TOWER BRIDGE stands majestically in the morning sunlight above the Saturday strollers. Among them, Mary Collins is admiring the scene in the city of London that she now calls home but her peace is fleeting.
Fear suddenly seizes her like a physical grip on the back of her head and she is a little girl again, running with her mother through fields in Cork, escaping from hell.
“The fear goes in through the back of my head. We are running, running all the time across the fields.” Mary is just two and a half, but she can sense her mother’s desperation.
“She was escaping. She’d found me, maybe she was looking for my sister Angela too. It could be days or weeks. I remember the rain all the time and the running.”
Mary pauses, before firmly choosing her words. “They captured her. That’s really what it was. She needed help.
“They took her in. Then they captured her. They told me she was dirty, they taught me to hate her. I suffered every day because of her. I blamed her.”
Forty-five years later, Mary wrote a poem about that hatred. But by then she had uncovered many of the dark secrets of her mother’s life and of her own, and the hatred had begun to turn to compassion and one day even to love. That day, Mary found herself praying to her mother for her own son’s recovery from a near-fatal illness at the age of 16.
“I was in a church somewhere near Guy’s Hospital and I was asking her to save him. It was when I nearly lost my son that I began to feel about her. Her children had been taken from her; she had lost her three children.
“Two miracles happened. My son survived and I found my mother. The hatred they’d beaten into me, the shame about my family, was leaving me.”
Mary is one of 10 survivors of institutional abuse, ranging in age from 54 to 87, whom I interviewed for Stolen Lives, published to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the landmark Ryan Commission report on such abuse.
The book traces the horrors endured by children in the religious- run industrial institutions and breaks new ground in the chilling level of detail from survivors of the harrowing effects of the abuse on their lives as adults.
Survivors such as John Griffin, whose nightmare began in Baltimore Fishing School in the heart of West Cork.
The last time John saw his mother he was six weeks old.
Now, 55 years later, after a long search, he had tracked her down to a house in Derby in England, hoping for answers that might rid him of the terrors of institutional child abuse that still haunt him.
He had been searching for her for more than 20 years and had finally found an address for her in England.
But that morning, as John travelled to Derby from Ireland, he was still not sure if he would find his mother.
She would now be almost 90. “Maybe she wasn’t still at that address. Maybe she wasn’t even still alive,” he recalls thinking on that fateful day.
The address took him eventually to a rundown house on Bridge St in Derby. It looked bleak even in the sunshine of a summer afternoon and John felt some trepidation as he approached the house. “I didn’t know what might happen,” he recalls.
“I knocked hard on the door. There was no response. But then from upstairs I heard a window opening. A woman put her head out.
“ ‘No lodgers,’ she shouted. ‘Go away.’ ”
John began to think he was at the wrong house. “I was about to turn and leave but instead I looked up at the woman at the window.”
They could clearly see each others faces now in the bright light of the early afternoon.
“ ‘Come back here,’ she shouted. ‘You’re John, aren’t you? I’ve been waiting for you. Come in.’ ”
When the woman opened the door, she was smiling at him, telling him that the week before a fortune teller had told her he’d finally come.
“’I knew you’d come. I was waiting to die till I saw you,’” Annie Griffin told her son.
But there were no hugs. Too much pain had been endured.
When I travelled to Cork to interview John for Stolen Lives, he described the industrial institutions as “a sea of barbarism”.
The more survivors I interviewed and the more stories I heard, the more I recalled his description.
Others referred to them as being like “a concentration camp”.
That description about Artane Industrial School in Dublin, run by the Christian Brothers, came from Des Murray.
“Artane was a concentration camp,” he says quietly. “I was singled out by two Brothers, two sadists; my biggest regret is that I didn’t kill those two bastards.
“One was particularly savage. One fella I knew had a rheumatic heart but Brother B used to make him fill a wheelbarrow with stones and wheel it around the yard three or four times.”
Des had arrived in Artane at the age of 12 and a half in 1954, having already been moved through a number of institutions in Dublin.
He was the son of an unmarried mother and was born in 1941 in St Kevin’s Hospital Dublin (now St James’s).
Des witnessed sexual violence in Artane but did not encounter it directly himself. “I remember seeing a Brother on the landing and he was spotting the boys,” he says. “They carefully chose their victims. You wouldn’t see the boys going into the Brothers’ room, but sometimes you’d see them running out, screaming. They chose the vulnerable ones.”
Valentine Walsh was not so fortunate in St Joseph’s Industrial School, Tralee, Co Kerry. He was sexually and physically abused there from the ages of 9 to 13.
Valentine shows a photograph of himself as a little boy. He is seven and it is the day of his First Holy Communion. He looks very handsome, this little boy, with his dark hair and his spiffy suit and tie, but Valentine isn’t smiling.
He doesn’t ever remember a reason to smile. All Valentine remembers is the terror.
A locked door, a darkened room, and three Christian Brothers who sexually and physically abused him.
That is the world that lay in wait for the little boy in the Communion group of 1960 in St Joseph’s Industrial School, Tralee, Co Kerry.
“The first memory I have of being sexually abused by Brother D was when I was 9 or 10,” says Valentine. “He would take me into his own classroom in the evening when it was empty. He would lock the door behind us.”
He recalls how it happened and how Brother D prepared the room for this hell. “I remember the blackboard in the classroom was used by Brother D to block off the windows,” Valentine recalls. “Other clippings and newspaper were on the windows and blocked off any sight into the classroom. The clippings and the blackboard prevented anyone from the outside looking in. We were locked in and they were locked out.”
Then the terror began.
AFTER more than two decades as a journalist in various parts of the world, no project I’ve handled has been quite as harrowing as this book. In the course of compiling it, I have come to believe that, without doubt, the abuse of children in industrial schools was one of the darkest chapters in Ireland’s history.
There have been other appalling cases of religious and secular abuse here, as in other countries, but what made the institutional abuse particularly horrific was that the crimes were committed against children who were largely isolated from the outside world, abandoned by the courts of the State and in many cases by their families to lives of unimaginable cruelty. It tore whole lives apart.
The book grew out of the aftermath of the first national March of Solidarity with survivors of institutional abuse on June 10, 2009, which the late Christine Buckley and I organised with the support of Barnardos, One in Four, and the Children’s Rights Alliance,after the publication of the report by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, led by Justice Seán Ryan.
A day after the solidarity march, a Dáil Eireann debate opened on the Ryan report. The abuse detailed in the report was described by Taoiseach Enda Kenny as “torture, pure and simple”. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said it was “a stain on the conscience of our nation”.
President Michael D Higgins said: “There is evidence of an institutional collusion that was deep, continuous and sinister in terms of its relationship between Church and State.”
The title of the book, Stolen Lives, underlines that through such “collusion” not only were childhoods stolen but the horrors these children suffered blighted their entire lives. Some, such as Mary Collins’s sister, found their suffering unendurable and died by suicide.
In the Dáil debate on the Ryan report on June 11, 2009, Mr Kenny said: “We cannot rewrite those stories, nor can we write a happy ending to them.
“But it is our clear and inescapable duty to reach out and rescue, to listen, and to learn and to create something out of this catalogue of cruelty in which, as a nation, we can take some pride.”
lStolen Lives, priced at €7.99, is available at www.bettebrowne.com