Child inmates flung themselves to the ground

Marie-Therese has a powerful article about shunning at ur-B&W. She has extended and corrosive experience of being shunned, starting with the nightmare of life in the industrial “school” in Dublin where she was imprisoned from childhood through adolescence.

The very thought of the word absolutely sends shivers down my spine. Shunning is indicative of pure ruthless social rejection, a thing I grew up with in Goldenbridge. I also associate it with children who were very friendly with each other in the institution, who, alas, were severely mocked and jeered and separated from each other by staff. The latter called them ‘love birds’ then castigated and shunned them. There were also children who were different from others, and they too were deliberately avoided by other children and not allowed to associate with the group. Goldenbridge children, who did not know the meaning of mother or father figures, should not have been targeted in a shunning manner by grown-ups, whose sole responsibility was to act in loco parentis. It was the antithesis of any kind of loving parenting or caring guardianship. The children who turned their backs on other children, however,  were only doing what they had seen those in charge doing all the time. It was learned behaviour. A warped environment begets warped behaviour. 
Mother and father figures are most important in children’s lives and deprivation of them was punishment enough, without having the added burden of being shunned by grown-ups. Mother and father words meant nothing to institutionalised inmates…excepting that they were words synonymous with beatings, whereby children had hollered out those very words…’O Mammy…O Daddy’ after a big thick shiny polished bark of a tree was rained down heavily by the nun in charge after the children had spent hours on a cold landing awaiting said floggings. Child inmates were also prevented from knowing  or [O1]  speaking to the nuns in the convent. The latter were just like aliens from another planet. When child inmates dared to look back at them sitting in their personal convent chapel pews, with black hooded heads completely hidden and matching black gown trails sprawling all over the aisles, they were invariably told by the nun who caught them to go and wait on the dreaded cold landing for punishment.

There was always so much punishment. The Ryan Report has many chapters on the subject.

I have vivid recollections of sumptuous scraps of Marietta biscuits, soldier crusts of toast, and particles of cake from St. Ita’s staff table, that had been placed in an aluminium sieve by minor staff, and each day methodically flung out of the corridor window that faced directly into the sunless prison yard ground. Child inmates flung themselves to the ground and fiercely grabbed at the luscious leavings. The ‘scraps’ were as regular as clockwork, so inmates eagerly awaited them, as the scraps by the inmates had been considered as rare sumptuous food items. Inmates, who never had toast to eat, would gobble down the black burnt bits, as if they were expensive oysters. Dog-fights ensued. Some inmates snatched not only the gorgeous tasty scraps, but also the hair on the heads – the little that was left, anyway, – after-all getting heads shorn and cut short was the norm – of some inmates, and locked themselves into each other for a half an hour or so, at any given time, as they were so enraged at each other for getting the best scraps. The staff thought theses scenarios were hilarious. They thrived on inmates being vicious towards each other.

I also remember on rare occasions such as feast-days when child inmates sitting on hard benches in the REC (euphemistically known as “the wreck” because of the savage beatings that regularly occurred there by staff members when the nuns were up praying in the convent) were given two or three bulls-eye sweets. If a dislike by a staff member to a particular child occurred, with the shiny silver mirrored can with delicate handle the nasty staff member would bypass that child, and the one sitting next to it got extra sweets, to rub it in even more. The horrible staff member – hugging the can – would then glide along the benches with a smirk on her face. It not only caused terrible tension in the child who was left sweet-less but also to the rest of the onlookers who wondered whether they were going to suffer the same ignominious despicable fate. Shunning innocent children was normal behaviour.

At first blush that perhaps doesn’t look like shunning as such, but in fact it is. Children who aren’t shunned aren’t treated that way. The children were treated that way because they were so thoroughly, comprehensively, horribly shunned, by the staff, the nuns, the chursh, the state – which allowed the church to brutalize them that way – and all of Ireland, which knew they were there and turned a cold hard blind eye. It’s only shunned children who can be thrown scraps as a joke for adults. It’s only shunned children that an adult will torture over sweets.

