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Farmhouse secret Shocking tale of boy raised in a henhouse remembered 65 years on

Her badly deformed son Kevin was unable to speak and only made hen-like sounds.

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Kevin Halfpenny

Kevin Halfpenny

Kevin Halfpenny

Sixty-five years ago, a sordid secret was revealed to an unbelieving Irish public.

Acting on a tip-off, police discovered a young boy living in a henhouse where his mother had kept him since birth.

Margaret Halfpenny - a widowed mother of five from outside Crossgar, Co Down - was arrested and later jailed for cruelty.

Her badly deformed son Kevin was unable to speak and only made hen-like sounds.

The shocking tale later fired the imagination of Ireland's future Nobel Laureate poet Seamus Heaney. And writer Bernard McClafferty, made a short film based on the sad story.

But for over seven decades, the identity of the child's father has remained a closely guarded secret.

This week Sunday World reporter Hugh Jordan revisited the scene of the Crossgar farmhouse secret.

And for the first time, he reveals the full shocking story of the Henhouse Boy.

World War II had been raging for two years when Margaret Halfpenny married her farmer husband in 1941.

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The henhouse where Kevin spent seven years

The henhouse where Kevin spent seven years

The henhouse where Kevin spent seven years

She was 30 years old and the couple settled on a small parcel of land at Broughclogh, a few miles outside Crossgar in Co Down.

Almost immediately they started a family.

But when her husband died suddenly six years later, Margaret took over the farm and she continued to raise her three girls and a boy on her own. The eldest was five and they youngest was just a few months old.

Margaret let out most of the land to neighbouring farmers. And to make ends meet, she kept chickens in two henhouses a short distance from the small farmhouse.

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During the summer of 1956, local boys were playing hide and seek near the Halfpenny farm.

One of them, 11-year-old Desmond Brennan, had strayed near the henhouses and he decided to look inside one of them. As he peered through a window which was covered on the inside with jute sacking, he noticed it move.

And to his amazement, he saw a pair of eyes staring back at him. The diminutive figure inside - he was unable to tell if it was a boy or a girl - was naked and it had long matted hair.

Desmond hurried away. But he later told his friend, 13-year-old Joseph Carsen, and together they revisited the henhouse.

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Hugh Jordan  in Crossgar

Hugh Jordan in Crossgar

Hugh Jordan in Crossgar

When Desmond knocked the window, two eyes suddenly appeared again. At first Joseph thought it was a dog, but he quickly realised it was a wee boy half his age.

The boys made a third visit to the henhouse with other friends. And when they spoke to the child inside they realised he couldn't understand a word they were saying.

The boy had long claw-like nails and his legs were badly bowed due to lack of sunlight. He moved around in a hen-like manner and he occasionally made sounds similar to a chicken.

As they left to go home, one of the boys thought he saw a tear cascade down the face of the child staring at them.

Later that evening one of the boys told his father what he'd seen and the matter was immediately reported to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Sergeant John Cross was given the unenviable task of visiting the Halfpenny farmhouse to make further inquiries.

The police officer found Margaret at home. But in a henhouse a short distance across a field, he also found a little boy.

Margaret told Sgt Cross the boy - whom she named Kevin Malachy Christopher Halfpenny - was her seven-year-old son. The child had been born in 1949, two years after her husband died.

Mrs Halfpenny also told the policeman she brought Kevin into the house at bedtime, but he didn't believe her.

He immediately arrested Mrs Halfpenny on suspicion of cruelty to a child. Sgt Cross enlisted the help of a priest who removed the child from the henhouse and placed him in the care of the Sisters of Nazareth at an orphanage on Belfast's Ormeau Road.

On Friday September 14 1956, Margaret Halfpenny (45) appeared at Crossgar Magistrates Court. Magistrate John McRoberts remanded her on her own bail of £200 to appear again on September 27. At her next appearance, Margaret was charged with ill-treating, neglecting and exposing her son Kevin in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to his health. She denied the charge.

At her trial at Downpatrick Quarter Sessions on October 31 1956, Margaret was represented by Basil Kelly QC, who would become Northern Ireland's Lord Chief Justice.

When the prosecution dropped the ill-treatment charge, Margaret pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of neglect.

A Dr Gailey told the court he had examined the child and that as a result of him being kept in a henhouse he would never be normal. The child suffered from rickets and he was unable to walk because of malnourished bones.

The doctor added that as a boy of seven, Kevin should have weighed around 50lbs, but in fact he weighed just 28lbs. The child's growth was also stunted and he stood just 30 inches in height.

When she appeared again for sentencing in early November, the public gallery was packed.

The judge ordered Margaret to stand up and highlighted the difference in the love and affection she had shown her other children and her attitude towards Kevin.

Judge Hanna told her: "You deprived him of something God gave him, sunlight. You also deprived him of something the state was prepared to give for nothing, medical attention."

He sent her to jail for nine months.

Kevin Halfpenny remained in the care of the nuns, living in various religious establishments in Belfast and Warrenpoint. With proper food and medical treatment he responded well.

But as the story faded from public consciousness, the Sisters eventually arranged for Kevin to begin a new life in South Africa. It is believed his name was changed.

Sister Irene Maher of Nazareth House in Cape Town remembers: "I only met Kevin, the child in question, later in his life. The Sister who admitted him into Nazareth House at the time related how the boy perched on his cot and cawed like a hen all through the first few week of his admission.

"I saw him grow up, responding to love, enjoying music, but at the same time requiring a lot of medical treatment, especially to his legs."

A retired nurse who spoke to the Sunday World recalled attending to the medical needs of Margaret Halfpenny in later life at the Downshire Hospital in Downpatrick. She said: "Mrs Halfpenny was a very nice person - but she suffered from a lot of medical conditions."

When the Sunday World visited Margaret Halfpenny's derelict former farmhouse home this week, there was no trace of the henhouse.

But extensive inquiries in the surrounding area eventually revealed a piece in the Henhouse Boy jigsaw which has been missing for over 70 years.

We learned that after the death of her husband in 1947, Margaret Halfpenny began a relationship with a younger man who was to be the father of Kevin. That man, whose name is known to the Sunday World, died in Crossgar several years ago.

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