Saturday, 21 May 2016

Ma Power

Today, I’d like to remember Mary (Leahy, Radcliffe) Power. Mary was a mother to so many different generations of my family – my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my grandmother – but few people alive today have ever heard of her. According to my Aunt Maisie, she was known in the family as ‘Ma Power’.

In January 1869, soon after my great-grandfather’s first birthday, his mother died suddenly. Michael Byrne and his baby brother Thomas then went to live with their Aunt Mary. Mary became the only mother they ever remembered. She never had any babies of her own, yet the sound of children at play always filled her home.

Born Mary Leahy about 1842, Mary first married Christopher Radcliffe in 1866 and moved to his home village of Malahide, Co. Dublin. Christopher died in 1873, leaving Mary alone with the two boys and the following year, she married Michael Power. Over the subsequent decades, Mary Power continued to take in and care for children in need.

The 1901 census shows her, as a widow of fifty-four years, caring for five ‘orphan’ girls between the ages of six and eighteen years. Helena and Johanna O’Neill, the two youngest, may have been with Mary since their father died in 1895. Helena was my grandmother, later marrying Michael Byrne’s eldest son, but she could have been as young as three months old when she first arrived in Malahide. Perhaps this was when Mary acquired the name ‘Ma Power’.

In March 1903, Michael Byrne’s young wife Elizabeth died of phthisis (tuberculosis). Elizabeth's father, James Mahon, having watched his only child waste away before his eyes, was spared the final agony of seeing her die and passed away himself a month before her. At the age of only thirty-five years, Michael suddenly found himself alone in the house they had all shared, caring for his four young children.

Michael never remarried. I’ve often wondered how he managed to raise four children on his own and at the same time hold down his labouring job. When their mother died, they were all too young to take care of themselves. My grandfather, James Byrne, was only nine, his brother John was eight, their sister Margaret was six and the baby of the family, Michael, was three years old.

Neither Michael nor Elizabeth had any surviving siblings, so there were no aunts or uncles to offer assistance. Michael had no other relatives in the area at all, apart from his Aunt Mary. So, it must have been Mary who stepped in again and helped him raise his family. She lived just a few minutes’ walk up the road. 

And, there is some evidence this was the case. The 1911 census shows Mary’s grandniece, Margaret Byrne, staying in her home. You could argue it was only for one night, but it was probably a regular occurrence, suggesting the close relationship between them.
A modern picture of Ma Power’s house,
where many generations of my family spent their childhood

Mary Power died early in 1919, and although she did not leave a written will, at least none I could find, the Byrne family were her heirs. According to family lore, her house was left to my grandfather. He may have inherited it directly from Mary herself, or indirectly from his father. Either way, following Michael Byrne’s death in 1927, his daughter Margaret and her husband Peter Dignam moved into Mary’s house. There, they raised their family and spent the remainder of their days.

Mary Power was also fond of dogs, particularly terriers. Some years she kept as many as four dogs and was usually one of the first people to visit Swords courthouse each year to purchase her dog licences.

That’s not a lot to know about my great-great-grandaunt, a mother figure of such importance in my Dad’s family, but it’s a start.

© Black Raven Genealogy


  1. What a heartwarming story, and such a giving woman. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Thanks Melissa, she obviously liked having children around.

  3. So often people who don't have children of their own know nothing about how to raise children or what to do with them. It sounds like Ma Power was a natural. She could teach a class.

  4. She probably could Wendy, maybe she had little choice but to take in her nephews when he sister died and then decided she enjoyed being a mother.

  5. What a sweet story Dara. Thank goodness for Ma Power who had room in her home and in her heart for those who needed her.

    1. I would dearly love to see her photograph, Michelle, but I doubt any survive.

  6. That's a wonderful start! It sounds like she had a big heart for children. I understand her last name was Power, but I still love the nickname, "Ma Power." :)

    1. Yea, and I bet she was a formidable woman too, Dana, thanks.