Leo’s joy in discovering older sister  at age of 78

Leo Hallissey was stunned to receive a phone call at his home in Renvyle in December 2020, telling him he had a 93-year-old sister Ellen who lived in New York. She had spent years trying to discover her true identity, meeting similar obstacles to those faced by adopted people in Ireland. In the process, she helped change the law in her native city. Their discovery that they shared a father brought huge happiness and created family ties that have continued since Ellen’s recent death, as Leo tells JUDY MURPHY.

“I never thought at the age of 78 I would get such a gift – one I never knew existed and one of the greatest gifts I ever got.”

There’s emotion in Leo Hallissey’s voice as he sits at the kitchen table of his cosy house on the Renvyle Peninsula and recalls the phone call on St Stephen’s Day 2020 that changed his life.

That was when Waterford genealogist John Hallissey – no relation – rang with news.

“He asked me a few questions and eventually said, ‘Leo, you have a sister’.”

That made no sense to Leo. He’d been one of a family of three, but his brother and sister were dead.

He told John Hallissey he was the last of his generation. But John Hallissey knew otherwise.

“He said ‘You have a sister on the Upper East Side in New York and she’s 93’.”

That woman was Ellen Kelly Mohr who’d battled for years in New York to discover her true identity. She was in her 90s before she finally succeeded.

Two days later Leo and Ellen had a call on FaceTime, marking the beginning of a relationship that deepened and strengthened until her death, aged 97, last November.

That they shared a father came as a big surprise to Leo because the older man – also Leo – was often withdrawn and difficult. It was probably depression, his son says.

From West Cork, where his family had had drapery shops and were skilled tailors, Leo Senior had been sent to boarding school and “educated out of his own place”, his son observes.

He settled in Clarecastle in Clare where he ran a tailoring business and where Leo and his siblings were reared. Their mother, May, was a nurse and, despite suffering multiple miscarriages and the death of a child in infancy, was a tower of strength.

After the Leaving Cert, Leo trained as a primary teacher in Dublin, working in Portlaoise briefly before returning to the Capital where he spent a few wild years: “A country fella lost in the city.”

He married and had two sons, Fíachra and Oisín, with his wife before separating. Leo moved to North Connemara in 1974.

“I moved here with two kids, afraid of the dark and not sure what end of me was up.”

Pictured: Ellen and Leo when they first met in person in November 2021 in New York. Leo had  learned of her existence in December 2020 and two days later they connected on Facetime and ‘instantly clicked’.

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