Unlocking the story of the Lady in the Letters

Mary Dixon, the mysterious lady in the letters.
Mary Dixon, the mysterious lady in the letters.

A collection of letters written in 1910 which were found dumped in a skip in Dublin have been returned to the family of the woman who wrote them.

The letters, which were written in beautiful handwriting at the start of the 20th century, were penned by a lady called Mary Asswad (nee Dixon).

Ivor Doherty reunited Aoife Fitzgerald wth the 116 year-old letters that were written by her ancestor Mary Dixon Asswad.

Ivor Doherty reunited Aoife Fitzgerald wth the 116 year-old letters that were written by her ancestor Mary Dixon Asswad.

Derry historian Ivor Doherty, who was given the letters by relatives of his wife in Dublin, set about tracking down her ancestors.

He travelled to the capital on Saturday to return the letters to the Dixon family, more than 100 years after they were written.

But finding the relatives of Mary Asswad was not an easy task.

Ivor explains: “The letters came my way through my wife’s brother in law Richard Ryan. His nephew Richard Kelly found the letters in a skip at Liffey Bridge more than 20 years ago.”

Back row left to right Kathleen Doherty, Ivor Doherty, Aoife Fitzgerald, and Michael campion. Front row Rosaleen Doherty, Dolores Ryan, Susan Dixon, Mary MCGaver Dixon and Richard Ryan.

Back row left to right Kathleen Doherty, Ivor Doherty, Aoife Fitzgerald, and Michael campion. Front row Rosaleen Doherty, Dolores Ryan, Susan Dixon, Mary MCGaver Dixon and Richard Ryan.

The letters remained in Mr Kelly’s attic until he decided to do something with them before emigrating to Australia.

And that’s where Ivor Doherty came in.

“I’ve done some local research for people in the past,” said Ivor, “and helped different people to find out information about their ancestors.

“I set about reading the letters and finding out a little bit more about Mary Dixon. The letters were written over a two year period between 1910 and 1911. At that time, Mary was living in different places, including Madrid, Normandy and Paris.”

Mary Agnes Dixon, first cousin of Mary Dixon.

Mary Agnes Dixon, first cousin of Mary Dixon.

Ivor’s first task was to examine the 1901 census where he found Mary (aged 12) living at Carysfort Road, Dalkey, Dublin, with her father Martin Dixon, a builder.

“I then checked the 1911 census but there was so sign of Mary,” he said. “But her family were still living in Dublin.”

Unable to find out anymore information, Ivor enlisted the help of RTE’s Joe Duffy.

“Joe had me on his radio show and I told him all about Mary and how the letters had been found in the skip,” he said. “I told him I was looking for Mary’s descendants.

A collection of the letters that were returned to the Dixon family at Clontarf Castle on Saturday.

A collection of the letters that were returned to the Dixon family at Clontarf Castle on Saturday.

“I never heard anything for a week. But, then, I was contacted by Dublin man Michael Campion. Michael had heard the podcast of Joe Duffy’s show and decided to contact me.

“Michael was able to find out a number of items on the family and, between us, we managed to make contact with Aoife Fitzgerald whose grandmother turned out to be a cousin of Mary Dixon.

“We then arranged the meeting. In the meantime, Michael has found other members of the family.”

In Mary’s letters, she talks about how she worked as a governess overseas and how the children were crying all day and all night.

“She was always writing to her mother and father talking about the hours she had to work,” said Ivor. “She seems to have inherited a house and would ask for money from the sale to keep her going. But she was concerned about her mother and told her to employ a maid for £1 per week.”

Mary Dixon’s relative Aoife Fitzgerald told the ‘Journal’ that her family was delighted to have the letters back.

One of the letters written by Mary Dixon in 1910.

One of the letters written by Mary Dixon in 1910.

On Saturday, at Clontarf Castle, she was accompanied by Mary McGaver Dixon, the wife of the late Colm Dixon who was Mary Dixon’s nephew, and Susan Dixon, the daughter of Colm Dixon.

“It was Michael Campion who heard the story on the Joe Duffy Show,” she said. “He must have a great memory for names because I have my own site on genealogical research and I mentioned Mary Asswad in it. He got in touch and asked if I knew anything about Mary Asswad and I told him that, yes, she was my grandmother’s first cousin.”

Aoife revealed that the Dixon family had all lived interesting lives.

“There were three sisters and all of them were very highly educated,” she said. “Mary studied English Literature and became a librarian, her sister Eileen was one of the first lady doctors to be qualified in Ireland and Rita was also university educated. One of their brothers became Attorney General and the other an engineer.

“They were feisty, strong women, who had their own opinion about things, often slightly unusual opinions.

“Their father Martin was very interesting. He had been a builder all of his life and, when he retired, he decided to study art. He studied sculpting under James Pearse, the father of Padraig Pearse. His work was later accepted in the Académie de Paris for exhibitions and he once had an exhibition with Grace Henry.

“From all accounts, Martin was a very interesting man and my mother was very fond of him.”

Aoife has her own memories of visiting Mary as an old lady.

“I do remember Mary going to the pantomime and her sister Rita taking me to the zoo,” she said.

She revealed how Mary worked first as a governess in Spain and later moved to Paris.

Mary married Michel Asswad, an Egyptian-born barrister who eventually went into the diplomatic service. She moved back to Ireland after her husband’s death.

Mary and her sister Rita ended up living together in Sorrento Terrace. Rita and her husband had returned home by ship from India and her husband had taken ill on board and died shortly afterwards.

Aoife says she has no idea how the letters ended up in a skip.

However, one of the theories is that the house was sold and the letters were left in a suitcase.

“It is wonderful to have the letters back in the family,” she said.

“I have looked into my family history and there is a lot of documentation on my father’s side but less on the Dixon side.

“I look forward to reading them and seeing what is in them.

“I’m sure the letters will give a good indication about what kind of a person Mary was.”

Michael Campion, who researches local history in Dublin and was instrumental in helping locate the Dixon family, said he was delighted to be able to help reunite the letters with the family.

“We are all a bunch of strangers who came together today,” he said. “The family are very happy to have the letters restored to their rightful place.”

Richard Ryan, whose nephew Richard Kelly first uncovered the letters, said that, after so many years, it was great to see the letters back with the Dixon family. It was great to be part of this today,” he added.

Ivor Doherty reunited Aoife Fitzgerald wth the 116 year-old letters that were written by her ancestor Mary Dixon Asswad.

Ivor Doherty reunited Aoife Fitzgerald wth the 116 year-old letters that were written by her ancestor Mary Dixon Asswad.

Mary Dixon and her husband Michel Asswad.

Mary Dixon and her husband Michel Asswad.