Rose and niece Ethel Keegan. Finally she allocated 500 pounds for 250 masses to be said for the repose of her soul. Did Lily turn to religion at the end of her life or had she always held a more benign of the church? To my modern eyes, it’s difficult to square obedience to the church with the Lily’s maverick sensibilities?