Piecing together who they are is a life’s work

VICTOR Stevenson looks and sounds like your average middle-aged, middle-class Northerner.

Courteous. Efficient. Neatly creased trousers.

Then suddenly he crumples and becomes again the little boy who clung on to a stranger’s legs in a Gospel Hall because some instinct told him to get out of the notorious Co Wicklow orphanage, Westbank.

Its controlling owner, Adeline Mathers, had trucked the young children up to Bangor to entertain the Gospel Hall. But Victor bolted and clung onto the legs of the man who was to become his beloved father.

“I hadn’t been changed in weeks,” he was later told. The man took Victor away for a holiday and by chance he was seen by a clergyman who visited the house.

This clergyman worked out who Victor was: A child born out of wedlock to the daughter of a prominent Cork Protestant family for whom his birth had been “a disaster”.

This made it easier for his new father to adopt him but it still took two years.

He didn’t know when his new father came to collect him that he was on his way to his first taste of what it was like to have a family. Tears flow when he mentions the death of his adoptive mother two weeks ago.

Victor didn’t realise he had a story to tell — or that it was one which was shared by many other survivors of appalling Protestant institutions — until he read about the Bethany and Westbank homes in an Irish Examiner article last year.

Although he was born in St Finbarr’s Hospital in Cork, he has joined the fight for recognition and redress for the Bethany survivors because he shares some of their pain. A memorial to the 219 infants who died in Rathgar’s Bethany Home and are buried in unmarked graves in Mount Jerome is the aim which most unifies these Protestant survivors.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, met with them for the first time this week. The survivors asked the Church of Ireland to make an appeal for €30,000 for the memorial and commit to make up any shortfall. Dr Jackson put their request in context by telling them that the Church of Ireland had debts of €50m.

Patrick Anderson McQuoid was born in the Bethany Home in 1947 and months later he was sent to a “nurse mother” in Tipperary. By the time the Church of Ireland Mission sent him to an orphanage in Dublin he was suffering from rickets caused by malnutrition.

Like Victor, he was illegally adopted by a couple in Northern Ireland but they were elderly and distant and his adoptive mother died when he was 13.

“Psychologically, I just crashed. I didn’t go to school and I hid in a tree hut until I was caught.”

Like many people failed by this State down the years, he escaped to the UK. He eventually got to London and became immersed in music and painting. He moved to Cork and stage-managed for the Irish National Ballet Company before founding the Triskel Arts Centre in 1978.

Despite this success, he says, “I still had to sort out in my head what had happened since I left the Bethany Home.” When he eventually found his birth mother, she did not want any contact. But his half-sister told him that their mother had been strangely withdrawn when her grandchild was born on the same day as Patrick.

Piecing together who they are has been a life’s work for many of these survivors. Anderson McQuoid got his records in 2010. Now living in Leitrim and married since 2007, he says: “I have to try not to let Bethany take over my life.”

BY CONTRAST, Derek Leinster works full-time on the redress campaign. Born in the Bethany Home in 1941 he ended up in Cork St fever hospital suffering from four illnesses which could have killed him.

Eventually fostered out, he worked as a farm slave cutting wood. He still bears the marks of the bush saw. When it was asked why he wasn’t at school, his foster mother would say, “How can he go to school? He has no clothes.”

He is sure that if he had been a Catholic he would have been sent to an industrial school, but the State’s policy was to let Protestants solve their own problems.

Soft-spoken Wicklow woman Noeleen Belton, born in Bethany, was fostered out to an elderly couple for whom she worked as “a well-trained slave.” She thought they were her natural parents. “I used to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m not like Dad, he’s tall. I’m not like Mum’.”

When a man came into her life her foster mother told her, “tell that man to go away or you’ll get the shilling treatment” — which was code for, “you’ll be cut off” — because if she got married she would see who she really was on her birth certificate.

She defied her foster mother, married a “wonderful” man, and created her own family. She is still a religious woman, but she wants the Church of Ireland to recognise its part in her story. The Church of Ireland was the dominant force in the Bethany Home, but other Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, were involved too.

Archbishop Jackson confirmed that an exploratory meeting about Bethany was held with these other denominations two years ago, but no commitment to help has since been forthcoming. He intimated to the survivors that if the other churches stepped up to the plate for their role in the home, so would the Church of Ireland.

The Primate of All Ireland, Dr Richard Clarke, still declines to meet with the group.

The final buck stops with the State, which inspected the Bethany Home and sent women into it, but mostly ignored it and every other Protestant institution.

Though the Department of Justice has ruled out the Bethany survivors being included in the redress scheme for Magdalenes, this Thursday they will put their case in person to a group of TDs at the invitation of Sinn Féin.

They will find it hard to argue with Leinster’s claim for “equality”: “How wrong can it be that because I was a Protestant and you were a Catholic, you can get something I can’t?”

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