Avenues to the Institutions: Discovery stories [Pt 2]

Avenues to the Institutions: Discovery stories. [Pt. 2]

Posted on July 23, 2013

I was just one of thousands of Reformatories and Industrial ‘Schools‘ survivors’ who had made bleak institutional past discoveries via the Freedom of Information Act 1997 (FOI). The information had been requested by the Commission to Inquire into Institutional Child Abuse (CICA) Investigative and Private committees and the subsequent Redress Board (RIRB) from those appearing before same.

Survivors were lucky in one sense because solicitors had expert staff who were prepared for what lay ahead of them. The staff handled survivors extraordinarily well. So empathetic in their dealings, which was of the utmost importance to traumatised beings. The staff were very mindful and vigilant of who lay opposite them, as they slowly and methodically guided survivors, at their own emotional pace through the traumatic details in their records. Close relatives and counsellors were allowed to sit in on appointments. I did not have anyone with me, as I felt secure in my dealings with the solicitor. I had built up a rapport over a long period. So too did many other institutional counterparts. That’s not to say, though, that I was resilient when the reality of the details in my file sunk in, as I had stepped out into the street and was thoroughly alone. The intensity of the words spoken in the office repeatedly befuddled and exacerbated me. The solitariness weighed me down, as the actuality was brought home to bear of that of having no support system to turn in time of great need. But the truth had to be told. I could live far better with it than the unknown, which I wouldn’t wish on my own worst enemy. I knew what it was like to have no identity for nearly 30 years.
The gruelling stories about how they came to be in the Reformatories and Industrial ‘Schools’ were spoon-fed them in dribs and drabs over a long period, so as not to overwhelm them too much.
However, it was still excruciating for survivors. Some of them had to endure listening intently to horrendous details in their files, whilst trying to remain focussed and calm.
From having listened to many survivors recounting stories at the time, I know that many simply could not handle the stress associated with the new findings, and absolutely freaked out in their respective solicitors’ offices. Some survivors just could not stomach the contents discovered therein, and therefore reacted very badly by storming out of the solicitors’ offices in question. Some even slammed doors hard behind them, vowing that they never wanted to revisit the solicitors’ offices which had revealed such terrifying secret stuff pertaining to their past lives.
Some found themselves banging on the tables with their fists, yelling at solicitors, or maybe even bursting into tears. Some just went numb and silent because they found file contents so unfathomable and bizarre. Some became stupefied and giggled out of sheer shock at astounding new discovery revelations. Some survivors simply switched off or spaced out; never letting anything sink in because it was too unbelievable. I know that one particular solicitor who had specifically dealt with male survivor clients had kept a very wide berth between them. He had a gigantic table that separated them for safety. The RIRB office adopted the same procedure.
There was also a case of a male survivor who had wanted to turn the table over in a solicitor’s office, because he was vehemently vexed and frustrated at listening to such devastating news recorded in his files. Some just wanted to get at the documents and tear them to shreds. The aggression was fiercely palpable. The religious had denied them rights to family details as children, and the consequences of that despicable act was played out a lifetime later in solicitors’ offices throughout Ireland, and in countries, as far afield as AustraliaU.S.A., New Zealand and Continental Europe where survivors fled or emigrated to out of sheer shame and humiliation in the immediate aftermath of the ultimate disposal from their respective Reformatories and Industrial ‘Schools’.
Some survivors became suicidal. There was an incident of a very disturbed survivor who jumped into the River Liffey and drowned after RIRB dealings with a solicitor. I know that many other survivors felt they had wanted to do a similar act after hearing incomprehensible documented family details.
Can you just imagine, that for the first time in their whole lives many survivors were confronting the history of their family backgrounds. They had to learn things of every conceivable kind about themselves. It was a such a hauntingly distressful time. The staff went on sick-leave after only short periods of dealing with survivors, as invariably they suffered vicarious traumatisation. There was a very tearful solicitor who had to leave the job, as it all became overwhelmingly stressful. She was young and did not have the expertise required to handle the aggressiveness of survivors.
Stories that emerged from the FOI records could have involved parental suicides; parents having had two or three more families in various countries. Stories of children who were reared together in the same institution, who had then amazingly discovered for the first time that they were sisters, despite having had the same surname. Notwithstanding, that this would have been unsurprising, given that when they grew up together they would not have known anything about themselves. Children in Goldenbridge on the whole were not aware of their surnames. They would have been known by their prison numbers mostly; so hence being none the wiser about their familial connection. The religious never told the children anything about their family history.
Survivors had to withstand all their young lives not knowing anything about themselves. Not to be recommended at all. I think those dealing in childcare today have been made cognisant of this factor by survivors of Industrial ‘Schools.’ The religious should not have deprived those in their care the right to know their identities. The untold damage wreaked havoc, to not only the survivors but also their families whom they later discovered in life. The religious have a lot to answer for deterring children from knowing their identities.
There was one particular incident of twins, who had been denied knowledge of their family by a nun at Goldenbridge because the latter did not want disgrace blighting the good image of the Mercy order. It transpired that the head-honcho was a friend of the two aunties belonging to the twins, as both aunties were also Sisters of Mercy. The head-honcho apparently denied the twins the right to know their mother because of shame attached to the fact that she was a sister of the aunties, and had the twins out-of-wedlock. Not only that, the nun also managed to split up the twins who were very close to each other. One twin was abruptly whisked out of Goldenbridge, and sent to Rathdrum at a very early age to work for the head-honcho when she was shifted there. It was only by accident that the twins discovered each other some years later in the town of Rathdrum. There was a holiday home there for Goldenbridge children who had no families. The second twin subsequently went to work for the nun at St. Kyran’s Industrial ‘School’ for Junior Boys, Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow.
For fifty years that nun in charge flatly refused to tell the twins anything about themselves, despite constant pleading and suffering. It was only revealed when the nun was threatened with legal action by a professional who had the interest of the twins at heart. This occurred at the outset of the commission to inquire into child institutional abuse. What a despicable act! I commented about it before. See: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2013/shunning/#sthash.MvByovTV.dpuf

