Identity pertaining to industrial *school* survivors

Most survivors of industrial schools at one time or another in all probability would have had to have contacted some form of government tracing agency to find out who they were by natural birth. Having being incarcerated at very young ages, and generally not being told anything about themselves by the religious is a painful legacy that they’d have had to contend with throughout their adult lives. There are countless survivors who would not have been lucky enough to find out who their mothers were let alone their biological fathers.

The religious in their respective industrial schools did untold damage by not telling child inmates anything about themselves. For example: from the day I entered Goldenbridge, to almost the day I left, there was never any personal conversation discussed with a single human being as to the wherewithal of my identity. I was told before leaving the institution that I once had a mother, but that she was dead. Period. The word mother meant nothing, or if it did, it would have had to have been to do with yearly films such as the very popular ‘Old Mother Riley’ that were shown in the rec [wreck] hall. I also remember a jam = untrained teacher – once telling me on the corridor that “your mother was a lady” when I was approximately 11 years old. Well, I’m really only hazarding a guess as to how old I may have been at the time. I never knew my age, let alone my name, hardly, as inmates never celebrated birthdays, or were told how old they were, or called by their names. Unless they were pets of those whom some workers took a sole interest. We were at all times referred to by our numbers, which were called out every single day and sown into the inside hems of our clothing. We referred to people who took us out of Goldenbridge for the day, weekends or holidays, as ladies, irrespective of their gender. Sounds odd. Did your lady come to visit you on Sunday? I recall people being used in the vernacular as well. Did your people come to visit you? People was used in the singular. Which springs to mind, that mother and father were also adjectives used when we hollered them out after being ferociously beaten by the nuns with a polished bark of a tree whilst standing barefooted on a cold landing for hours on end, or with a thick wooden hand brush, or even with a deck-brush on the backs by a certain vicious minder. We would place our hands underneath armpits whilst intermittently crying out, ‘O Mammy, O Daddy,’ knowing that there were more lashes coming from where the last swishing blows cruelly derived. Remember that most of us did not know the meaning of the words, Mammy or Daddy, they were words entirely synonymous with beatings, and no way connected to the word Granny or Aunty Mary, which were associated specifically with one’s monthly bodily fluids. They were words associated with extreme shame and guilt. Bad words. I was always made to hold out my bad hand with the burned fingers. If I offered my left hand, it was refused by the nasty hurtful sadistic nun. I learned from my mother [whom I found out as an adult that the latter wasn’t even dead, but fully alive and kicking] that violence was never used on me prior to my incarceration in Goldenbridge. There wasn’t a violent drop in my mother, or anyone belonging to me, which, I found out as an adult. I too would be similar. I’ve never raised a hand to a human being in my entire adult life. I did, though, as a child when I fought for scraps of food thrown into the yard, but, I was mostly fighting off girls who had first initiated the survival attacks. I worked as an au-pair in Switzerland and minded a beautiful baby boy. I absolutely adored the ground he walked upon. I also looked after a child in Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan from the age of six months to six years and never once was there a cross word between us. I saw the child’s life as being very precious and absolutely adored it with every part of my being. The parents in return were so amazing to me and never forgot to give me beautiful greeting cards, etc on special occasions. They fed into something unbeknown to themselves, that was very therapeutic. Cards, etc, meant acknowledgment of my existence. It gave me a form of identity. I know that I have a certain kind of capacity to bond with people who make me feel welcome, but find myself being very ambivalent and holding back, if they should thus want to keep me at arms length. It can be very puzzling. It’s ironic really that some people should find themselves afraid of survivors – who’ve been the most hard done by, by society – because, by the same token, it could turn out that the same people who are afraid, are probably in reality more inclined towards violent behaviour. Just saying. Survivors do have righteous anger, and can verbalise it, and I guess this is what people are mostly afraid of – the truth.

