WHEN Derek Leinster was seven-and-a-half months old, he was hospitalised. His head was covered in “puss, blood and scabs” — scars of a cruel, sadistic and unmonitored Irish care system. He was born in 1941 to a 17-year-old Protestant woman from Meath, in a Bethany Home in the leafy Dublin suburb of Rathgar, and spent his first few months in hellish conditions.
“How it worked for Protestants was, if a girl became pregnant outside of marriage, she was assigned to a Bethany Home,” he says, on another trip to Ireland to get justice for the Bethany Home survivors.
“She went into the home for four months before she had the child, and then she had to stop with the child, after it was born, for four and a half months. Then, she was free to go wherever she wanted. At four and a half months, I ceased to have parents and the Government became my parents. What parents they turned out to be.”
After that first stint in hospital, Derek was shipped off to a foster family in Wicklow. It was to be the first of many moves.
“I was nursed back to health by a woman in Wicklow,” says Derek. “I tracked the family down and the woman’s son had considered me a brother. He would have been about nine, at the time, and he told me that he can remember a car coming for me and that he couldn’t understand why they had taken me away again.”
Derek, who was then two-and-a-half-years-old, was taken back to the Bethany Home: an adoption was being arranged. But he became violently ill.
“I was there for about six months when I took ill with diphtheria, whooping cough and bronchial pneumonia. I was in the Cork Street Isolation Hospital, at the age of three, for over four months. And, of course, in addition to being sick, you have to remember that there isn’t a soul coming through the door saying ‘how is the little lad?’.”
Derek survived: 219 little graves in Mount Jerome cemetery, in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, are testimony to those who did not.
Derek’s next home was with another foster family in Wicklow. Their son had died of pneumonia, and they were sure their chances of having another child were nil. But by the time Derek arrived, his new foster mother was pregnant with a son. Derek’s foster father was lazy. Unable to hold down a job, he became frustrated, and when he drank he would become physically abusive.
“If there was beer, he would beat my foster mother to the point where there would be bruises on her breasts,” says Derek. “I remember being air-borne; kicked in the rear end. My coccyx was broken once and he used to beat me with a strap.”
“I didn’t go to school very often, but when I did the teacher would have me make the fire, light it and then make me sit down at the back of the class,” he says. “I eventually left school, at the age of 13, unable to read or write.”
When he was ten, Derek’s foster mother died of tuberculosis. The neglect became worse.
“I stunk. No one would wash me,” he says. “I used to go up into the hills and hang around with goats. They were kind of my friends. They didn’t judge me. They were my heroes.”
Derek found work on a farm as a casual labourer, and, although the pay was erratic, by the time he was 18 he had saved some money, bought a new suit and moved to England, where he went to join his foster sister in Rugby, about 15 miles from Coventry.
Derek worked various jobs in what he calls “rough” places, but gradually, and with the help of his girlfriend and later wife, Carol, he learned to read and write.
Derek and Carol’s affection for each other is evident. Throughout our interview, Carol sits silently beside her husband, often holding his hand.
And when I ask Derek at what point in his life he felt he belonged somewhere, he looks at his wife, before welling up.
“I suppose, after meeting Carol, my life turned,” he says.
Four children and nine grandchildren later, they are still very much in love.
Despite making himself known to an organisation for Irish abuse victims based in Birmingham, years on there’s still no recognition of the Bethany survivors.
When the redress board was allocating compensation in 2002, Derek got a call telling him that his institution and its victims had not been included on the list.
“I was totally shocked,” Derek says. “I couldn’t believe it. Several years later, I actually met one of the Birmingham men and I asked him ‘Did you ever raise the Bethany Home when you were raising all these other issues?’ and, fair play to him, he told me straight ‘No, I didn’t’. I was absolutely gobsmacked.”
After 15 years of campaigning, Derek has yet to receive anything from an Irish government; not an apology, not a cent and, most hurtful, not even a memorial to the 219 innocent little souls buried in Mount Jerome cemetery.
At a recent meeting with Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, the 72-year-old was told that the Government was “in the mood for listening”.
As to when they will be in the mood for actually doing something remains to be seen.