Louis Lentin’s ‘Dear Daughter’: Christine Buckley / Goldenbridge inmates

LouIS Lentin discusses making of ‘Dear Daughter’ with interviewer from ‘Vatican Crimes’.

SYNOPSIS OF DEAR DAUGHTER (A) – Louis Lentin

A Dublin woman’s search for her parents exposes abuse in Goldenbridge Orphanage.

“I wanted to find my parents and kill them” Christine Buckley reflects at the opening to Dear Daughter. This documentary allowed Christine Buckley and other women to tell of the physical and mental abuse they were subjected to while in care at the Sisters of Mercy orphanage at Goldenbridge Dublin in the late 1950s and early 196’s.

Christine Buckley’s birth was the result of an affair between a married Dublin woman and visiting Nigerian student. At the age of three weeks she was given up for fostering. Having been in a number of foster homes at the age of four Christine Buckley was sent to Goldenbridge, an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy.

Much of the first half of the documentary concentrates on the memories of growing up in Goldenbridge. Director Louis Lentin uses dramatisations to illustrate the memories of the women. He also has the women re-enact things they did in the orphanage as children now as grown women. In one scene the women are shown making rosary beads as they tell how they were under pressure as children to meet a quota of making sixty sets of beads a day.

The accounts of the physical and mental cruelty the children endured are truly shocking. Tales of beatings, scaldings and infants strapped to potties do not make this an easy documentary to watch. One woman recalls how she broke a statue of the Virgin Mary while playing with another child. As her punishment she was made stand overnight in the pose of the statue she had damaged.

The second half of the documentary concentrates on Christine Buckley’s search for her parents. Christine left Goldenbridge and having completed her leaving certificate she went to Drogheda to study nursing. She married in 1977 and after an illness in 1983 she began the long search for the truth about her parents. When she finally traces her mother, her image for years of what this reconciliation would be like is shattered. Christine Buckley’s mother does not want to know her. As Christine Buckley says, “There was nothing about her I recognised. I had looked forward to this day and I thought that we would be able to become friends, and I thought we would be able to have many an hour sipping coffee in Bewelys… as I looked at this woman I knew it could never be like this.”

To trace her father Christine needed her mother’s permission for his name to be released. A year after meeting her mother permission for the name to be released was granted. After another search her father was traced back to his home in Nigeria where he is now a doctor. The first letter Christine received from him opened with the words ‘Dear daughter’ which gives the documentary its title.” End.

(B) At The Sisters’ of Mercy. (Irish Times, Saturday, 24 February 1996, by Eddie Holt).

“Dear Daughter is a fascinating yet at times difficult to watch documentary. The pain that memories of Goldenbridge have for the women at that time is there for the viewers to see. If there is a small quibble over the style it is that the dramatisations are awkward at times and jar the story. This is particularly true towards the end when Christine her husband and children act out some of her memories.

As almost a postscript the last couple of minutes of the documentary have Sister Helen O’Donoghue, the current Provincial Leader of the Sisters of Mercy expressing sorrow for things that happened in the past. Dear Daughter had huge audience figures in Ireland. It was broadcast at a time when Ireland as a country was beginning to uncover some dark secrets about how people in trust in our society had abused that trust.

“I wanted to find my parents and kill them,” said Christine Buckley, “for every ounce of pain that I suffered because of them.”

You could hardly blame her. Abandoned in 1950, aged four, to a Dublin orphanage run by Sisters of Mercy, she encountered sisters of sadism instead. Dear Daughter, shown on RTE on Thursday night, was one of the most harrowing, but most important, home produced programmes of the year.

It was screened just when the Catholic clergy thought it was safe to get back into PR and at a time when stories about paedophile priests do not shock as they did even as recently as a year or two ago. But another type of monster from Holy Ireland was exposed the psycho nun who would shine a thick stick to beat the children in her care until they had to be hospitalised. The shining suggested a pride in her work a sense of vocation gladly undertaken and dutifully fulfilled.

The catalogue of alleged abuses and it has not been contradicted by the order was horrific. Babies, six and eight months old, were strapped, Dying Rooms style, to potties all day with the result that their rectums would collapse. Older children were locked in a dungeon like furnace room for days on end. Many of the children were so hungry that they used to steal carrots and lettuce from the orphanage’s pet guinea pigs and rabbits.

They worked too making rosary beads, by hand. The wire would cut through at the top joint of the index finger on the holding hand. The children bled, but still had to meet a quota of 600 beads per child per day or face a thrashing. It was, quite simply, slave labour and it was hard not to wonder how many well intentioned, plenary indulgence seeking prayers, pieties and penances were mouthed out and counted out on such bloody beads.

For that was the context. As Catholic Ireland devoutly fell to its knees, prayer to shivering prayer and all that, Catholic Ireland was, we know, sexually and physically abusing children on a massive scale. Christine Buckley was once beaten so badly by the unidentified Sister Sadist of the Shining Stick that she had to get about 100 stitches in her leg. On another occasion, perhaps too tired from walking up a flight of stairs, Stick just poured a kettle of boiling water over 10 year old Christine’s right thigh.

There was psychological torture too, of course. The children (known, in the Auschwitz tradition, only by numbers) had to hold up their soiled underwear for inspection they were regularly made stay awake until the early hours of the morning and always, there was the knowledge that violence was on its way. This was state sponsored terrorism, alright, for the State had handed control to the Catholic Church, which, in turn, either would not or could not control the fundamentalist psychos in its midst.

Without doubt there were individual aberrants who took pleasure in dehumanising children. But within the Church and within the larger society, there was a plain hatred of disadvantaged children which allowed the nutters to flourish. At the core of a lot of these abuse scandals is a way of thinking and of viewing the world which will not just fall away, even though it would actually be in the interests of Church power for this to happen.

Even the offer by Sister Helena O’Donoghue, current provincial of the Sisters of Mercy to arrange counselling for orphanage victims with another Sister of Mercy, shows this fundamental gulf in world view. Sister O’Donoghue’s offer was, it’s only fair to believe, well intentioned. But clearly she cannot understand that reparation requires taking cognizance of the terms of the wronged party, rather than assuming you know best yourself. Either the Church doesn’t want to, or cannot get this idea straight.

Produced and directed by Louis Lentin Dear Daughter was powerful television. As docu-drama a format which becomes riskier in direct proportion to the sensitivity of the subject matter it worked well. It, was though, really two programmes (a) the orphanage and (b) the subsequent quest of Christine Buckley (despite an obstacle course that could have been designed by John Major) to find her natural parents.

The quest would have made a fine programme in itself, but such was the power of the orphanage story that it paled by comparison. Christine Buckley was number 89 in the Goldenbridge orphanage. Ann Armstrong was 139 Julie Cooney was 161 Sheila Doyle was 29 Bernadette Fahy was 138 Caroline Hunt was 57 Kathleen O’Neill was 95. We all know there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, more where they came from all products of the tender mercies of Holy Ireland.” End

I talked with Louis Lentin and his wife Ronit late last year at their house. The latter who is Jewish, got a lot of hassle from various sources after the making of ‘Dear Daughter’. I was asked to keep in touch with them. Louis e-mailed me several times. He has a copy of Dear daughter for me. I must make it my business to collect it some day soon.

I was number 155 when I initially went to Goldenbridge. However, after being yanked away from a host family after ten months from their humble home in Boyne St. Off Westland Row, Dublin, I was transported back to Goldenbridge and given the number 39. That number stayed with me throughout my incarceration period at the institution. It is added to Goldenbridgeinmate39…the name of this humble learning journal.

‘Dear Daughter’ programme was broadcast by RTE on 22 February 1996

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