Belfast Telegraph

For decades I believed my parents were dead

Child migrant tells of poignant reunion with his aged mother

By Deborah McAleese

A child migrant who was transported to Australia from a Northern Ireland children's home was allowed to believe he was an orphan for over four decades, the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry has heard.

Des McDaid, whose heartbreaking story as a child migrant was featured in the 2010 film Oranges and Sunshine, said he was 48 years old when he discovered that his mother was still alive.

After years of searching for information about her, mother and son have since been reunited.

"I had always wondered about my mother and her whereabouts, especially on my birthday. To the age of 48 I had no other reason to think that I wasn't an orphan," Mr McDaid told the inquiry yesterday via video-link.

He was the first child migrant to give evidence to the abuse inquiry which is currently investigating the child migrant programme that saw 131 children transported from Northern Ireland care institutions to Australia, many without their parents' consent.

Mr McDaid, who is now 70 and a grandfather, was two years old when, in 1946, his mother placed him in the care of the Sisters of Nazareth at the children's home in Termonbacca to take up a nursing post in England.

She wrote a letter to the Reverend Mother of Termonbacca and asked her to take care of her "little boy" for a few months.

In the letter, which was read by Mr McDaid to the inquiry, she said: "Take him under your protection for a few months. It would ease my mind considerably if I knew my little boy was in good hands."

While in the institution Mr McDaid said he was raped, sexually assaulted and physically abused.

He said that while in the nursery section of the home, civilian employees would throw him and the other children up in the air and let them fall on the ground. He also recalled how nuns would bath them in Jeyes fluid and hold their heads under the water until their skin burned.

While in the home's senior section, where he was moved at the age of five, he was raped by one of the older boys and regularly flogged by the nuns, he said.

On January 26, 1953, at the age of eight, Mr McDaid was handed new clothes and put on a ship to Australia.

He told the inquiry that he and other child migrants were not told where they were being sent to, or asked if they wanted to go. There is also no evidence to suggest that Mr McDaid's mother gave permission for him to be transported.

In Australia he was placed in Clontarf, a Christian Brother-run institution near Perth. While there he was sexually and physically abused by a number of the Brothers, older boys and a lay teacher.

In the late 1980s Mr McDaid spoke with the Child Migrant Trust, an organisation that helps trace and reunite lost families. The trust managed to trace Mr McDaid's mother, who is now 91 and living in Kent.

The pair were reunited and have remained in touch ever since.

Speaking about the emotional reunion, Mr McDaid said: "My first concern was that she wouldn't accept me. For one person it took 14 years before they got to accept their child," said Mr McDaid.

"The first thing she said to me was 'forgive me'. The second thing she said to me was 'forgive me'. The third thing she said to me was 'forgive me'.

"It was a godsend. It was wonderful," he added. "She told me once that she came back all the way from London and asked the nuns to let them see her boy and they said I was asleep and that she couldn't see me," he said.

Mr McDaid told the inquiry that when he finally left the institution he went on to have a "good life" in Australia with a wife, children and financial stability.

Despite this, he told the inquiry that the abuse he suffered throughout his childhood remains with him.

"The burning injustice of violent bullying has stayed with me all my life. I was neither valued, regarded nor respected as a vulnerable child or human being. I have got a very strong memory of my childhood – the helplessness and the emotional regret," he said.

Story so far

In Northern Ireland 131 children, some as young as five, were sent to Australia as child migrants from religious and state-run institutions between 1938 and 1956. Many of their experiences are being heard by the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, which is currently investigating the child migrant programme. Over the next three weeks many witnesses will give evidence to via video-link from Australia.

Voices of the children

"I was sent to St Joseph's Home, Termonbacca when I was five. I have no idea why I was placed in care. I was there until I was 10. I remember being beaten on the legs with a belt by a nun. I told the Christian Brothers I didn't want to go to Australia. I was told I had no choice. My father turned up the day before I left for Australia. I had never met him before. I spent my last day in Ireland with him. He told me he would be moving to Australia himself and he would pick me up and look after me but that never happened."

"My mother died when I was five. My father became ill and he was hospitalised when I was eight. I was placed in Nazareth House. When my father recovered he went to Nazareth House to get me several times. He was not allowed to take me home. I can't recall ever being asked if I wanted to go to Australia. (On the day of departure, August 28, 1947) I kept looking out the window to see if my father would come to say goodbye. My father had visited me frequently but at no time was he asked for permission (to send me to Australia). My father died in 1948, one year after I was sent to Australia. I felt sad throughout the journey because I did not get a chance to say goodbye to my father. We didn't even realise how far Australia was from Ireland. We didn't realise that we were never going home. We were just orphans in their eyes."

"My mother put me in care in Nazareth Lodge, Belfast. The day she placed me in care was the last time I ever saw my mother. When I was 10, I recall the Christian Brothers came to talk to the boys about going to Australia. It was 1946. He told us it would be good there. There were plenty of orchards and food and lots of open space. No one ever asked if I wanted to go. I didn't know where it was. My mother was never told about me being sent to Australia. I suffered depression in the 1970s. I never had any love or kindness shown to me in my early life."

"I don't know how we were selected for Australia. We were told by the nuns we were war orphans. I arrived in Fremantle on September 22, 1947. I cried and cried when I got off the ship"

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