Joan Waring and Thomas Fforde

Joan Waring and Thomas Fforde

by Edwin Graham

In the early part of the twentieth century religious diversity was virtually unknown in Ireland. Even in Great Britain there was little evidence of faith communities outside of Christianity and Judaism. The Bahá’í community was only beginning to become established, a process that was greatly boosted with the arrival of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in England in 1911.

In the first half of the twentieth century there were only a very small number of Bahá’ís in Ireland. They were essentially two families—the Ffordes and the Townshends. They were geographically separated and, although they did visit each other, they did not appear to have very much direct contact.

George Townshend’s contact with the Faith is well known but the Ffordes’ association with the Faith has not been well documented. However the information that we have about the Ffordes gives a fascinating picture of the influence of the Faith on this family in the turbulent times of early twentieth century Ireland.

Joan Fforde was born Frances Joan Alice Waring. She was born in 1883 and brought up in Waringstown House in Waringstown, near Lurgan, Co Armagh. She had two older brothers—Holt and Ruric Henry. Both brothers were killed in the First World War. She had two sisters—Esther Marian and Mary Theresa (Mary’s husband, Samuel Barbour Combe, was also killed in the war).1

Thomas Roderick Fforde was the son of James Fforde of Raughlan, Derrymacash, near Lurgan. The family was originally from Seaforde in County Down. James Fforde was a railway engineer and he had five sons and three daughters. Charles and Thomas both joined the Navy, Francis became an engineer.

First Contact

In August 1911 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá travelled from the Holy Land to the west for a four-month tour that included London and Paris. The following year, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá embarked on a yearlong journey, again to Europe, and then to the United States and Canada. He returned to the British Isles on December 13th, 1912, docking in Liverpool and then proceeding to London. During ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to London, Mírzá Ahmad Sohráb kept a diary of His activities. In his diary, on December 17th, 1912, Sohráb records: “In Belfast, Ireland lives a fine Bahá’í, a splendid believer. She travelled all day and night to see the Master. He welcomed her most cordially and said: ‘You must become the cause of the illumination of Ireland… you must ignite four thousand lamps in one year…’”.2 It seems highly likely that this person was Joan Waring, though that link is still unconfirmed.

We do not yet know how Joan Waring first established contact with the Bahá’í Faith but we know that, in the years leading up to the war, Joan Waring was corresponding with Bahá’ís in America. On December 5th, 1913, the Wilmette Temple Fund recorded a donation of $24.35 from Miss J. Waring.3 Joan married Thomas Fforde on October 26th, 1914.

On June 29th, 1919, the Ffordes wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Joan states that she “had a word” from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when He was last in London, that she has since married, and that she received news of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s safety from Major Tudor Pole. The letter was signed by both Joan and Thomas and the original is in the Bahá’í World Centre holdings. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá answered her letter on January 20th, 1920, but to date no copy of the reply has been found.4

Thomas Fforde served as a Naval Commander. He trained with the Royal Navy on the Brittania at Dartmouth and later in China and went from there to Greenwich College. During the 1914–1918 war he was active in many engagements including the Battle of Jutland. After the war he had command of a ship based in Murmansk during which time he would have had much contact with the Russian Revolution.5

Bahá’í Activities

In 1922 the Ffordes bought Bruckless House, near Killybegs in County Donegal. It was from this address that Joan corresponded with Victoria Bedikian in 1923 and 1924. Bedikian was a well-known Bahá’í. It is an indication of her stature in the Bahá’í community that she was asked by Shoghi Effendi to write to the Bahá’í Assemblies in the East as well as in the West, seeking funds to support the completion of the Bahá’í Temple in Chicago.6 But as well as her interest in the completion of the Bahá’í Temple, Victoria Bedikian was also very interested in working with children.

In the first letter to Victoria Bedikian, Joan requests subscription details for Bedikian’s periodicals The Children’s Hour and World Fellowship. These periodicals acted as resources for people implementing Bedikian’s plan of organising Bahá’í “gardens” which were children’s groups, open to all. Joan Fforde later wrote to Bedikian:

I am sorry to say I have no children and there is no Bahai group here but I am interested in the subject of teaching the Cause to children. I love to hear of all you are doing in America and hope the Cause will go forward rapidly there for we are very slow in these countries.7

The World Fellowship periodical, published by Bedikian in March 1924 included an excerpt from one of Joan’s letters describing her activities:

This is a rather lonely country place, and I am lucky to have found even a few friends who have become interested in the Cause. One, a dear old man of eighty years, to our sorrow, has just died and he was taken to Scotland for burial, but when he left the house here the Roman Catholic priest and the Protestant clergy all joined in speaking his praises. He was a Baha’i without knowing it and gladly read all the books I lent him about the Cause. I am having a party for the children round about. It will be a purely social affair with games and dance and song. – Baha’i Love and Greetings, Joan H.8

Clive Evans, the present owner of Bruckless House, has indicated that he thinks the man referred to in this letter is Alexander Morton:

Alexander Morton (1844–1923) was a Scot who had a unique and profound in?uence upon early industry in Southwest Donegal, the effects of which are still felt, especially in the Killybegs of the late 20th century. He began the manufacture of the Donegal carpet that in his own lifetime became famous and sought-after far beyond the mists of this part of Ireland. He was a man of vision and innovation, financial skill and a philanthropist: a man of family and loyalties. A man of opportunity and success.

