Warrior, survivor, advocate, charmer — Christine Buckley was a hero among heroes

In the early ’90s, her lone voice exposed a dark period in history, writes Conall Ó Fátharta

Warrior, survivor, advocate, charmer — Christine Buckley was a hero among heroes

CHRISTINE BUCKLEY first spoke of the horrific abuse she suffered as a little girl in Goldenbridge orphanage more than 20 years ago.

Her story was eventually to become one of many but, when she first spoke to Gay Byrne in 1992 of her experiences as a child in the Sisters of Mercy-run Goldenbridge orphanage, she was a lone voice exposing a dark and shameful period in Irish social history.

Born to a 31-year-old married woman and a 20-year-old Nigerian medical student, Christine Buckley was given up for fostering at three weeks old before ending up in Goldenbridge at the age of four.

Her experiences were later recounted in the 1996 documentary by Louis Lenten, Dear Daughter.

The searing descriptions of the physical brutality and mental anguish inflicted on the children in the orphanage shocked a nation and forced the Sisters of Mercy to issue an apology.

The issue of abuse suffered in orphanages, reformatories and industrial homes was further exposed in Mary Raftery’s three part documentary States of Fear.

It was a seminal moment which eventually culminated in a State apology to victims by then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 1999 and the setting up of the Ryan Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

Running to more than 2,000 pages, the Ryan report, published in 2009, finally laid bare the horror thousands of children experienced in institutional care settings and vindicated the abuse allegations made by Ms Buckley and thousands of other victims. The Residential Institutions Redress Board has, to date, paid out compensation to some 15,000 abuse survivors.

In 1999, she founded the Aislinn Centre with her friend Carmel McDonnell Byrne. The centre assists abuse survivors and their families through therapy, counselling and education.

Ms Buckley was selected as Irish and European Volunteer of the Year in 2009 and received an honorary doctorate of laws from Trinity College in 2012.

When asked how he would like people to remember his wife, Dónal Buckley simply said as “a warrior” for people’s rights.

“She was a warrior for people trying to trace their parents, she was a warrior against injustice, she was a warrior for education and the benefits that education can bring to people. She was a warrior for, above all, people like herself that spent time in industrial institutions,” he said.

Mr Buckley said that once she had spoken out, his wife realised she was fighting not just for herself but for the thousands of other victims.

“She suffered a lot in there. The way in which she recalled that suffering, the way she explained it, it touched a lot of people who had been in the same situation, and then they opened their hearts. Christine then felt that she wasn’t just fighting for herself but that she was fighting for other people as well to get them their sense of dignity, their sense of self worth,” he said.

People finally found that dignity when the State apologised in 1999, but more so when the Ryan report was published in 2009.

Mr Buckley said his wife was disappointed that the report didn’t go far enough in terms of its findings and was “too gentle” on some of the witnesses for the religious orders but pleased that it vindicated the allegations made by survivors.

Maeve Lewis, executive director of survivors group One in Four, said that Ms Buckley was one of the first people to speak out about abuse in a residential institution.

“She was instrumental in persuading the Government to apologise to survivors and to set up the Ryan Commission to examine conditions in the residential institutions. Christine campaigned tirelessly and fearlessly for compensation and for services for the survivors of the institutions.”

“She was not afraid to confront senior politicians and religious leaders about their failures and to insist that they meet their obligations to survivors,” she said.

Chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop described Ms Buckley’s contribution to breaking the silence around abuse as “immeasurable”.

“She spoke out about the abuse she experienced and witnessed as a child in institutional care in Ireland, at a time when the silence of child emotional, physical and sexual abuse was palpable in Irish society. Her contribution to breaking that silence is immeasurable. Through her participation in the unforgettable documentary Dear Daughter she enabled so many others to speak out,” she said.

Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay said Ms Buckley’s legacy would be in the recognition of the need for a better child welfare system in this country.

“Christine was a fighter, a survivor, an advocate, a charmer, a hero among heroes. The world is a lesser place for her passing. Her legacy will live on in our collective recognition of the need for a better child welfare and protection system. That system needs to live up to the hope and vision that she and other survivors hold for future generations of children in Ireland.”

TV3 will show a documentary about Christine Buckley’s campaign for justice tomorrow at 7.30pm.

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