Belfast Telegraph

Mary Kenny: Some of our most famous citizens came from large families, but was this just a sign of the times?

Competitive edge: football great George Best
Competitive edge: football great George Best
Boxer Billy Kelly
SDLP politician Gerry Fitt

By Mary Kenny

Christmas, 'tis said, is all about families. But here's a family theme that has always fascinated me: Is your personality affected by the number of siblings you have? Are big families more competitive than smaller ones?

I've been reading through the 2019 editions of that peerless publication, the Dictionary of Irish Biography (from the Royal Irish Academy), covering the years 2003 to 2010; lives of prominent Irish people who died during those seven years are described in these Volumes 10 and 11. And it's striking that many individuals who showed distinction or leadership came from larger families, which I would define as six or more.

It seems often the case with entrepreneurs. For example, Colin Barnes (84 at time of death), founder of once-successful knitwear company Glen Abbey, was one of 11 children growing up on the Falls Road, Belfast. Limerick-born Mary Guiney (103) was the dynamic force behind Clery's store during its golden years and was one of seven children, one of whom died young.

Brendan O'Regan (91), from Clare, the pioneer of duty-free shopping who put Shannon Airport on the map, was fourth of seven children. Michael Dargan (87), from Co Meath, CEO and subsequently chairman of Aer Lingus and bloodstock breeder: eldest of seven. Hugh McLaughlin (86), from Donegal, pioneering publisher - he is said to have shaped the modern Irish magazine - born the youngest of seven.

Seamus Purcell (80), Offaly businessman and beef baron: third of 10 children. Pat Quinn (74), supermarket supremo (Quinnsworth) from Leitrim - eldest of six surviving children. Kevin McHugh (60), fisherman and businessman from Achill - fourth of eight children.

Do athletes and sports-people derive a competitive streak from sibling rivalries?

George Best (59), Belfast-born football legend, was the eldest of six. Lar Fogarty (65), Dublin-born GAA footballer and hurler - second youngest of 10. Philomena Garvey (83), ace golfer from Co Louth, was the youngest of six. Billy Kelly (88), renowned Derry boxer, the oldest of 10. Stanley De Lacy (91), Dublin-born hockey international, was the sixth of eight children. Joe Carr (82), Inchicore-born golfer and businessman, was the fifth of seven children, but was informally adopted by his childless aunt and had little contact thereafter with birth parents. Writers - and politicians - have often emerged from big families.

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Nuala O'Faolain (68), Dublin, second eldest of nine children. Frank McCourt (79), Limerick - could anyone forget? Eldest of seven. Benedict Kiely (88), Omagh, youngest of six. John McGahern (72), Leitrim, eldest of seven. Peter Kavanagh (90), Monaghan, youngest of 10 - his older brother was the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Bridget Derrane (103), Aran Islands, memoirist and nurse - youngest of eight. Nuala Fennell (74), journalist and politician from Dublin - third of six children.

Charles J Haughey (81), Taoiseach, born in Mayo, third of seven children. Ruairi Brugha (89), Dublin, only son among six children of Cathal Brugha. Gerald Goldberg (91), Cork-born writer, lawyer and Cork mayor, the 11th of 12 surviving children of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. Gerry Fitt (79), Belfast, leader of the SDLP and later a Westminster peer, born in a Belfast workhouse to a single mother and "father unknown", fostered as the third child among six by George and Mary Fitt. Sean Dublin Bay Loftus (93), Dublin, political activist and environmentalist - eldest of seven.

Performers and musicians who came from larger families include: Joe Dolan (72), singer from Co Westmeath - youngest of eight surviving children. Bernadette Greevy (71), Dublin, acclaimed soprano - sixth of seven children. Doc Carroll (66), Co Mayo, singer and musician with the Royal Blues showband - third youngest of eight. Rita Keane (86), traditional Galway singer and musician, one of eight.

Mick Lally (75), Mayo actor who walked six miles to school as a kid - eldest of seven. Constance Smith (75), Limerick-born actress who had a successful movie career, but afflicted by alcoholism, died homeless and destitute in London - one of "seven or eight" children.

And there are many more of those distinguished in their own fields: Terry Carlin (57), Derry trade unionist with ICTU, seventh of 12. Denis Faul (74), priest and human rights activist, born in Louth, one of seven. Sheila Tinney (92), Galway mathematical physicist, fourth of six children.

Mary Lucy O'Brien, (83) Tuam-born missionary sister and doctor in Africa, second of eight. Mary Reid (50), Monaghan republican and feminist, eldest of six.

Interestingly, the man who compiled the first, single-volume Irish biographical dictionary was Henry Boylan (96), seventh of nine children. His wife, Patricia Boylan (93), also a writer, was the youngest of 12. Their son is Dr Peter Boylan, the obstetrician and pro-choice campaigner.

Many are listed who come from smaller families, but the larger families were more typical of past times and, for some individuals, having multiple siblings evidently prepared them well for success in life.

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