There is evidence that Morton and [the] Ffordes met socially: and when he died in Bruckless, his remains were transported to Scotland, by no means a normal procedure for lesser people. The time of his demise fits into the date of Joan’s letter. Morton was a Presbyterian.9

Bruckless House - Courtesy of Edwin Graham
Bruckless House—Courtesy of Edwin Graham

It seems that Bedikian’s writing about Bahá’í “gardens” for children might have made a significant impact on the Ffordes. People in Bruckless still recall how Joan had children’s gatherings on the front lawn of the house. Joan and Thomas are reputed to have kept a box of apples at the front door to give to visiting children, and if there were no apples, there were sweets. There are also records of them bringing apples to local primary schools at Christmas.10 Local people also relate how, in the autumn, Thomas Fforde would bring a box of apples up to the roadside and leave it on a tree trunk so that children could take an apple on the way to church.

Joan appears to have publicly confessed her faith in many different contexts. It is less clear if Thomas ever publicly stated that he was a Bahá’í. However in Bahá’í circles he was clearly understood to be a practising believer. John Esslemont wrote to Albert Vail in 1924. He noted that George Townshend “seems to be a convinced Bahá’í” and added “I only know of two other Bahá’ís in Ireland, a Mr and Mrs Fforde.” Townshend also wrote to Esslemont: “I met the Ffordes in the spring of 1921. Except for them nobody in this island is known to be interested in Bahaism.”11

Sheila Fitzgerald

Some years ago there was a Bahá’í public meeting in Castlebar, Co Mayo. The meeting was attended by an elderly lady, Mrs Sheila Fitzgerald (nee Goold Verschoyle). After the meeting she described how she knew the Ffordes when she was a child in Donegal. She described Mrs Fforde as a plain woman but that she had a warmth of spirit that made her very attractive. She remembered the Ffordes as being very calm and unperturbed when heated political discussions would be raging, as they did a lot at this time of the Irish War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. She felt that the Ffordes seemed to know something that none of the others did. She said she always subsequently had a very positive impression of the Bahá’í Faith because of its association for her with this couple she had known as a child.12

Bruckless Pier, the `Paradise Pier’ of Dermot Bolger’s book of the same name.
Bruckless Pier, the `Paradise Pier’ of Dermot Bolger’s book of the same name.

The well-known Irish novelist, playwright and poet, Dermot Bolger, recently published a novel called The Family on Paradise Pier.13 He describes the book in the following way:

It was a strange book to write in that it is a mixture of fact and fiction or a fictional recreation of the early life of a woman who was a huge influence on me as a young man.

The woman he is referring to is Sheila Fitzgerald. Bolger states:

Mr Fforde regularly features in her sketches… The Ffordes were among a tiny Irish handful of Bahá’ís but began to preach a new doctrine in Donegal. A British naval officer, Fforde had converted to the Bolshevik cause and briefly moved with his wife to Moscow to work in a factory. Although an accident drove him back to Donegal, his zeal never wavered and he became a regular sight at fairs, making communist speeches while his wife handed out pamphlets. One can only speculate about his influence on the Goold Verschoyle boys during long rides home from picnics on his horse drawn float. Today his home in Bruckless is a luxury guesthouse but beside the pier in the garden, christened “Paradise Pier” in my novel, a stone marks the unconsecrated grave where the Ffordes lie buried.14

We get more information about Bruckless House from Sheila Fitzgerald’s own book A Donegal Summer.15 This book, now unfortunately out of print, contains many sketches and photos of the Ffordes together with their friends, the Goold Verschoyles.

Bolger’s description of Thomas Fforde as a communist reflects the way in which he is remembered by the local community. His obituary in the local paper states that:

He was frequently referred to as ‘Mr Fforde, the communist’ but although an ardent believer in Marxism he was never a member of the Communist Party.16

The current owner of Bruckless House, Clive Evans, describes how Thomas moved to Moscow, in about 1937, and worked in a factory. Initially Joan stayed in Bruckless but she later joined him. However he injured his hand and they both returned to Ireland for treatment.

Bruckless House

The Ffordes had only eighteen acres of land at Bruckless. They kept poultry and bees and had a large walled garden where they grew many vegetables and fruit. The walled garden still remains. Their land also included a forest that supplied timber to a nearby sawmill. Thomas Fforde’s principal hobbies were described as cabinet-making, wireless engineering and reading. He is described as having an extensive library with an interest in atomic physics.17 Both Joan and Thomas were very well read and Joan was sufficiently in touch with Sean O’Casey’s writing to select a quote from his fourth autobiographical book for the headstone on Thomas’s grave only months after the book had been published.18

When the Ffordes were living in Bruckless House part of their property included an old tannery on the shore. This building has now been replaced by a small bungalow. The tannery was a substantial building and local people tell how the Ffordes made it available for community activities and they had Christmas parties there every year. Local people also recall how Joan provided flowers for both the Protestant and Catholic Churches in the town.