When I returned to Ireland from Birmingham in the mid-eighties I resided in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan. It is a small rural town in the province of Ulster, which now comprises fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. Its claim to fame is Father Brendan Smyth, who was a notorious paedophile – who in the early nineties almost brought the Irish government to its knees because of the child abuse scandals. In this community I experienced shunning on a gargantuan scale by a certain section of that close-knit society. I put the shunning down to not having had any proper place, or family status, and due to being friendly with an unmarried mother, who by large swathes of the community was forever shunned. Some townies would cross the other side of the main street to avoid her. I saw it on so many occasions and was absolutely infuriated with their low-down ignorant behaviour. Think fallen woman! She had become hardened to all the hostility she grew up with in the town and was aware of the two-faced shenanigans of some specific insular folk. The same community that mostly never spoke out about alleged heinous crimes of the priest for fear of offending the religious. The hypocrisy knew no bounds.

I also lived in a bed-sit and was frowned upon by snootier elements of the town. They were wont to steer clear of those less fortunate. Survival of the fittest! The things as they were must always be maintained to keep their superior status – one mustn’t let one’s self be contaminated by the mere riff-raff who wandered out of nowhere into town, and even worse still, a returning emigrant. I was “a blow-in.” In small towns everyone must know everyone else’s business. They have to know one’s intergenerational antecedents. My Goldenbridge institutional past was a well-kept secret. I had never spoken to a sinner in my entire life about my childhood. In fact, I had spent my entire time in England concocting stories about a family that never existed. I created them to suit the occasion. A lot of survivors of industrial “schools” would know exactly what I’m talking about here, as they would have resorted to similar survival tactics. I was completely unaware of the trap I was falling into upon deciding to live in a wee town in “the valley of the squinting windows.” My mother and her husband had lived three miles away in the country, so I fell naturally into that situation. Besides, I never would have dreamt of going to live in Dublin, as I was actually afraid of any association connected to Goldenbridge. It actually took me ten years to come to terms with facing Dublin. To this day I still cannot go back to the industrial “school” area. I thought I was safe in a small town, but no, not at all. The opposite.

There was a particular incident where I went to an audition to join The Frolics Musical Society. A whole group of people who were known to me by sight was in full conversation on my arrival to the audition. There was suddenly utter silence when I entered the room. One person even got up from her seat to move away from me, when I sat down in the chair beside her. I was so mortified that I quietly went into the loo and disappeared. I know that I was in a bad place with respect of familial problems, and it might have shown in my demeanour. I thought that by entering into a hobby that I was very interested in, that it would bring me out of myself, and help me to get back on my feet. I was gobsmacked, as the amount of courage it took me to even contemplate on going there, knowing that a lot of them would not even bid me the time of day on the street was devastating to the psyche. I just didn’t have the emotional skills to turn it around and change things, as such emotional energy had until then been drained because of having to continually cover up about my past.

Read the whole thing.


  1. Ulysses says

    Thank you, Ophelia, for the excerpt and the link. Thank you, Marie-Thérèse, for the original post. And thanks to my parents for bringing me up in a loving household.

  2. says

    It’s so easy to think what monsters those peole have been, to dehumanize the perpetrators and to treat them as something outside the normal human stock.
    Because the real horror lies within the fact that those were ordinary people, respected and valued by their communities. And they conceptually removed the children from group called people while the rest of the world didn’t give a damn.

  3. left0ver1under says

    Read the whole thing? I will, but not until I have an empty stomach. Reading the posted excerpts literally made me nauseous.

    The only things I’ve read in my life that sound comparable the above text are accounts of survivors from Nazi death camps, how some of the captives would turn on and take advantage of each other to survive.

  4. karmacat says

    I agree with Giliell that we can’t of these people as “the others.” However, I just can’t imagine how anyone can look at a child and be so cruel. I’m guessing that a lot of people don’t understand that children are not mini-adults. I remember listening to a lecture about child sexual abuse and the lecturer asking the question, “Why do we hate our children so much?”

  5. says

    The twins were eventually re-united with their aged mother. She was living in adverse circumstances in Dublin. So the nuns seemingly were not all that protective of the twins mother, only the image of the nuns. The twins took her to live in a nursing home in the small town they reside in, and nurtured her every single day of their lives. They were absolutely overjoyed to get the chance in life to know the real meaning of a mother. So many survivors of industrial *schools* and Magdalen laundries never got that golden opportunity.

    I was told by the same nun that my mother was dead. It turned out that she was living only a hundred miles from me in Birmingham. I found this out after going to Ireland from London to look for her grave. I too was reunited, but at a much younger age than the twins. It was the most cathartic experience of my life. I bleed for survivor counterparts who never got to know the meaning of a mother.

