Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

My nightmare life in an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy

A woman has revealed how she was brutally beaten and repeatedly humiliated while detained at an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy.

Mary Norris Cronin's family was torn apart when she and her seven brothers and sisters were sent to orphanages, simply because their widowed mother began to go out with a man.

Mary was the eldest and just 12 when her life was shattered by being sent to St Joseph's Orphanage in Killarney, Co Kerry, with her sisters. Her two brothers were sent to an orphanage in Tralee run by the Christian Brothers.

Now in her 60s and living at Knocknagoshel, Co Kerry, she told of repeated beatings for the slightest transgression of the nuns' rules.

They were called the Sisters of Mercy, but for what they did to poor unfortunate children in the orphanage, they were Sisters without any Mercy, she said.

When her father died in the 1940s, Mary along with her five sisters and two brothers were all sent to orphanages. She is in no doubt that the local parish priest reported that her mother was seeing another man and figured that she was a bad woman.

``My mother was a much loved woman and this should never have happened. We were poor, but no poorer than our neighbours and we were all loved,'' she recalled.

She began to wet the bed because of the trauma of her family being broken up and was immediately targeted for special attention by one nun.

``Sister Laurence used to beat me for wetting the bed. She also used to get me to carry the wet mattress on my head down a fire escape, across a yard and into a boiler house where it could be dried. As I was doing this the other children would all be chanting Mary Cronin wets the bed...

``Sister Laurence would often wait until Friday to beat me. We used have a bath on Fridays and she would come in when I was dripping wet and beat me, because it hurt more. But I would never cry and one lay nun (a nun who entered the Order without a dowry) who was nice used to tell me to cry, because she would then stop the beating.''

Mary recalled other beatings being doled out to children for the slightest transgression of the strict orphanage rules. A child who dropped a spoon or who was caught holding a sock too long in her hand was beaten by the nuns.

Two particularly pretty girls had their heads shaved because the nuns did not like the attention they received.

Mary is angry that the government did nothing to help the children who were brutalised in the Killarney orphanage and others around the country. She remembers a woman inspector arriving to examine the conditions at the orphanage.

The nuns always got a phone call in advance from nuns in the other orphanages. ``We were all given new clothes, dolls were put on our beds and the ponnies (tin mugs) were taken away and the good delph put on the table. We also got special food. But when the inspector went away, everything was taken back and it was back to the dreadful food. The nuns used to make enough bread and dripping to last a week and it was awful.''

She remembers going for a walk with the other children in the early 1950s and told by the nuns to tear down posters on poles which had been put up by a `bad communist man'.

Later, she realised that the `bad communist man' was the late Dr Noel Browne who was promoting his famous Mother and Child scheme.

Mary left the orphanage at 16, but it was not to be her last experience at St Josephs. She went to work in the home of a sister of one of the nuns but was reported for twice going to the pictures in one week.

She was returned to the orphanage where a doctor was called to carry out an internal examination of her. ``I remember to this day the doctor saying to the nuns this girl is intact. I hadn't been with any boy,'' she added.

Mary was sent to the Good Shepherd Magdalen Laundry, also run by the nuns, in Cork. ``We all had to slave there in the laundry with all kinds of dirty things,'' she said.

Eventually at the age of 19 she was allowed leave the laundry. She went to England where she met up with a young woman who had spent years at St Joseph's orphanage in Clifden, Co Galway, also run by the Sisters of Mercy. A Garda investigation is currently under way into allegations of physical cruelty and deprivation at the Clifden orphanage.

Mary later married and returned to Co Kerry with her husband five years ago where she is now living in retirement. But the memories of her orphanage days are still as sharp as ever.

She has friends who are nuns and priests and is keen to stress that she has no desire to be seen as nun-bashing or Church-bashing. She simply wants people to know what happened behind the doors of the orphanage in Killarney.

``I know a lot of people suffered like I did, but my two younger sisters did not have my experience at all. They had a much nicer experience in the orphanage and not all the nuns were bad,'' said Mary.

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