Mothers of children sent off to Australia were told they were dead, inquiry hears
Mothers of child migrants who were transported from Northern Ireland care homes to Australia without parental consent, were told their children had died, the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry has heard.
Other mothers who returned to an institution to see their child were told their son or daughter had been adopted by a family in the UK.
Figures show 131 children, some as young as five, were sent to Australia between 1938 and 1956 from voluntary institutions or state bodies in Northern Ireland, it was revealed yesterday during the opening day of the HIA inquiry's second series of public hearings at Banbridge Courthouse.
The great majority of those children, 111, came from four homes run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Northern Ireland.
Others were sent from training schools, local authorities or voluntary homes.
In Australia, the children endured "shocking physical, sexual and emotional abuse" from which many never recovered, Dr Margaret Humphreys, the social worker who uncovered the child migrants scandal in the 1980s, told the inquiry.
A member of the public broke down and wept during yesterday's hearing as Dr Humphreys –whose life story was portrayed in the film Oranges and Sunshine – said that none of the parents had been told their children were in Australia.
"Some mothers were told their children had died. Others were told their children had been adopted.
"None were told their children were sent to Australia.
"Mothers often say they went to see their children only to find they had gone," said Dr Humphreys, who is director of the Child Migrants Trust, which co-ordinates searches for lost children and lost parents.
"The impact of loss of family and the trauma of institutional abuse for Northern Irish child migrants has been catastrophic," Dr Humphreys added.
The experiences of 50 of these child migrants are to be examined by the HIA inquiry over the next few weeks.
They will give evidence via video-link from Australia.
It is believed that this is the first judicial inquiry in the UK to consider the issue of child migration to Australia.
One child migrant, who died before he could sign his testimony, told members of the inquiry team who travelled to Australia as part of their investigations of the terrible effects his exportation had on him throughout his life.
In his testimony, which was read during yesterday's hearing, he said: "My life in institutions has had a profound impact on me.
"I have always wondered what it would be like to have a family – a mother, a father, brothers and sisters.
"I never got the chance to find out because we were sent to Australia. We were exported to Australia like little baby convicts."
The man added: "I cannot get over the fact I was taken away from a family I never got the chance to know.
"I was treated like an object, taken from one place to another.
"I found it very hard to show affection to my children when they were young. I have had a nightmare every night of my life. I relive my past and I am happy when daylight comes."
Senior Counsel to the inquiry, Christine Smith QC, said that many of the child migrants sent from Northern Ireland claimed to have experienced severe physical, sexual and emotional abuse when they arrived at the institutions in Australia.
She said the children were mostly under the age of 12, with the majority under eight and some as young as five.
Many of those the inquiry had spoken to had lost all contact with their parents and siblings.
Miss Smith said that for some, they had been reunited with their families later in life, but for others, it was "too late". Their parents had either died or the reunions were "unsuccessful".
"I was beaten by nuns so many times. They used a big stick like a curtain rod and swiped at my hands. They told me I was a lazy, stupid cow, just like my mother. I remember crying myself to sleep with the pain and loneliness."
Scarred lives... seven harrowing testimonies
Patrick was 10 years old when he was sent to Australia from St Joseph's Catholic children's home, Termonbacca, in 1947. He began the search for his mother as soon as he left institutional care. He returned to Ireland twice to visit Termonbacca and Nazareth House to request documentation in a bid to find his mother. He received no information to help him. Patrick persisted, and in 2008 Nazareth House finally handed over documentation with his mother's name and address. She had never moved from the Co Fermanagh home where she was born, had never married and had no other children. But he never got to meet his mother. She had died in 1999 — 40 years after Patrick began his search.
“My life in institutions has had a profound impact on me. I have always wondered what it would be like to have a family – a mother, a father, brothers and sisters. I never got the chance to find out because we were sent to Australia. We were exported to Australia like little baby convicts”.
The man added: “I cannot get over the fact I was taken away from a family I never got the chance to know. I was treated like an object, taken from one place to another. I found it very hard to show affection to my children when they were young. I have had a nightmare every night of my life. I relive my past and I am happy when daylight comes.”
“I was 10. Our clothes and everything we had from home were taken from us. The only contact we had from anyone was from angry shouting men.”
“I was eight. I remember the heat, the flies and the smells. It was overpowering and frightening. Never for a moment did I believe this was going to be a holiday. I missed home.”
“I was beaten by nuns so many times, They used a big stick like a curtain rod and swiped at my hands. They used to come up from behind and box my ears. They told me I was a lazy, stupid cow, just like my mother. I remember crying myself to sleep with the pain and loneliness of it all.”
“I have been left with chronic anxiety and a lot of anger. I don't really know what love is.”
“Constantly I recall being told that I was there because nobody wanted me.”