Thomas Fforde had a reputation for creating employment in the area at a time when work was scarce. He is even reputed for creating jobs to keep men employed when the work was really superfluous to his needs. He still has a reputation in the area for treating his workers very well. His obituary in the local paper records that:

Notwithstanding his very different views from those of the people with whom he came in contact, he was ever noted for being kind, pleasant and straightforward.

The local paper also portrays Joan in a positive light. Following her death it records:

She was noted for her genial and benevolent disposition and during her 26 years in Bruckless House she gave to many charities. She was president of the local branch of the Lady Dudley Nursing Association for twenty-four years.19

The Lady Dudley Nursing Association was a voluntary organisation that provided community-based nursing services before district nursing was developed.

A Simple Stone

On Monday, November 15th, 1949, Thomas was returning on his bicycle from Killybegs after attending a meeting where Eamon de Valera was speaking. The meeting was an election rally in advance of the by-election that was being held the following day. A local man described how on the evening Thomas Fforde’s car had failed to start and he had taken his bicycle. He had an unusual bicycle that was shaft-driven. He was described as cycling home so fast that others on conventional bicycles could not keep up with him. The local paper records that “it is thought that his bicycle hit a stone and he was thrown from the machine.”20 It appears that his head hit a wall and he is reported to have died immediately. When the other cyclists arrived on the spot they realised the hopelessness of the situation and they went down to Bruckless House to tell Joan there had been an accident. She is reported to have said “I was expecting that”.

The election was won by Patrick O’Donnell. The runner-up was Joseph Brennan. The following day Brennan is reported to have visited Bruckless House:

…his first act before starting the tour proper was to visit Bruckless House and offer his condolences to the widow of the late Capt. T. R. Fforde, who was killed the previous night within 200 yards from his home, when cycling from Mr de Valera’s final rally in Killybegs.21

Clive Evans has described that the Ffordes association with communism presented a problem in arranging his funeral. Thomas had already indicated that he wished to be buried in the grounds of Bruckless House and this was arranged by his neighbour, Nicholas Tindal. A burial site was created in a beautiful location close to the shoreline.

Ten days after his death, the local paper was able to print significant detail about the headstone to be placed on the grave:

His last resting place will be marked with a simple stone bearing the inscription “The Immortality of the Dead is in the Minds of the Living”, from Sean O’Casey’s last book, Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well.22

Joan died in the house on December 11th, 1950. The local paper reported that:

She had recently disposed of Bruckless House and lands to her late husband’s nephew and was due to take up residence in Belfast on the day she died. She was indisposed for about a week prior to her death.23

This record however is not confirmed by the deeds of the house. Clive Evans indicates that the house was not transferred until after her death. Also, although the local paper indicates that Joan died on Monday, December 11th and was buried shortly after, there are a number of local people who indicate that there might have been a slightly longer period between her death and burial.

Her remains were laid alongside her husband. The graves are marked by a simple stone bearing the quote from O’Casey:

The immortality of the dead is in the minds of the living.24

The Fforde grave just outside the grounds of Bruckless House.
The Fforde grave just outside the grounds of Bruckless House.

  1. Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Ireland (London: Harrison, 1912).
  2. Star of the West, Vol.III, No.19 (March 2nd, 1913).
  3. Jackson Ingram, Early Irish Baha’is.
  4. Bahá’í World Centre, in a letter to Edwin Graham, August 24th, 1998.
  5. Donegal Democrat, November 25th, 1949.
  6. Shoghi Effendi, “Letter to the members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, May 11th, 1926”, in Bahá’í Administration.
  7. Jackson Ingram, Early Irish Bahá’ís.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Email from Clive Evans, resident owner of Bruckless House, July 2006, to Edwin Graham.
  10. Clive Evans in an unpublished manuscript.
  11. Jackson Ingram, Early Irish Bahá’ís.
  12. Unpublished account by Mike Maguire contained in a letter to Brendan McNamara.
  13. Dermot Bolger, The Family on Paradise Pier (Harper Perennial, 2005).
  14. Dermot Bolger, web diary at — currently unavailable.
  15. Sheila Fitzgerald, A Donegal Summer (Raven Arts Press, 1985).
  16. Donegal Democrat, November 25th, 1949.
  17. *Ibid.
  18. Sean O’Casey, Inishfallen Fare Thee Well, (Macmillan, 1949).
  19. Donegal Democrat, December 15th, 1950.
  20. Donegal Democrat, November 18th, 1949.
  21. Ibid.
  22. O’Casey, p.42. The actual text in the novel reads “Only the thoughts of the living can give the mortal immortality.” This was the fourth of O’Casey’s six autobiographical volumes—the first three having already been banned by the Irish Censor.
  23. Donegal Democrat, December 15th, 1950.
  24. The quotation is incorrectly cited in Bolger’s Paradise Pier as “the immortality of the dead is only in the minds of the living”.

One Comment Add yours

  1. meteorquake says:

    Sohrab records two Irish Baha’i lady visitors, the one on 17 Dec you mention, and another on 22 Dec. He doesn’t mention they are the same person, so one has to presume they are different. d

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