Ireland's Child Care Institutions during the 20th. Century. Fo'T: The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

My memories of beatings, intimidation and fear

As the Sisters of Mercy made a public apology recently at the Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse to those whose childhoods were spent in the St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Dundalk, one woman has spoken out on her years in the orphanage. The 57 year old nurse, who now lives in London, was placed in the orphanage when she was just six months old and remained there until she was sixteen. “My memories consist mainly of unhappiness, beatings, intimidation and fear,” says Fiona (not her real name), her voice still betraying the devastating effects of her experience. The beatings I received as a child were horrific, regular, on the most sensitive body parts, and for no reason at all. I was an innocent child, like my colleagues, but they found things to beat us for, like standing out of line. I witnessed other children beaten because they wet their bed or could not talk properly. A memory persists of a baby coming in and because she cried during the rosary from missing her mother, she was walloped across the face.”

She accepts that not all the nuns were guilty of abuse. “There were three or four nice nuns, but they were in the minority.” Fiona says that while the children grew accustomed to the physical abuse, they never forgot the emotional abuse. I was told from a very early age that my mother was a dirty woman and that’s why I was in the orphanage. We were the product of sex, we were evil,” she recalls. “The Nuns were supposed to be helping society, and should not have been frowning on anyone or abusing children. We were the victims but they made us feel like they were doing us a favour. They gave us no love, care or attention.”

As acknowledged by a representative of the Mercy order at the public inquiry, St. Joseph’s orphanage was an unsuitable building for children, with inadequate heating. Fiona has abiding memories of the children being sent outside in all weather, even the depths of winter. “Our clothing was totally inadequate and we would huddle together for warmth and then if the nuns saw you huddling up against a colleague, you’d get a wallop.” Even when they went to school in Realt na Mara, Fiona says the children from the orphanage were treated differently, and were “systematically picked on and beaten by most of the nuns. I can vividly recall some of the other children asking me ‘why do they keep on beating you?’ Those of us who were illegitimate got a rougher deal as the nuns were fully aware that we had no one to turn to. Yes, we took it all and said nothing, but who could we have told, who would listen to us, we were the nobodies of society.”

Fiona says her only good memories from childhood are of being taken out twice a year by local organisations. “They treated us as children and with kindness.”

She admits that things started to change slowly for the better when she was around fourteen, but by then her self-esteem was low and she had an inbuilt fear and mistrust of anyone in authority. “However, my two years at the Technical School were a safe haven during the day from the physical and emotional abuse.” When she turned sixteen, she had to leave the orphanage and went first to Dublin and then to London. “A lot of girls would have gone to work on farms, but I knew I didn’t want that as I had done enough rubbing and scrubbing and slavery in the orphanage. When I left Dundalk, I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to do. I had no education, didn’t know the value of money and had no social skills.”

She has found that the best way to survive what she had experienced was to put it behind her, not to think about it. “When I was younger I wouldn’t let anyone know where I was from. I had no sense of identity, had no mother or father, brother or sisters, so I told lies, lots of lies, as I didn’t want to be humiliated ever again.” Fiona was determined to take control of her life from then on. “I had to strive and strive. I worked very very hard for what I got.” She qualified as a nurse, got married and raised a family. “I don’t want to live in the past. I’ve tried to put it behind me and I hope I have peace of mind.” She is, she believes, lucky to have carved out the life she has. “Others have not been so lucky. Some people never got over what happened to them,” she says, adding that one friend from her orphanage days still has nightmares about her experience. Fiona says that the children from the orphanage weren’t encouraged to keep in touch with each other when they left. “We were never told where people had gone although as the years have gone by, I’ve made contact with more and more people who were at the orphanage.” Fiona began investigations to discover who her mother was about ten years ago. After an exhaustive search she found out that she had a brother. He too had spent his childhood in an institution. “He was in Artane and was terribly abused.” Her brother had also sought escape from his past in England and lives in London. The two are in regular contact and Fiona says he was delighted that she had found out information on where they came from.

While her anger at what happened to them is still raw, she welcomes the fact people are at last beginning to realise what happened in institutions such as St. Joseph’s. “No one knew what was going on - it stopped at the four walls,” she says. “I would like people to know of the horrific abuse which occurred and that it could never happen again. The Nuns were being paid to look after us yet what happened was child abuse - if it happened nowadays they would be prosecuted.”