Mary Kate Neill was born on June 11th, 1900 in the tiny township of Graiguenaspiddoge in County Carlow. The 1901 census shows her ten months old. Her mother was Catherine or Kate Neill (née Cullen) aged 38, and her father Michael Neill aged 51. Born in 1850 just after the potato famine of 1845-7, he was a blacksmith. Graiguenaspiddoge was a row of 28 houses beside a main road in the countryside, and the family lived in house 23 according to the censor, though the houses were not numbered.
Mary Kate had three older brothers and two older sisters. Because her mother was Kate and her sister Mary, she was always known as Lily. Edward was the oldest; his birth certificate in 1885 names his father as Patrick Neill, who died early. Kate’s next son, whose father was Michael Neill, was named Patrick after him. In marrying Kate, Michael had assumed responsibility for his brother’s widow and child.
The 1911 census shows Graiguenaspiddoge grown smaller with only 25 houses. The Neill family has now moved to house 14, halfway down the street. Edward is no longer listed because he left for America in 1905 aged 20, according to Ellis Island records. His father had died, aged 53, in 1903 in Staplestown Road, Carlow. Mary, registering his death, identified him as a mason. His mother, a ‘blacksmith’s widow’ had died in 1908, aged 46, of ‘gastritis’ and exhaustion.
The remaining family stayed with Patrick Neill, 20, as head. Julia, now 15, was living a few doors away and working as a servant. Mary, Michael and 11-year-old Lily, now officially called Catherine, were still at home. There was also another resident, a 22- year-old ‘sister’ called ‘Julia Neill’ according to the census; she was Patrick’s partner; he later travelled to America with her. Patrick and Michael were listed as labourers; no occupation was required for ‘Julia’ or Mary as they were women, and Catherine was a ‘scholar’; all could read and write, and all were single and Roman Catholic. All were adult except Lily.
There was no work locally or throughout Ireland, and no hope of further education or training without paying. Irish people were despised by the British as ignorant or mad; on the mainland many houses displayed a brass plaque bearing the words “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs”. The best option was to save enough money to emigrate to America or Australia, or work the passage on a ship. The Neill family already had a sponsor in America, their brother Edward. Patrick and Julia emigrated first, followed by Mary paying her passage as a seamstress. Michael stayed at home and by 1930 he was married. He and his son were both called ‘Mick the tip’ locally after the metal tips on the toes of their shoes. What happened to Julia is unknown.
By 1917 most of Lily’s relatives had vanished through death or emigration. In 1918, now an adult, she found work in Dublin as sales assistant-cum-model at a respectable ladies’ outfitters at the bottom of Kildare Street near Trinity College. It included decent tied lodgings and clothes, meaning low wages. She was young and attractive, so was happy to work for pocket money as a dancer in a nearby evening club. It was there that she met Michael Robartes.
Read an excerpt from Patricia's book, "W.B. Yeats and the Murder of Honor Bright"