I was fortunate enough (albeit only for a short while, but nevertheless, sufficient enough to have made an impact) to have some kind of concept of the word Aunty, as the mother of the Boyne’s from Boyne St., who took me out on licence from Goldenbridge was referred to by that name. I honestly don’t know who told me to call her aunty Dinah. Although, granny would have been more suitable, but then who wants to be called granny, anyway. It kind of makes one feel ancient. Not that there should be anything wrong with being a granny. It’s an honour. Some survivors of my era were grandmothers in their forties and great-grandmothers at fifty-five and less. So there. They’re mostly proud of belonging. Some, though, have sadly never connected with either the children they bore or those of their children. I do know, though, that with each child and grand-child a lot of survivors have felt a more stronger need to know their own parentage. Think chemicals released at those times that trigger off bonding behaviour. Oxytocin, otherwise known as the love hormone rubs off, so to speak. The survivors can get extremely disturbed at not knowing their own beginnings. They can also become very emotional / ambivalent, and ask many awkward questions about themselves, i.e., about how their own mothers could have walked away from them as babies and infants. They can see before them the divinity of frailty and dependence in the guise of little beings. It absolutely torments them to the core of their beings. They begin for the first time to identify with the child in themselves, that they closed off so long ago, as they knew that that was the only way to survive as adults. Pretense Pretence. Pretence. Attachment loss early on in life, sends survivors to the abyss of their deepest anguish and pain.  The need to know ones roots is a gargantuan thing in a survivors life. It’s such an insatiable need that it can gnaw away at them for their whole lives, and make them very restless, especially when they see other families bonding with each other everywhere they look. I know from my own experience when I resided at Medway St. hostel, London, in the seventies, that there was only a handful of us left when it came to Easter and Christmas holidays. I would cry myself to sleep and not want to face the cold friendless – no family – world. I hated it with a venom seeing young people being treated so special by their families when they came to visit them, it brought me back to Goldenbridge where I daily had to observe the pets being mollycoddled and not being on the receiving end of anyone’s affection. I see the whole thing  being replayed and replayed like a broken record throughout my whole life. I usually always come out the very worst, as people do not want to be around emotionally disruptive thinking people. Believe me, it can be soul destroying seeing other people, who already have plenty of people to love them grabbing for more attention all the time. It can build up so much tension in those who are the silent observers. It can transport survivors back to the dark institutional days when they were always on the outside looking in. It can bring out the worst in survivors, who feel that they don’t possess enough warmth and charm and education to stand their corner. The former always win out. Whenever I come across people on line who appear to never shut up about their families and appear to talk about them whenever they have a captive audience of mainly men, who wouldn’t even be discussing same, I get so nauseated. They can be so out of synch. So manipulative. Perhaps too, like survivors they are very insecure people. I know the wider world is mostly interested in its own children, when all is said and done at the end of the day. The wider world is also not mostly interested in disturbed needy survivors. No matter how much people may come across as being understanding, there can be that holding back of truly wanting to know and meet and build up friendships with survivors. Too many risks. That’s why a lot of them end up being dependent on the social services, and the church, as there are not enough people who would want to invest in them long-term and help them out of their emotional quagmires. Survivors are well known to buy friendship, which is such a sad indictment on their pathetic lives. They give inappropriate gifts to people, as that would have been the only avenue open to them to receive some form of friendship when they wanted to jell with the world when they left their respective institutions. They know that they don’t have emotional and educational abilities to build friendships in the normal way. So they unconsciously try to buy friendships. They’re aware that those who grew up in normal environments with families and education, are the ones who go on to rule the world and hold it together. They’re aware that they’ll be left behind, because they don’t have the communication skills to keep up with the world. One only has to look at the Internet to see the way friendships are formed. They’re formed by being able to share with the world in writing their thoughts, their knowledge and every now and again preen themselves by letting the rest of the world know how intelligent they are. They are reciprocated most of the time, as it pays to interact with those with letters after their names as opposed to those with only past incarceration numbers. They can appear be so full of Über confidence, because they appear to have it all when it comes to IDENTITY. For example; they can have experiences of mothers, fathers; brothers; sisters, spouses, in-laws. They can also have jobs, university education, houses, and a lot of friends, and by god, they’re surely the ones whom everyone will want to be seen with in blogosphere circles. These are the people who will win out when it comes to friendships. The world wants winners – not losers who have bad images of themselves due to lack of identity. Look at the White House and the image of family that is portrayed to rule America. It pays to be part of a family, god-dammit. The world and the blogosphere is your oyster if you stem from a happy family life, as it shows in your nature. Not so, for survivors who are so laden down with emotional handicaps, that they struggle so hard to learn to even write in an inarticulate manner. Survivors mostly don’t having writing capacities, so they don’t get to move in stimulating circles, as those who need to be stimulated invariably find them boring. Boring. Boring. Boring. Let’s be honest, who would want to be seen hanging about with someone with the only title to their name, Goldenbridgeinmate39. The number signifying child-imprisonment one. Lack of identity, I think, is mostly detrimental to the procreation of the human species from the perspective of a lot of survivors. Nature has its own way of dealing with it, by flushing out those who suffer with lack of identity by not allowing them the propensity to reproduce by virtue of the fallout of their own lack of identity. That’s my theory, anyway. I must google to see if there’s any info out there that will confirm my own thinking on the matter. Think survival of the fittest. Think attachment loss. Think loss of identity.