    Ironically – child inmates were referred to as *orphans*. However, the real orphan in Goldenbridge was the very nun who was depriving children of the knowledge of their parent/s. It’s rather uncanny. The nun – being the oldest was left with the responsibility of caring for her younger siblings – who came often to the institution. I remember this – as inmates such as myself, were told to smile at them when they arrived.

    @Ulysses One should never take for granted – parents who have devoted their lives to loving their children. I wouldn’t have swapped my mother for all the tea in China, when I eventually discovered her. She cried all her life for the loss.

    @Giliell, professional cynic Children weren’t allowed to drink water after 6pm every single day. They also constantly robbed lettuce and other food out of the rabbit cages. So they must surely have been from outside the human stock.

    A child with calipers was forced to walk, when she just wanted to rest. She would have been ostrasised from the group, as well as children with minor deformities.

    @left0ver1under. It was definitely ‘survival of the fittest’ at Goldenbridge. Living outside oneself was a way to cope. Dissociation from the mind body and soul worked wonders. Sadly a lot of survivors committed suicide. The numbers plummeted to nearly treble figures during the course of the commission to inquire into child institutional abuse. A lot of survivors died in their forties and early fifties. There was a huge disparity between them and the demise of the nuns.

  6. says

    I think it’s ok to think the people who acted this way were acting monstrously, as long as you don’t conclude you could never have acted that way no matter what the circumstances.

    I know the feeling, about needing a strong stomach. When reading the Ryan report I had to take it in small doses.

    Our friend Marie-Thérèse here is one of the major whistle-blowers on the whole mess. She took a rosary with her when she testified so that she could show the panel exactly how the god damn things were made.

  7. says

    That’s correct, OB. I had the taxi-driver – who drove me in style to the luxurious CICA headquarters in Dublin – in a constant state of sheer panic, as he laid eyes on the pliers I was clasping and intermittently twitching en-route to the commission to inquire into child institutional abuse, to give evidence to the presiding Judge Ryan. The taxi-man politely intervened, as we neared destination, to ask me why was I carrying the pliers. I pointed to the building in front of us, and told him that the pliers was a ‘weapon of mass destruction’, and I was going to make that blatantly clear to the powers-that-be in the building. He sighed a big sigh of relief, and wished me all the best, and ended with saying that he was proud of survivors of Goldenbridge and other industrial schools, who had shown up the religious and the government for their lack of care of children in the past. Goldenbridge had been in the media at the same time as the war on Saddam Hussein, hence the ‘weapons of destruction’ analogy.

    The original instigators of childhood institutional abuse investigations in Ireland were survivors of Goldenbridge. Other reports into clerical abuse stemmed from that source.

    See: Goldenbridge Industrial *School*: Twisted Sisters by Peter and Leni Gillman 1999

    Now, thankfully government officials from various corners of the world have seen fit to come to Ireland to find out how it has dealt with child institutional abuse. Christine Buckley and Bernadette Fahy have also travelled to all corners of the earth giving their experiences of what happened in Goldenbridge and other industrial schools in Ireland.

    Paddy Doyle had also written a book about his childhood experiences, well before childhood abuse came into the public domain, and indeed at a time when Ireland was living in the dark ages. He was very brave.

    See: Paddy Doyle Interview 1989

    Survivors have also made the pope sit up and listen. The pope was handed the Ryan / Murphy / Ferns Reports and talked about them at long held meetings in the Vatican. Ireland was once the poster boy of Catholicism. Not anymore. The road to secularism has been paved with the blood, sweat and tears of survivors of industrial schools, clerical abuse survivors and Magdalen laundry survivors.

    Goldenbridge survivors and other prominent ones, and those who went before the commission have changed the mindset of the Irish government. There will be a garden of remembrance in honour of all survivors of industrial schools in a very prominent position in the heart of Dublin. They will go down in the annals of Irish history. So too will Magdalen and clerical abuse survivors who have also reshaped the country’s antediluvian mind.

    A memorial to victims of institutional abuse

  8. says

    Oh the pliers. I knew there was something about a taxi and you clutching something and the driver asking about it, but I couldn’t remember the details. The pliers – of course.

    Like something out of a horror movie.

  9. says

    Aye – the eyes of the barrister nearly popped out of her head, as she came to greet me and glanced at the hand-held pliers. ‘Not another one’, she cried. I explained to her my plan of action. She calmly smiled, and relayed to me the story of another survivor who had made rosary-beads whilst simultaneously giving evidence. Others had wanted to hold up soiled sheets and the like.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *