Fostering and Adoption in Ireland and living at Maiden Hall

Nicholas Maher

( Hello, my name is Nicholas Maher and my talk today reflects on the long tradition in Ireland of Fostering and Adoption, and recalls in particular, the memoirs of one Joseph Hone and his Fostering experience at Maiden Hall, Bennettsbridge.)

Recently I bumped into an old school friend who I hadn’t seen in over 50 years. One of the topics he shared with me was his search for his sister who, like him, had been adopted. I was never aware of his adopted status as a child, nor did it really matter as the beauty of childhood innocence for me at any rate did not put any weight on such matters. I was aware of children who were fostered and in my later working life, becoming friendly with foster parents who I had the greatest of admiration for.

All of this brought me back to a book I had read a few years ago about a certain Joseph Hone and his experience while fostered with Hubert Butler and his family at Maiden Hall. Much about this later but first let’s look at these different custody arrangements and the legal status of each.

Boarding out/ Fostering

Fostering was common in Gaelic Ireland. It stemmed from the ancient Brehon law. It was connected to Kinship ties. Cuchullain, Fionn Mac Cumhall, Deirdre of the Sorrows, Red Hugh O’Donnell and Daniel O’Connell (until the age of 4) are examples of some well known Irish people who were all fostered. Fostering and Boarding out are the substitute care of children outside their own home by people other than their biological or adoptive parents, or legal guardians, usually involving the exchange of regular amounts of money. The Boarding out system was used by the Poor Law Unions and Charity organisations in 19th Century Ireland. It was governed by the relevant Poor Law Acts and subsequent legislation and regulations under the control of the various Local Government bodies and Health Authorities that followed. These regulations were called Boarding–Out Regulations until 1983, when Fostering Regulations were introduced. In the past private Boarding out/ Fostering arrangements were not uncommon. People made their own arrangements, sometimes through 3rd parties, and paid the carers directly. A Foster or Boarded out child keeps his/her biological identity and name. The Carers assume day to day responsibility for the care of the child but rights (e.g consent for medical, passports, school trips, activities etc) rest with the parents if the child is in voluntary care or with the state (Tusla) if it’s Court ordered care. In the same way under Guardianship, rights and responsibilities are with the Guardian (as determined by the courts).


>Adoption on the other hand is the permanent transfer of parental rights from biological parents to alternative parents with the consent of the biological parents. The legal regulation of adoption was introduced in Ireland under the Adoption Act of 1952 – late by international standards. Prior to 1952, Adoption had developed organically and was so widespread that by 1911 children were registered in the Census as being “Adopted”. However these were not recognised in law and were known as “de facto” adoptions. Irish childcare law differed considerably to the law in the UK which developed at a faster pace. It was not surprising then that children of the same family had different experiences/family arrangements if some lived in Ireland and some in the UK.

It is against this background that I now return to the extraordinary memoirs, titled “Wicked Little Joe”, of Joseph Hone, travel writer and novelist, the eldest of seven children, farmed out in one form or another by impecunious and inebriate parents. The account given is based on Joe’s own memoirs of his childhood in 1940s and 1950s while fostered in Maiden Hall Bennettsbridge and a cache of letters discovered after Hubert Butlers death, between Hubert and his friend, old Joe Hone, grandfather of little Joe, upon whom fell the financial responsibility of his grandson’s upbringing.

To be raised by the Historian and Essayist Hubert Butler and his wife Peggy was surely no ordinary experience, living among the privileged and artistic elite in a newly emerging State, and being stimulated by two literary dominating country houses – the Butlers and the Guthries. Hubert was a Classical Scholar, a Liberal Humanist and Idealist who supported Irish Nationalism. He farmed 500 acres at Maiden Hall, called himself a Market Gardener, a Bee Keeper and an Apple Grower. He was a Literary Linguist who little Joe experienced reading in the one day a journal in Serbo Croat, an Irish text on Irish Saints and later that night reading French in French journals. A very unorthodox intellectual who in Joe’s view would rock the boat, as required. Peggy was seen to be intuitive, having a huge energy for life, an endless organiser, very much pro Ireland and the Irish, cosmopolitan who loved the Arts, Concerts, Theatre etc. yet fearless and imperious as little Joe recalls.

But all was not well in this fostering relationship as little Joe describes in his memoirs, a factor that led to some degree of insecurity in his formation. It does not help you if you have a feeling that you are being farmed out, that you are aware that you are a burden on someone else’s bank account, that you are at times like a parcel being passed about, and that your biological parents mean nothing to you or you to them. Joe also refers to the numerous letters exchanged between Hubert Butler and his grandfather over funding payments (or the lack of) which led to much frustration on all sides.

There is one perilous risk attached to fostering and that is “Attachment” – affecting both sides. The Butlers had one child, a daughter Julia, and perhaps with this in mind and the fact that little Joe was only 3 years old when he arrived in Maiden Hall, caused them to seek a more formal custody for Joe, i.e Adoption. Joe’s parents however would not agree to this which led to somewhat confused feelings by all involved. Yet the same parents allowed other of their children to be adopted. An example of this was the adoption of Joe’s brother, Camillus, by Pamela Travers (of Mary Poppins fame). Camillus’s twin brother, Anthony was sadly not also adopted by the writer! thereby separating the twin baby boys at such an early age.

There are so many anomalies and heart wrenching events from Joe Hone’s memoirs. He had parents whom he neither knew nor loved. He had siblings who he really never knew until late in life. There is difficulty in understanding why Joe’s adoption was not agreed. And there is difficulty in understanding why parents would have seven children and give them all away.

While many young lives continue to be torn apart in our society, many lives also continue to be rebuilt by loving guardians who I have the greatest of respect for. This desire to lovingly rebuild or care for a child’s wellbeing reminds me of a quote from the San Lucian Poet and Nobel Prize Winner, Derek Walcott, when he said: “Break a vase and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.”

Joesph Hone, aka Wicked Little Joe, passed away in 2016 and was previously a contributor to Kilkenny Arts Week.


  • Wicked Little Joe, a memoir by Joseph Hone
  • The Writings of Hubert Butler
  • Boarding out, Fostering and Adoption legislation in Ireland.