Survivors bleak institutional discoveries

I was just one of thousands of Reformatory and Industrial ‘School‘ 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 set up in 2000, and the subsequent Redress Board (RIRB) from those appearing before same.

Survivors were fortunate in one sense because solicitors in the main had expert staff. The latter had been prepared well in advance for what lay ahead of them, and determined themselves to set a precedence in handling susceptible survivors in a highly professional manner. They were extraordinarily empathetic in their dealings, which was of the utmost importance to many thousands of persuadable past institutional beings. The staff had been chary and vigilant of who lay opposite them, as they steadily and methodically guided survivors at their own emotional pace through the jolting details held in their records.

Close relatives and counsellors had been allowed to sit in on appointments. However, many survivors had built up a rapport over a long period with their solicitors, and had felt that they did not need anyone with them at appointments – which normally lasted 55 minutes, or a counsellor’s hour – as they felt fairly secure in their dealings with the solicitors. There was an unspoken understanding all round that whenever survivors felt unable to commit to appointments due to severe stress, it was taken as an acceptable given.

I was one of those who had braced it alone. Be that as it may, that was not to say that I had been resilient when the reality of my personal file details fully sunk in, in the aftermath of stepping out of the office and landing onto the lonely street. I was definitely far from it, as it then straightaway hit me that I was utterly alone. I had been left with no other choice but to confront the raw reality of the past that had just been freshly laid out before me. For instance, on one occasion I had 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 was incredibly unendurable to handle.

Emma Browne late of Village Magazine:

At some point during her second year in the Regina Coeli hostel, her mother was admitted to hospital with TB. Marie-Thérèse remained at the hostel under the care of the other mothers living there, some as young as 14. It was common practice for one mother to look after the children while the other mothers worked. When Marie-Thérèse’s mother was ill in hospital, Marie-Thérèse’s high chair fell into an “open blazing fire”. She sustained injuries that have left her with scars on her face, hand and leg.

I unambiguously dreaded going back to the solicitor to have that part of my files rehashed 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 solicitors office it irked me considerably whenever the matter was mentioned, that I found it sometimes easier to ignore appointments. The Regina Coeli part of my life was the most painful of all to get my head around. At least the Goldenbridge element was in the public domain and had involved others, whereas in contradistinction the Regina Coeli episode was only applicable to me. It was personal and petrifying. I could understand why my mother could not talk to me about it. It spaced me out, but still and all I just had to plod on irrespective of everything. I just had to hope that things would get better. I kept thinking of all those who grew up with me in Goldenbridge who were in similar and even far worse situations.

The intensity of the words spoken in the office assiduously reverberated in my mind after each appointment. It was exacerbating to say the least having to try to continually remain calm and collected, as I wended my way along the quays of Dublin. I always felt extremely weighed down and isolated. How long more was I going to have to listen to horrifying stories vis-à-vis my past.

Another example on a further visitation I had learned from my records was that I had been admitted to Vergemount, Clonskeagh, fever hospital with pertussis, and had been on a dying list. The hospital’s official title was ‘House of Recovery and Fever Hospital’. I was all but five years old. I shivered uncontrollably after seeing the report in black and white. I went pale and cold. I came to somewhat after being given a piping hot cup of tea by a kind office assistant. I was also 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 the hospital part of my files. I realised that I had no support system to turn to at that time of great need. I had exhausted all counselling avenues  –  as too had a lot of survivors who felt that cottage industries had sprung up out of their pain. They were rebellious. I was also very distrustful and disillusioned by counsellors, as they were indicative of authority figures. Survivors mostly detest those in authority, because of past negative dealings. Bearing the burden of the pitiful past had been the story of my life. It made me feel very disconsolate and melancholic. But the truth had to be told. I knew that I could live far better with it than with the unknown, the latter of which I wouldn’t wish on my own worst enemy. I knew what it had been like to have had no identity for nearly 30 years. So, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth had to be apprised. It was imperative for my mental and emotional well-being in the finality.

I’ve had a recurring glaring memory all my life, and learning about my hospitalisation in Vergemount as a five year old unfolded it and placed it into total context for me. I repeatedly reminisced about a terribly frightened crying wee child standing up and nervously rocking backwards and forwards in a strange clinical cot, whilst holding very tightly on to the side bars. The child kept staring into the blackness in the distance. The child was absolutely haunted by its bleak surroundings. It was like staring death in the face.

I’d heretofore always associated that cyclical memory with the time when I had been hospitalised as an eighteen month old toddler after the Regina Coeli fire accident. Notwithstanding that – it had still puzzled me that the child in the cot was very steady on its feet. How too could I remember with such vividness an incident that occurred at so young an age? I had discussed it in passing with Christine Buckley, who was a midwife by profession. Christine told me that windows in fever hospitals were blackened out. By way of description she pointed out the Rec (wreck) windows at Goldenbridge, which were blackened out whenever the nuns from the convent came to watch seasonal films. It stunned me – the true picture emerged. It tied in neatly with the new found hospital reports.

The gruelling stories about how survivors 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 whom had to endure listening intently to horrendous details in their files, whilst at the same time desperately trying to remain calm and focussed.

From having listened to many survivors recounting their stories at the time in question, I know that many of them 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 consequently reacted very badly by storming out of their solicitors’ offices. Some even slammed the doors so hard behind them; vowing never to revisit the solicitors’ offices which had revealed such terrifying secret stuff pertaining to their past lives.

Some survivors found themselves banging on the tables with their fists and yelling at the solicitors, or even maybe bursting into tears. Some of them became numb and silent because they found the file contents too unfathomable to comprehend. Others became stupefied and giggled out of sheer shock at the astounding new revelations. Some survivors simply switched off, or spaced out never allowing anything to sink in because it was all too unbearable. I know that one particular solicitor who had specifically dealt with male survivor clients had a gigantic table that separated them for safety. The wide berth between them was to preserve sanity all round. 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 so vexed and frustrated at listening to such devastating news recorded in his files. Some of them simply wanted to get at 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 wrongdoing was played out a lifetime later in solicitors’ offices throughout Ireland, and indeed in countries as far afield as AustraliaU.S.A., New Zealand and Continental Europe, where survivors had fled or emigrated to out of sheer shame and humiliation in the immediate aftermath of their 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 survivors had felt that they too had wanted to do similar after hearing incomprehensible documented family details.

Can you just imagine that for the first time in their whole lives many survivors were confronted with traumatic historical data regarding family backgrounds. They learned things of every conceivable kind about themselves and their families that was hidden from them by the religious. It was a very 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. Children went 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 their constant pleading and suffering. It was only revealed when 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!

There were stories that entailed having had siblings that survivors never knew existed, because they had either been adopted or 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. They were never handed over to the children 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 in total. 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 who 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 had 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.

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 also learned from my files that as a mere nine year old, I’d been found wandering aimlessly in the heart of Dublin. Two nuns from Goldenbridge had been on business in the city centre and had spotted me off chance. 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 licence 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 connections with the Boyne family were severed thereafter. 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. Indeed, I asked the Boyne family when I made a return visit in the eighties, why they abandoned me as a child. I told them that it was grossly unfair of them to befriend me and then suddenly disappear into oblivion. They never divulged the reason.

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 discoveries of survivors institutional and family past were paved with indelible pain and hurt.


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