While attachment styles displayed in adulthood are not necessarily the same as those seen in infancy, research indicates that early attachments can have a serious impact on later relationships. For example, those who are securely attached in childhood tend to have good self-esteem, strong romantic relationships and the ability to self-disclose to others. As adults, they tend to have healthy, happy and lasting relationships. For more information, see this article on attachment styles.

I just recently watched a video of Malala, the young Pakistani girl who was severely injured by the Taliban because she wanted an education. I noticed that Malala’s strength of character was formed by the loving father, who wanted the best for her. One can move mountains if they have been given love, and in turn, they can shout out loud in a critical; healthy; humanitarian; positive; sensible; articulate; skeptical visionary way from those mountain-tops about all the inhumanity if they’ve been given the nurturing and educational skills by their parents. Who we become in the long term stems from the love and acknowledgement we receive from parents or caring caregivers. Survivors could have aspired to have becoming the same as all those other people who are on the receiving end of more love. It replicates itself. One can’t get blood out of a stone. Or water from a dry sponge. Love begets love. Sadly a lot of survivors such as myself have lost out on love. Due to not having any proper identity or loving parents to care for us at the most crucial stages of childhood. Think Reciprocity.


What happens to children who do not form secure attachments? Research suggests that failure to form secure attachments early in life can have a negative impact on behaviour in later childhood and throughout the life. Children diagnosed with oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) frequently display attachment problems, possibly due to early abuse, neglect or trauma. Clinicians suggest that children adopted after the age of six months have a higher risk of attachment problems.

Some siblings of survivors who were adopted as wee infants have felt that they were really only servicing a demand for children in order to fill the otherwise emptiness in the childless adoptees lives. However, that is not to say that some of them did connect with the adopted parents. In fact, they did, even to the point of not necessarily wanting to find out their own biological roots. They differ in that sense from their institutional siblings who were incarcerated in industrial schools, who had no yard-stick to measure the world with where bonding was concerned. They’ve invariably gone on to have families of their own, having grown up in a family environment and reaping the benefits of a form of identity, which was undeniably lacking in survivors who grew up in industrial schools.

John Bowlby
John Bowlby
… psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, notable for his interest in child development and for his pioneering work in attachment theory 
Mary Ainsworth
Mary Ainsworth
… known for her work in early emotional attachment with “The Strange Situation” as well as her work in the development of Attachment 


In her 1970′s research, psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded greatly upon Bowlby’s original work. Her groundbreaking “Strange Situation” study revealed the profound effects of attachment on behaviour. In the study, researchers observed children between the ages of 12 and 18 months as they responded to a situation in which they were briefly left alone and then reunited with their mothers (Ainsworth, 1978).


Characteristics of Secure Attachment

    • Securely attached children exhibit distress when separated from caregivers and are happy when their caregiver returns. Remember, these children feel secure and able to depend on their adult caregivers. When the adult leaves, the child may be upset but he or she feels assured that the parent or caregiver will return.
  • When frightened, securely attached children will seek comfort from caregivers. These children know their parent or caregiver will provide comfort and reassurance, so they are comfortable seeking them out in times of need.

Characteristics of Ambivalent Attachment

  • Ambivalently attached children usually become very distressed when a parent leaves. This attachment style is considered relatively uncommon, affecting an estimated 7-15% of U.S. children. Research suggests that ambivalent attachment is a result of poor maternal availability. These children cannot depend on their mother (or caregiver) to be there when the child is in need.

Characteristics of Avoidant Attachment

  • Children with an avoidant attachment tend to avoid parents or caregivers. When offered a choice, these children will show no preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger. Research has suggested that this attachment style might be a result of abusive or neglectful caregivers. Children who are punished for relying on a caregiver will learn to avoid seeking help in the future.

