IT came as a shock to members of the deaf community to find out that Mary Moynihan had died in a fire at her home on Monday evening.
Mary was 89 and had lived alone for many years.
She had a sharp mind and a great memory. She was witty and enjoyed a good chat.
She went to St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls in Cabra, Dublin, in 1934. She left school in 1955 when she was 16-years-old.
During her time at St. Mary’s, ISL was the language of instruction. The nuns were very strict with the girls, and Mary told me about one nun in particular that she didn’t like. This nun told her: “You are very lucky to be in Cabra and have a roof over your head”.
The deaf schools in Cabra were boarding schools, and at that time some pupils could only afford to go home during the summer months.
Mary also had a deaf brother, Jim. He passed away in 2006.
They were very close and of course, both were fluent ISL users, so this cemented their connection.
Jim went to St Joseph’s Deaf School for Boys, only a mile or so down the road from St Mary’s, but the siblings were not allowed to visit each other. So until the summer came, they only saw each other on special, and rare, occasions.
Nonetheless, school was a very happy time for Mary. She made lifelong friends there. She had wonderful memories of her time in Cabra.
After leaving school, she returned home to Cork.
The nuns got her a job at St Marie’s of the Isle as a seamstress. But much like at boarding school, she had to adhere to a strict routine, and this did not suit Mary’s character. She left this job after two years and found work as dressmaker, which she enjoyed much more. She considered immigrating to England with a friend, but her mother would not hear of it, so she remained in Cork. Neither herself or her brother ever married.
They shared a house together, never being alone with each other for company.
Not much has been written about the lives of deaf women in Ireland. We know that there was a women’s retreat, which started in Dublin in 1878 and continued every three or four years until the 1980s.
Mary attended these gatherings.
During those years, because the pupils of St Mary’s and St Joseph’s never socialised, different variations of ISL developed in each school, and so it took time for deaf men and women to get used to each other’s communication styles.
This usually happened at deaf clubs, which were dotted all over the country. The Cork Deaf Club, open to women and men, first met in 1945 in Sunday’s Well. It met regularly on Sunday afternoons.
These days the club meets on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday nights on MacCurtain Street. Mary attended the club for many years.
She loved meeting her deaf friends and catching up on all the news. Mary told me that during the 1940s she and some deaf women would meet at a café at the Queen’s Old Castle on Grand Parade.
The group would take care that no one would see them as they signed to each other as at that time it was nearly taboo to use sign language in public.
Things have changed a lot now. These days we use sign language on the street and even on the television without giving it a second thought.
At the time Mary was growing up, family members were not taught or encouraged to use sign language.
As a result, Mary communicated with most hearing people using pen and paper and gestures.
Over the years she taught her nephews, nieces and hearing siblings to use the ISL alphabet. It would also have been common at the time to teach the two-handed British Sign Language alphabet to hearing acquaintances.
Some people might regard Mary and other deaf people to have a communication difficulty.
But in fact, Mary had advanced communication skills. She knew Irish Sign Language (ISL), including the variations from both St Mary’s and St Joseph’s Schools; she had fluent written English; she could communicate through gesture; and she taught friends, family and colleagues two alphabets, as well as gestures, in order to be able to communicate with her.
Mary had a strong character, and she was great company. She also had a marvellous sense of humour; she was a great storyteller and had many experiences to recount about her life as a deaf woman growing up in 1940s/50s Ireland.
She was much loved by her extended family, and by all of us in the deaf community, especially here in Cork. She will be sorely missed.
Mary was the loving sister of the late James Jim, Peg, Sheila and Con. She will be sadly missed by her loving nephews, nieces, grandnephews, grandnieces, relatives, carers and friends especially those in the Cork Deaf Association.
On Monday evening, a fire claimed the life of a much-loved pensioner who was a member of the Deaf community. Mary Moynihan was a pioneer for Irish Sign Language (ISL) for the deaf community at a time when it was taboo to use it. She was a skilled communicator who taught her nephews, nieces and hearing siblings to use the ISL alphabet. Here, chairperson of the Cork Deaf Club, Graham O’Shea, pays tribute to Mary, whom he described as “great company” and a “great storyteller.”