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.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Very First Christmas I Remember.

I was probably eight years old and had being placed, by the nuns, with a family in Blackrock, Co. Dublin for the holiday period. The family's name was Windass, and Mrs Windass was the mother of a new born baby, Christopher.

Even now I think of how awesome a thing it was that they would open their home to me for Christmas when they had a little baby to look after. It couldn't have been an easy thing - even though I was a very timid eight year old. I would stand to attention when anyone walked into a room, I'd even stand to attention when I was answering any question put to me. I would sit ramrod straight on the couch or chair. In fact it was their Aunt who showed me how an eight year old boy should be behaving at Christmas and at any other time. She showed me how to slide down banisters, how to hop from chair to table to couch, how to climb trees and walls, the fun a child can have with suds and soap in the bath. How to play Hide-and-seek. Even how to have fun while washing the dishes. How to iron a shirt.

Also the civilised art of using a knife and fork and spoon as all we had in the Institutions were a tin plate, an enamel mug and a spoon.

That magic Christmas, everything, that makes Christmas magic, happened. It snowed ! I remember helping to clear the snow from the driveway using salt. Ghost stories were told in the evening around a blazing fire. Plum Pudding was served with Ice Cream - to me THAT is the most luxurious of all meals! Lemonade and Hot Chocolate was consumed. I got to visit families related to Mr and Mrs Windass. I met other children too and these children were adept and jumping and climbing and hide-and-seek.

All these people I met showed a regard for me. The family I was with made me feel loved, comfortable, important. Even though they had a new born baby to look after they managed to make me feel I was the centre of attention. I feel I was part of everything they did that magic Christmas.

I remember being "surprised" by an Irish Red Setter - I believe this was the first time I ever saw a dog - and I ran screaming. It loped after me in the street it's ears and tail flopping all over the place. I was sobbing and shaking with fright and Mrs Windass calmed me down with cuddles and assurances. I wanted to stay in that embrace for ever. I remember reading the Mutt & Jeff cartoons in the Sunday Papers and Mr Windass rooting out old editions of the papers to get past cartoons and the way he messed my hair and smiled as I read out and laughed at those cartoons.

I remember asking millions of questions about this and that AND receiving answers. All simple acts of kindness - but do people realise how much this affects a young child?

Acts of Kindness.
Shown towards a small curious child.
Individual attention of a loving nature.

And Santa managed to get in on the act too. Presents were exchanged. I remember being taken by their Aunt to Clerys in O'Connell Street to buy presents. She gave me money to buy presents for Mr and Mrs Windass. I remember buying a mirror and a necktie for them. But Santa was only one part of this Christmas - not by any means the major element.

Sure there were "Christmases" in the Institutions when I was younger - these involved going to Masses, smelling incense burning, saying rosaries, practicising ceremonies with little statuettes and constantly praying. And on Christmas day we would each be given a toy to play with for a few minutes - between prayers of course. All of us were made to stand in a corridor and then one by one we were taken into a room with box shelves on the wall. We were told to pick a toy from one of these and then we were allowed to play with it for a few minutes. I remember vividly getting a Dinky red London Bus one Christmas to play with - Magic !

Another Christmas I was given a book with pictures - one picture stood out, it was a huge American automobile with a ton of chrome. So I had a little experience of Christmas, and to me it involved praying, religious ceremonies and once a red bus or a book to play with. And in these Institutions it is said that individual attention of a loving nature was impossible because there were too many children and too few members of the religious orders - yet this didn't stop individual attention of a violent nature by these same religious orders.

Beatings and abuses were a constant in those places - either group punishments or individual acts of cruelty. And when these orders give their excuses AND their denials it brings the rage welling up in me. All the acts of cruelty committed against children in those places - do these orders realise how much they affected the children?

Acts of Cruelty.
Shown towards small children.
Individual attention of a violent nature.

And one of these orders had their chance, in front of judges, to have their say against me. To deny my truth. And they remained silent - sitting throughout behind their legal people.

Cocooned from the truth.

It seems I am breaking the law with my little Christmas story - a few days in the life of a child from the Institutions - I could risk a hefty fine and imprisonment for what I've written. But NOT writing about this one Magic Christmas would betray Mr & Mrs Windass, it would deny their kindness and love to me. I was not allowed by this religious order to have any further contact with these loving people so I have never being able to tell them how much of the Magic of that Christmas has stayed with me. How much their simple acts of kindness affected me.

God be good to both of you and all those in your family.

Happy Christmas ..... and Thanks.