There were stories that entailed having had siblings that survivors never knew existed, because they had either been adopted or had been reared by their fathers who may have been in separate relationships and living in England.

There were stories of parents who had struggled relentlessly with the Irish authorities to get their children out of institutions, but, were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, there is one very good example of a father who diligently fought the Irish system in a landmark case in order to secure the release of his daughter from an Industrial ‘School’. Doubtless, he won the high profile court case. His name was Desmond Doyle, there was a film made about his notorious struggle with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. For more information about this…

See: Evelyn Doyle: Evelyn | Marie-Thérèse O’Loughlin 

There were letters telling children they had been dearly loved by their parents, but those letters were never handed over to them by religious management of the institutions. There were stories of children, who had been left at convent doorsteps, which was devastating for survivors involved. Some survivors discovered that their mothers had been in mental hospitals, and had even died very young in them. One survivor couldn’t believe it when he discovered, as an adult, that between two separate families that his siblings amounted to 22 members. Large families were common with a lot of survivors.
The trauma of all the new-found discoveries commingled with the commission to inquire into child abuse (CICA) and the redress board (RIRB) caused so much heartache that it inevitably culminated in many unnecessary suicides and early deaths of survivors… some of whom were still in their early forties.

Many survivors, such as myself, had learned that they had lived with their mothers for the first few years of their lives and/or had been initially reared by relatives prior to placement in out-of-home care. A number of survivors, who identified themselves as ‘orphans’, reported to the private arm of CICA that frequently their mothers had, for various reasons, been unable to support them. The majority of these survivors had known little or nothing about the circumstances of their admission to out-of-home care. This lack of information included not knowing where they had been born, who their mothers and their fathers were, whether they had siblings, why their parents were unable to care for them and who decided they would be admitted to the Industrial ‘School’ system.

I read the Regina Coeli mother and baby home records (pre-Goldenbridge era, where I had spent my babyhood) and was involved in a serious accident, and that too was excruciatingly unbearable to handle. I dreaded going back to the solicitor to have that part of my files rehashed over and over again. I just could not go there, and became worn out trying to psychologically shelve the new-found knowledge. Every time I had been called in to the sollcitors’ office it irked me considerably whenever the matter was mentioned, that I found it sometimes easier to ignore solicitor appointments. The Regina Coeli part of my life was the most painful of all to get my head around. At least the Goldenbridge part was in the public domain and involved others, whereas in contrast the Regina Coeli episode was only applicable to me. It was personal and scary and very isolating. I could understand why my mother could not talk to me about it.

There were also a lot of other applicable details in the reports such as hospital visitations, reports from visitation officers sent to host families where difficulties may have arisen, as was the case with me personally. There were medical and “school” reports,  and even bogus inspection menus and Industrial “School” inspection reports contained in the records.

I learned from my records that I had been admitted to Vergemount, Clonskeagh, fever hospital with pertussis, and was on a dying list. The hospital’s official title was ‘House of Recovery and Fever Hospital’. I was all but five years old. I was incensed at discovering that Sr. X had been my only guardian. It freaked me out no end to find that the nun who had been to the forefront of the Goldenbridge institutional child abuse controversy had also had her signature written large on my documents. It reminded me in a minor way of the obituary mass-cards belonging to my mother which had borne the signature of Father Brendan Smyth, the notorious Irish paedophile who brought the Irish government to its knees in the early nineties. I was deeply pained because my mother was not to be had whilst I lay dying in a strange Dublin hospital. It was the worst pain to have to contend with indeed. I cried non-stop for a very long time after reading that part of my files.
I also learned from my files that as a mere nine year old, I’d been found wandering aimlessly in the heart of Dublin. I was spotted by two Goldenbridge nuns, who happened to have been in the city centre on business. I was instantly whisked off O’Connell St., and escorted back to Goldenbridge in a black Maria. I never saw the Boyne host family ever again. I had been on liicence to them from Goldenbridge, and had spent ten months of freedom with them at Boyne St. Westland Row, Dublin. From that day forward I was mostly to never see the outside world until my incarceration period was ended at 16. All relations with the Boyne family were severed. I never had a visit from them in Goldenbridge. It was very strange learning for the first time the circumstances surrounding that period of my childhood. I remember likening it to being a rag doll that had been thrown around from pillar to post. No explanation was given as to why I was torn away from the host family.

The stories go on ad infinitum. I recall on innumerable occasions in the past in the Aislinn survivor centre comparing the reason behind incarcerations of survivors to 
Goldenbridge. Survivors knew very little, if anything at all about each others personal background. So there were a lot of nonplussed looks on the faces when they saw, for example, that they had been incarcerated with the consent of parents or guardians. It had never dawned on most of them prior to receipt of records that they may have had lives pre Goldenbridge, as their past lives mostly never came into the equation whilst growing up in Goldenbridge.

I know for certain that it stunned me immensely to find out from my mother that I had a life beforehand at the Regina Coeli mother and baby home for almost five years before entering Goldenbridge. I was glad to have been given that information by my mother in the 80s, rather than to have found out about it from my records in the late 90s.

The Industrial ‘Schools’ (IrishScoileanna Saothair) established in Ireland under the Industrial ‘Schools’ Act of 1868 to care for “neglected, orphaned and abandoned children” failed the children wretchedly. So too did the Reformatories. The premature words of Richard Robert Cherry, a future Chief Justice of Ireland, speaking in 1911 was of the opinion that:

It is impossible to exaggerate the good effect (of)…. this twin system of Reformatory and Industrial Schools. The latter have been particularly successful in Ireland; and the combination of voluntary effort and private management, with State regulation and partial support—a rather dangerous experiment—has been completely justified by the result.

Nonetheless, In light of the findings in the Ryan Report almost one hundred years later, his assessment of the ‘experiment’ was apparently premature. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was established in 2000 with functions including the investigation of abuse of children in institutions in the State. It was dependent on people giving evidence of which they did in large numbers. The conclusion of the report, issued in May, 2009, was that over a period going back at least to the 1940s, many children in Industrial Schools in the Republic, had been subjected to systematic and sustained physical, sexual and emotional abuse. It also found that the perpetrators of, this violence; had been protected by their religious superiors, primarily out of self-interest, in order to maintain the reputations of the institutions concerned.

Mannix Flynn sums up succinctly everything I would wish to say about the architecture of containment of thousands upon thousands of children in Irish reformatories and Industrial ‘Schools’ in Ireland. Children, who should have been cherished by the nation, and who, instead, were marched off to child prisons, thus scarring them permanently because their character formation was tampered with at an important growth point in their young lives.

Romantic Ireland is truly dead and gone‘ Mannix Flynn said with justifiable anger. In his review of Bruce Arnold’s new book, The Irish Gulag: How the State Betrayed its Innocent Children (The Irish Times, May 30th), Flynn added: “Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany will now have the company of the Irish Church State, a brutal regime that perpetrated acts of unimaginable horror on its most vulnerable children. It will take generations to heal and understand this trauma. The Irish people will suffer for a long time to come.

Industrial ‘Schools’ were the product of a religious but unspiritual society.

The avenues to the institutions were paved with indelible pain and hurt.

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