AS A CHILD, Anne Silke ate moss off the walls of the Tuam mother and baby institution.
It was delicious, she would laugh, because she was starving.
Before she died earlier this year, she would say with a wry smile that she would never eat batch bread, because of how the nuns threw it at her and the other “home” children, as if they were animals.
That ability to crack jokes at the cruelty she experienced when young and the life she carved out for herself as a mother of eight children drew people to her, finding hope in her resilience and warmth in her company.
But there was a silence Silke never managed to break before she died, about the influential political family who fostered her.
Teresa Lavina, a Galway-based documentary maker, first met Silke in 2019 through another Tuam survivor, PJ Haverty, who was close friends with Silke and had always voted for the family who fostered her.
The feature-length documentary, Untold Secrets, that Lavina directed and produced was shown for the first time yesterday at the Galway Film Fleadh, shedding light on Silke’s unspoken experiences and the disturbing allegations that are part of her testimony.
Silke gave testimony to the commission of investigation and saw it released just before she died last February, with a few lines referencing her own testimony about eating moss. But she was deeply hurt by the result and felt she still had not been heard.
“I feel angry to a certain extent that we’re not getting justice or anything,” Silke said to camera, not long before she died. “Everything is left just hanging on until we pass away.” In the documentary, Silke described deprivation and cruelty within the Tuam institution but also speaks of her experience of being fostered out to a man who she says was a TD in the Dáil and his wife, who had six of their own children who were already reared.
She alleges she was treated like a “slave” in their home.
Documentation provided by the state agency Tusla shows that Silke was fostered in 1958 by a “Mr and Mrs Killealea [sic]” and the documentary draws together testimony that the man who fostered Silke was Mark Killilea Sr, a founding member of Fianna Fáil who represented Galway constituencies within the Dáil for nearly three decades, from the 1930s to 1961.
In 2014, after the story about the deaths of hundreds of children in Tuam broke around the world, Silke came to Catherine Corless hoping to find more answers and speak out. Corless remembers her as a woman who had “the heartiest laugh” and got on with everyone.
“Anne was one of those people who wanted to tell her story because she was born in the Home in Tuam and she had a very tough childhood,” Corless said.
“She was fostered out to a woman in the early stages but that didn’t work out and Anne was sent back to the home again, so Anne is one of the few people that remembers life in the Tuam home.”
At the burial site on the former grounds of the Bon Secours institution, grass grown over the area above the sewage system where the remains of infants and children were found during a test excavation years before, Silke stood in a black and white check coat, a black scarf around her neck, speaking of how she remembered children being brought outside, kept in pens and bottles of milk made by Bina Rabitte, a woman working for the nuns at the institution whose name is a witness on many birth certs, being thrown into them.
Silke described a child being kicked by one of the nuns and never seeing that child again. “We all tried to survive, we used to be starving,” she said.
Her mother, who she was separated from in the institution but managed to make some contact with later in life, told her they were kept separate even while inside the walls.
“She wasn’t allowed to hold me, cuddle me or feed me or do nothing for me, it was other mothers,” Silke said.
Catherine Corless saw the pile of records that Anne had been able to get from the State, detailing her time in the institution and her fostering.
Since she died, family members have not been able to access the cache of documents she left behind and while Tusla recently released a document to Silke’s relatives detailing a timeline of her experiences within the institutions and confirming the time she spent fostered, Silke’s family could now wait months for copies of the documents to be provided.
Before she died, Anne Silke stated to Lavina and others that she was abused and exploited as a child while fostered within the Belclare household of Mark Killilea Sr, a founding member of Fianna Fáil and an influential local politician in Tuam.
Silke describes in the documentary how she was exploited for labour, made to milk cows morning and evening, brought home from school early to clean and polish the house, and never allowed to eat at the same table with the family.
Silke said she was beaten if she did not complete her work or if she defended herself.
Silke described being physically assaulted by one of the older adult sons in the house, who she said took over after the foster father died, and that she was sexually abused by another adult son.
She was a child at the time of this sexual assault.
According to statements made by family members and details from Silke’s testimony, as well as multiple sources who knew Silke and saw her file, the documentary points to Mark Killilea Jr as responsible for physically assaulting Silke. The ‘Golfgate’ event last year in Galway was a dinner in honour of the late TD and MEP. The documentary points to Jarlath Killilea as having sexually abused her. He was a former head of the Department of Tourism and Catering at Cork Institute of Technology. Both men are deceased.
Silke describes how Killilea Jr “gave me awful beatings with the horses whip and that, the mother was hitting me and I was protecting myself so I went to hit her and he said you’ll never do that to my mother again, that’s what it was, and he stripped me from the waist down put me across the chair and belted me, and the blood pouring out of me, [I] couldn’t sit”.
Silke says she was told to tell anyone who asked that she fell.
A mother of eight, in a family photo Silke stands with all of her adult children, four daughters and four sons, all of them head and shoulders above her.
Silke told her own children about her experiences and they speak out in the documentary, confirming that their mother had told them of these accounts of abuse and exploitation within the foster household.
One of her daughters, Alice Kelly, speaks about how many families like her own are still affected by the ongoing legacy of the mother and baby home institutions, making it an intergenerational trauma.
The children, like Silke, were robbed of any real affection or love within the Tuam institution and Kelly speaks about how her mother’s way of showing love was making sure they were sent to school, fed, and had clothes on their back.
“I heard the stories growing up and it just became normal, it’s just something I accepted that these things happened to mum,” Kelly says, remembering how she asked her mother when she was a teenager about her experience and whether she had been sexually abused.
“I was,” her mother had told her. It was something Kelly then almost normalised, warning “that’s the generational impact it is having on this country”.
Another of Silke’s children, her son Seán Kelly, spoke over Zoom from New York to the director, Teresa Lavina, and named Jarlath Killilea as the man who sexually abused his mother and Mark Killilea Jr as the man who had beaten her.
“[Jarlath] would have assaulted her sexually, physically, he was the one mum was very angry at too, obviously because she was young and didn’t know, she wasn’t even in her teens like.” There were other witnesses to her exploitation at the hands of the foster family, according to Silke.
“This neighbour, my friend will tell you, she used to collect me after the roll was being called and I’d have to polish the house, they had seven bedrooms,” said Silke.
“I hadn’t the work done and the son came along and he battered my face against the wall and pulled my head and battered me against the wall, and all my teeth destroyed. So [as a] 12-year-old I had four dentures, 12 years old.” A source familiar with Silke’s file says there are hospital records included.
“I’d say he denied it to the guards too,” she said.
“He battered me against the wall cause I didn’t have the work done.” As well as domestic work, she was made to milk the cows morning and evening, spending her nights sleeping on a bed that she said was rotten through with urine.
“Their bedroom wasn’t the same as mine,” she said.
“I’m sorry to say I used to wet the bed and I used to sleep in that bed every night.” Silke remembered a social worker would come every month but she was told not to tell her that was the bedroom she slept in.
Many survivors who were boarded out from Tuam and other institutions as children have spoken about being used for free labour by foster families.
“They were making money on us, they made money on us,” said Silke. “Even though we were not in the home they still got money for feeding us.” There were many attempts at escape. Silke said she ran away a lot but guards brought her back, telling her to be good.
“You were put into that situation that you couldn’t get out of,” she said.
“No matter where you went and told your story, you didn’t know who you were talking to then, it was all going back to them.” Eventually, she told one of the “sisters”, one of the women in charge at her school, that she’d harm herself before going back.
The timeline of Silke’s institutionalisation and fostering provided by Tusla shows that after being “discharged” from the foster family in 1967 Silke was sent to St Teresa’s on Temple Hill, a residential institution run by the Daughters of Charity in Dublin, and a place where there are accounts of another child sent from Tuam who was made to work unpaid in a local shop.
The document from Tusla states that after being fostered, Silke also worked for a time in 1968 for another member of the Killilea family.
Silke states in Untold Secrets that she was “put working down in Kilkenny” before being put into a Magdalene Laundry and running away after six months there.” After that, she started working in a hospital.
Donagh Killilea, son of the late Mark Killilea Jr, does speak within the documentary about the exploitation of children from the institutions: “We also have to keep in mind the awful conditions in which some survivors worked, they were forced labour on farms a lot of the time, they were forced labour in industry which was big at the time ...there was a lot of bad but I think there was even more good but it’s just not being looked at.” Mr Killilea was shown testimony of Anne Silke by Lavina while the documentary was still in production. In response to questions from the Irish Examiner ahead of the broadcast, he described the allegations made by Anne Silke as both “unverified” and “inaccurate” but said “we have nothing to hide”, adding that “everyone involved in this has passed away and I’m very sorry for Anne’s family”.
According to records held by Galway County Council, the minutes of a council meeting show that Mark Killilea Sr opposed the closure of the Tuam institution on the basis that as long as the institution remained in Tuam “the county has the benefit of the money spent there”.
When she was in her mid-20s, Silke says, she went to a social worker in Galway to report “the abuse I got when I was a child with them people” but she was told she was no longer in the social worker’s jurisdiction.
In recent years, people close to Silke say that gardaí from Tuam visited her at her home in Leitrim to take her statement before she passed away.
Close family members of Silke say she had been preparing to take Mark Killilea Jr, the alleged perpetrator of her physical assault, to the High Court, but he died before it was possible and she was also dissuaded by fear of losing her house due to legal costs.
“Mum always wanted her story out,” her son Seán said.