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“Times have greatly changed since these Homes were started and our Homes have greatly changed with the times, and are still changing; but I think they can claim that they have at least had a share in helping to change the times.” Miss Vivienne Smyly, 9th May 1976
Mrs Smyly (nee Ellen Franks) was born on 14th November 1815. Appalled by the numerous starving children on the streets of Dublin in the early 1850s, she initially started feeding them and then through tireless fundraising, buildings were secured to house and educate many of these street children. By the 1870s the first purpose built facility was completed and Mrs Smyly’s Homes and Schools was founded. With her group of dedicated volunteers, Ellen Smyly endeavoured to help necessitous children in several Homes in Dublin. By the end of the 1800s it was estimated that there were in excess of 1500 children being looked after by Mrs Smyly’s Homes at any one time. Funds to run the Homes were entirely derived from donations from the family and friends of Mrs Smyly and a growing band of supporters in the community.
The backgrounds of the children were many and varied, often being described as destitute. In many cases there was a widow, widower, deserted wife or husband, left with numerous children and no one to look after them while they sought work. There was no state welfare system in place. The children were usually referred through contacts, often clergy, and were admitted by a parent or relative or occasionally a guardian where the children were orphaned.
Early in the 20th century, as was the practice with similar organisations, some of the older children were sent to Canada where it was believed they had a better outlook for the future. In 1905 The Coombe was opened in Hespeler, Ontario, where children were sent from Ireland and stayed for a while before being placed on farms or in other forms of employment. The Coombe was sold to the government of Ontario in 1917 when it was deemed too dangerous to transport children across the Atlantic during World War 1. Some of the children who had gone to Canada before this time returned to Europe as members of the military. Smyly’s kept track of these recruits and have lists of their "boys" who joined up, their units, injuries, or fatalities during the war.
The organisation continued to care for large numbers of children through the early 1900s when Ireland was still a very poor country with high levels of unemployment. Some parents were forced to leave the country to seek employment and temporarily put their children in the Homes until they got settled in a new country. The Second World War created its own difficulties and there was still a large demand for services for children. There was always an emphasis on education within the Homes, as it was believed that this was the only way to progress in the world.
The introduction of social welfare benefits, and latterly the payment for single parents, were major factors in enabling families to look after their own children and over the ensuing years, the numbers of children requiring care dropped dramatically.
In the 1970s the government began to recognise the need to take responsibility for children and in 1972 started to subsidise the Homes on a per capita basis, as it was becoming increasingly more difficult to rely solely on charitable donations. This method of financing was continued until the mid 1980s when the Homes were funded on an annual budget. In the 70s the Health Boards were created and children were referred by Social Workers for the first time. Today all children are referred by the HSE.
Over time, and with the improvement in welfare services, the need for the large institutions diminished and the organisation changed to respond to the needs of children, who for very different reasons, were unable to live at home. To replace the large institutions, family group homes were established. Instead of volunteers looking after children the staff were increasingly professional childcare workers.
Mrs Smyly’s Homes has always tried to adapt and respond to the current needs of children. The organisation has seen an immense change in society since its foundation but has always kept the child as the main focus of the work. We now have a government department for Health and Children, National Standards for Children’s Residential Centres, Registration and Inspection Services and a trained workforce in Social Care.
Today we are known as Smyly Trust Services and offer a fully professional service to children in need of care. We have changed, but the focus remains the same. Just as Ellen Smyly saw the needs of children so many years ago, we strive to identify and meet those needs in the context of the world we live in today.