Children from industrial schools were very vulnerable to sexual abuse by host families and those who adopted them. It left them very confused about the meaning of family. That’s not to say that children who biologically belong to families are not abused, as statistics reveal that most sexual abuse occurs within the family or by extended members of the family. So belonging to a family is not necessarily a bed of roses. Still and all most survivors would want to know from whence they derived, despite the nature of the beast. It has to be inbuilt in the genes. Look at the animals who want to go back to the places they came from before they die. Look at the people who go abroad who return to Ireland in their retirement years to be near the place of their ancestors before they depart this world.

I get terribly perturbed to this day when people I know very well don’t acknowledge my existence with greeting cards, or don’t call me by my name. I can hold it against them for years. It’s the selfsame scenario with other survivors. So utterly hyper-sensitive we are, that it can almost appear beyond real to a normal person. Experts were startled by the depth of agitation survivors felt around celebratory matters when they went to the centres to do studies. People should try to put themselves in survivors shoes, and try to imagine what it would have been like for them not having one’s life celebrated as a child. I usually end up cutting myself off from sending them cards, etc. It brings the worst out of me, as it triggers past memories of never having one’s life celebrated in any form. I should try to understand that they wouldn’t be expected to have any concept from where survivors are coming in relation to birthdays and special occasions. It can be very hard. They probably come from normal family backgrounds where they were most likely always acknowledged as children. They probably cannot see what the big fuss is all about. It can be detrimental to relationships with people. I’ve had huge arguments with folk, whom I would have so dearly loved to have had treasured cards from, etc. Especially those whom we deem special. I have learned though, that just because we feel they’re special does not mean that they’ll reciprocate that specialty. Survivors can have the propensity to idealise people, when in fact, the people concerned probably don’t even like said survivors. Sort of like the hero-worship syndrome. I see it online a lot of the time where once ordinary people who got a bit of fame that people suddenly want to be associated with them. Survivors have a similar hero-worship thing going on, because of lack of their own identity. Christine Buckley made sure to address this very tender birthday issue when she opened up Aislinn Centre. Every survivor is acknowledged whenever they have a birthday. They even get a birthday cake as well as a present. It always brings tears to their eyes. They feel special and acknowledged, a thing that was never afforded them as children. It must be remembered that abandonment issues always come to the fore at birthday times. I genuinely feel that if friends have your best interest at heart they would automatically be attuned to the  Über-sensitivities around celebratory times. The survivors mostly would not know their identities, so Christine would remind them on that day, ‘that well, we all grew up together, so we are the only family you would have known, despite the wretchedness of not being allowed to get close to other children, so we are your family.’ Yeah, it is family members / friends who celebrate a persons life. How I miss not getting cards from my mother and uncle. They meant the world to me. I know of survivors who got around celebration issues by sending themselves birthday and Christmas cards. It’s rather sad.

There were two survivors who grew up with me, who only discovered as adults, that they were sisters. They both shared the same surname. I think it was so cruel of the sisters of Mercy at Goldenbridge not to have revealed this information. How could they have not known that crucial information. Yeah, it’s the same type of survivor story over and over again. I find it unfathomable that the nuns were not cognisant of that fact. But then again, I know that a head nun refused to tell twins the identity of their mother and two aunts – the latter of whom were in the same religious order as herself and were her friends. The twins were denied precious knowledge of their mother for over half a century because the nun was so ashamed to reveal the truth – until she was forced to tell them their true identity. They were devastated. It brought them to the brink of immeasurable illness. Luckily, the twins encountered their mother and looked after her very well. The twins who were born out of wedlock would have been a blight on the religious mindset. Survivors of Goldenbridge who had any religious affiliations attached to them were talked about in hushes / as Gaeilge  by the religious. When some survivors went into digs after their incarceration period was up, the owners of the house were told the religious background of the survivors, the survivors told nothing. The secrecy went beyond the walls of the industrial school.

