Thomas Mahon, from Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow, was one of the new pupils who came to Cabra in March 1871. He had been deaf from birth and, at the age of seven, was admitted as the 531st pupil. He was regarded as an exceptionally intelligent boy with a particular ability for drawing. On completion of his education, the Superior Br. P.M. Wickham, wanted to keep him in the school to learn the trades of gardener and kitchen servant. However, Thomas teacher Br. Matthew Reddington, recognised his artistic talent and, in 1880, encouraged him to go to the studio of an an tutor in Hawkins Street, Dublin to study sketching and painting.
After some time, Thomas was offered employment as an assistant teacher by Br. Reddington. He was asked to paint illustrations on charts for a graded language course for use in the classrooms. The chans were painted in brilliant colours on a batik black canvas background, thus enabling every detail to be clearly seen by the pupils. The illustrations were used in language lessons on the use of verbs, nouns, prepositions, and so on.
Around this time the Committee of the Catholic Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (CIDD) was desperate to collect money for both schools in Cabra to cover school expenses, to pay salaries, and to extend the buildings. In 1884 the Committee asked John J. Roe to go to the United State of America on a fund raising tour. Roe was accompanied by Thomas Mahon, whose artistic skills were likely to attract an audience. They took the train from Dublin to Cork and from there set sail for New York. On arrival they must have seen the same view of the big city witnessed by many Irish emigrants. According to the Report of the ClDD for 1885, the two visitors travelled to Boston, Halifax, Florida, Texas, New Orleans, Colorado and other places on their fund raising business. While John Roe gave a talk about St. Joseph’s School for Deaf boys and the need to build new facilities, Thomas Mahon entertained the audience by drawing sketches of animals, famous people, scenery and ponraits on a large blackboard.
During their tour Thomas met six Cabra ex-pupils who contributed their hard-earned dollars to the CIDD fund. Their names can be seen on the list of donors in the Report for 1885. Thomas and John Roe must have laboured very hard because their tour continued for many long months as they travelled around the eastern States, keeping records of the names of donors and their contributions. Unfortunately, before they returned home, John Roe died suddenly in New York. So Thomas, a young deaf man on his own, was faced with the responsibility of bringing the remains back to Ireland for burial in Dublin.
Later, Thomas returned to the States, accompanied by a new collector Martin I. Prendergast, to complete the fund raising tour. The CIDD annual recon for 1885 tells us that a total of 14,000 dollars was raised. The funds were used to build a new west wing in St. Joseph’s to accommodate classrooms on the ground floor with a chapel above which were completed in 1890. During his stay in the United States. Thomas must have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in New York where he surely saw and studied the beautiful Ancient Egyptian paintings and artefacts on display. He must have absorbed the details and the designs that were later to appear in his own work The character of his drawings has a lot in common with hieroglyphics.
Thomas Mahon painted many hundreds of colourful pictograms on eighty charts. The pictures were completed in oil paint on thin, smooth, black canvasfpasted onto thick, ribbed linen and attached to wooden poles. The chans measure three feet wide by two feet eleven inches deep. Metal labels, from A1 to A6 and continuing up to H6, were screwed on the poles to indicate the order of the charts. He also painted hundreds of small,separate pictures of children, adults, toys, and numbers, an A to Z index, letters and words in neat script, as well as pictures to illustrate aspects of arithmetic, the calendar and the seasons.