By Albert Perris
Growing up in Tallaght in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a frequent if irregular sight was that of the local hermit, recluse or ‘eccentric’ as he was variously referred to, walking down the length of Seskin View Road. He was a familiar sight known throughout Tallaght and district, and had been living somewhere in the hills above Tallaght since the mid-1970s.
‘Frenchie’ as he was called, was a tall, brisk, dark haired but unshaven and unkempt man in his early 50s. He wore a long black winter coat – all year round – which flowed behind him as he strode down the road. He kept himself to himself, and always looked like he was a man in a hurry to get wherever it was he was going. Occasionally he carried a long, trimmed branch, as one might hold a walking stick and was often seen murmuring or talking to himself. Parents cautioned children to stay away from the unkempt Frenchie and children often ignored them. Some children, whose capacity for cruelty was equal only to their capacity for curiosity, took to calling him ‘Worzel’ after Worzel Gummidge, the popular TV program of the time. Frenchie would smile: it is unlikely he knew who Worzel was.
Frenchie was as recognisable and frequent a sight to kids growing up around Old Bawn, Seskin View and Millbrook Lawns in Tallaght as coal lorries and ice cream vans.
In January 1982, Tallaght and Ireland was covered in a great snow, the heaviest fall in 35 years. Not since 1947, had Irish people seen anything quite like it. The children of Tallaght, with two weeks off school begged, borrowed or stole ‘breadboards’ from the local bread van and came out in force to have sledge races, ‘scutting’ on the back of cars, where drivers were brave enough to risk the ice-covered roads. Children, distracted by the snow, were not giving too much thought to how Frenchie might be getting on.
In Bohernabreena in the hills above Tallaght, it was known that Frenchie lived in nothing more than a makeshift wooden hut he had constructed for himself in the middle of Ballinascorney forest. He lived with no running water, no electricity and no heating.
After several days of snow, locals in the district became concerned for his welfare. He had not been seen for a number of days. Conditions were quite literally arctic. Farmers were concerned for the welfare of their livestock out in the fields. Frenchie had last been seen on the 8th of January, several days after the first snows came, trying to cycle up a hill in Ballinascorney in the direction of the forest in which he lived alone. A number of people in the district set out to check on him, to see if he needed anything. They found his bicycle- apparently abandoned in a ditch by the side of the road near the forest. Shortly after they found a parcel of food frozen, sticking out of the snow not far from his abandoned bike.
A local TD, Larry McMahon, took the lead in organising a ‘search and rescue’ operation. An Army Air Corps helicopter was called in and the local community in Bohernabreena set out on a mission to find Frenchie. The national media covered the story of Frenchie – The Missing Hermit. An Air Corps helicopter from Baldonnel landed in the grounds of the Dominican Priory in Tallaght to collect a Garda before flying to pick up a farmer in Bohernabreena, a man who knew the whereabouts of Frenchie’s hut in Ballinascorney Forest. The search continued for a number of days. Frenchie wasn’t the only hermit living in such conditions in the area. An elderly man who had been living rough in a cave in the Featherbeds in the Dublin Mountains for the previous 10 years, was also a cause for concern.
Frenchie hadn’t been seen for almost two weeks when he was found, frozen and lifeless in the snow, three- quarters of a mile from his hut in Ballinascorney forest. His body was dug out of a snowdrift by a team of volunteers. He had frozen to death in a blizzard, attempting to bring food back to his makeshift hut. He had likely been dead since the 8th of January.
Frenchie’s hut was searched for clues as to who he was and where he had come from. Documents found there revealed only fragments of his life. Richard Byrne had been born David Francis Molesworth Quigley in Hobart, Australia on 16 October 1926. He had changed his name to Richard Byrne while living in Canada in October 1973. Documents with the names Byrne and Phelan were found; a birth cert for a Michael Phelan born in 1893 in Ballynacarbry, Co. Waterford. Investigators speculated that Frenchie had in fact been the son of Irish parents who had emigrated to Australia, but there was no record of them, as their details had likely been lost in the burning of the Four Courts in Dublin in 1922. Embassies in Australia and Canada were contacted but there appeared to be little follow-up. All that was known locally about Frenchie was that he had studied the weather, the moon and the stars.
Ordinarily vagrants would be buried in the pauper’s plot in Glasnevin cemetery. However, David Francis Molesworth Quigley, alias Richard Byrne, was buried in the cold hard ground on a windswept icy morning in St Joseph’s Cemetery, Bohernabreena on the 23rd of January, by special arrangement with Dublin City Council.
Over 50 local people, many of whom had been involved in the search for him, gathered for the service in St Anne’s church in Bohernabreena to pay their respects to the elusive stranger. Just at the moment the priest stood to welcome all those who had gathered, the door of St. Anne’s church opened. An Anglican Minister, John Molesworth Quigley slowly walked up the aisle and quietly informed the congregation that he was a brother of the dead man. Living in Birkenhead in England, he had not seen or spoken to his brother in 30 years. The last contact any of his family had had, was ten years earlier when Frenchie had met his sister in Vancouver, Canada. John had been contacted by local police in Birkenhead the day before, prompted by inquiries from the local Gardai who had found an address among papers in Frenchie’s hut in the woods.
Frenchie had been born in Australia but had moved to England when he was young with his family. His father had been from Galway. Frenchie had worked briefly as a miner in England before going to Canada where he had changed his name by deed poll.
When the funeral mass was over, the coffin was borne by members of Bohernabreena Youth Club to its final resting place. John Molesworth Quigley thanked the local people for the kindness they had shown. He said that David rarely kept in touch with family and preferred to keep to himself.
After the burial, as the local congregation dispersed, one man lingered longer than the rest. John Molesworth Quigley remained by his brother’s grave, reflecting on the solitary life of David Francis Molesworth Quigley, alias Richard Byrne. Afterwards he set off alone to visit the makeshift hut deep in Ballinascorney forest, where his brother had lived the last years of his life.
‘Frenchie’, or David Francis Molesworth Quigley was the son of Reverend Thomas Quigley and Cecilia Francis Molesworth who had married on the 18th December 1918. David and his family are listed in the genealogical survey of the Peerage of Britain as well as the royal families of Europe. His father died on December 30 1964. On his maternal line David was a direct descendant of Robert Molesworth, the first Viscount Molesworth of Swords.
David was one of six children. His sister Kathleen Mary had studied at Trinity College Dublin, graduating with an MA in history in 1948, before emigrating to Canada where she became a lecturer in Vancouver City College.
The other recluse, who had lived in a cave in the Featherbeds in the Dublin Mountains for ten years, was found alive on the 14th of January 1982 and was airlifted to Newcastle Hospital. He was 60 years old.
Albert is a new contributor to Tinteán. He is a social researcher, local historian, writer and blogger. His non-academic work has appeared in Book Ireland and Reality magazine. He is the author of ‘Since Adam Was A Boy – An Oral Folk HIstory of Tallaght’ (TWS 1999).