During my era, boys had to leave Goldenbridge and girls’ only industrial *schools* in general when they were ten years of age. They were sent to boys only institutions run by male clerical brothers. A survivor regaled to me that he could not differentiate between female and male, because both wore long gowns down to their feet. Relationships with sisters were henceforth severed for good in a lot of cases, judging from I’ve heard from many survivors with brothers, anyway. I didn’t have any problems, as there was no siblingship worries to contend with – given that I did not know my identity, as I was told my mother was dead at a later stage. Great sadness indeed befell those survivors who had to wave their brothers goodbye. I have images of some older girls clinging on to younger brothers in the Goldenbridge high enclosed prison yard. I’ve always been an observer of other people’s family members in Goldenbridge and even to this day, I’ve no idea of what having siblings means. I’ve got a lot to thank my belated uncle for giving me a lot of care, when he said that I was his family, he meant it, they were not just words to be bandied about with very little meaning. He was very demonstrative. I’ve had people tell me before that I was part of their family, but they were never fully demonstrative or committed, because of they were they would treat one as I was part of a family. Those survivors with siblings seemed to have fared better, identity-wise, but they also suffered in another way because they could relate to their siblings and felt their loss so strongly when they were suddenly bereft of their siblings. They didn’t become emotional thieves. Such a cruel system prevailed. The world out there concentrates on the abuse, but to split up children, who were already suffering because of loss of natural parents, was a double whammy of abuse that caused such mental and emotional pain that a lot of survivors have never recovered. Hence suicide being very prevalent amongst survivors of industrial schools.

The most luckiest survivors in the world to me are those who are not treated as almost strangers by those with whom they’ve invested a lot of energy and hope over the years. It can be horrendous and knock survivors back years, who otherwise felt they were on the road to recovery and healing in their lives when they’re told they’re part of the family unit, only to discover that that was far from the reality.

It is not uncommon for survivors who grew up not knowing their roots, and who subsequently contact family tracing services available, to not be able to comprehend the situation fully whenever they do find family members. It can be incredibly overwhelming experiences. As they do not understand the dynamics of family life. No matter how much they might want to know from where they came they have immense confusion. A lot of survivors can be loners all their lives, because the world at large has passed them by, because they are such complex human beings. It takes very special people to whom they’ll jell. They can be perpetually fraught with anxiety. They can be so frightened of the fact that one minute they have been absolutely alone in the world, and the next minute to be told that they have siblings galore. The families they discover also would not be expected to understand the complex nature of survivors. Believe me, they are different. They are very damaged people, no matter what front they might put up to please new found families. That’s not saying, though, that they should be treated with kid gloves either, it rather simply means that if people who grew up in normal families do not know the history of industrial schools and the psycho sequelae effects that they’ve had on ex-inmates, well it would be thoroughly recommended that they avail of the stuff out there in the in the public domain. That is, if they truly want to have some form of understanding of the psyches of survivors. Families too would like to think that they’re like the rest, to appease their own peace of minds, and to get on with the business of knowing their newfound relations, but it’s not as simple as that at all. It can be a very slow process, building up some kind of bond with people who’ve never connected in their lives with people because of been utterly deprived of bonding throughout their whole lives. Think also early attachment loss of parents. I know it sounds like a doom and gloom scenario here, but it’s best to be cognisant of the truth, as the truth will win out in the end. I’m playing the devil’s advocate role. I’ve been there and worn the T-shirt. Oops, am not a lover of cliches. Survivors are so used to being rejected that they can look to every nuance spoken, body language and behaviour patterns of the newfound families to see if they’re going to treat them with the same rejection that heretofore they’ve lived with. They act like frightened foxes who come out in the dark to see if they are safe. If they were told they were aunties, uncles, grand-aunties, uncles, etc, they would be clueless as to the roles that they play out in families. They can mean nothing. However that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t care about those who would be in receipt of these names, it just means that they don’t know the roles that have to be played out. They can run miles from those responsibilities, as they are so scared of family tags, that they never were afforded as children in industrial schools.


2 thoughts on “Identity pertaining to industrial *school* survivors

  1. Thank you for your comment, ER. It’s such a highly complex issue. UW was highly trained in handling psychological / emotional issues of this calibre. He had explored it with relatives, so they knew what to expect – well, I think they did, anyway. Sadly, his demise has obviously cancelled out looking in that direction for support. I’ve laid out my cards in the post, the way that I see how ‘identity’ issues affect those who were in institutional care. They’ll probably be startling to some people, but they speak the truth, as I see it, and also from the perspective of those who were in institutional care… which is all that can really matter in the long run.

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