Christine Buckley: My hell at Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin
RTE broadcasts 'Dear Daughter,' a harrowing documentary about Christine Buckley, for 13 years a ward of the Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin
Published 22/02/1996 | 00:00
Louis Lentin's one-hour programme retraces Christine Buckley's difficult life. Abandoned after just three weeks, she passed from one orphanage to another for four years before entering Goldenbridge.
Her account of systematic humiliation and abuse, of deprivation, beatings and scaldings, suggests that for over a decade this Sisters of Mercy house ran on a form of discipline closer to sadism than charity.
"We got to the stage that it was so horrific we couldn't believe it was happening," she says. "It was the only way we could survive."
Like over 100 other children who went into care there, her own name became taboo on admission. All individuality — including personal clothes and effects — was plucked away.
For 13 years Christine Buckley was instead numbered like a convict.
While the orphanage did not brand the number Nazi-like into children's wrists, the effect of such dehumanising treatment has tattooed a psychological imprint from which no one claims to fully recover.
Number 89 thus tells her story, courageously lifting the lid on an abusive regime that left most of its wards seeking therapy and counselling ever since.
Unfortunately many others will identify with Christine Buckley's horrific plight. For them the programme is sure to resurrect bad memories buried as deep as the years will allow.
Those who were similarly brutalised in Goldenbridge or elsewhere revisit a past they would like to forget.
As they watch it unfold on TV they will wonder if anybody cares about what happened. Nobody, they recall, seemed to care back then; what's to say things will be any different now?
In typical gallows humour, a running joke among Goldenbridge House orphans is that they called it GBH, as in a reference to Grievous Bodily Harm they experienced there.
Each one tells her own torrid story. Caroline Hunt (Number 57) and her sister Mary were born in England during the 1950s.
Both were abandoned by their Irish mother but despite several attempts by the British social services a foster family could not be found.
At the intervention of the Catholic Protection & Rescue Society of Ireland (now Cunamh), they were removed from the British foster care system when signed out by their mother in 1957. The plan was to ship them back to their grandmother in Mullingar, who would raise them.
Despite serious reservations about the proposal, the foster matron had no choice but to let them go. The Hunt sisters were transported to Dublin where they were promptly put up for adoption. "It didn't work out." says Caroline, some 30 years later. "I don't know why."
They never met their Mullingar grandmother and never found out if she actually existed.
"Taking us back here was all in the name of Catholicism and bringing back the children." insists Caroline, who sees their plight in terms of a national soul-saving exercise.
Her first clear memory of Goldenbridge is being brought there by taxi.
"I remember going through the gates. We drove up the lawn and I remember asking 'Where's the bridge?' 1 was told there was no bridge. The nun was really nice initially, but I remember having this feeling that I don't want to be here.
"People are going to realise what the nuns were doing," hopes Ann Armstrong, who spent eight years there.
"They see what we went through and I'll be dying to see what the reaction will be on Friday."
For the scale of mistreatment, it remains a mystery why it has taken so long for this story to unravel.
Many feared going public because of the stigma it would carry.
Others felt nobody would believe them, but there was a huge response when Christine Buckley discussed it on The Gay Byrne Show four years ago.
"The reaction was terrific, but people forget." she says. "Afterwards, nothing was done for the girls in that orphanage. I wanted intensive counselling for every girl but the Sisters of Mercy did absolutely nothing. Even now nothing was put into place until they heard about the documentary. They promise everything, but it's only a facade.
For legal reasons the programme does not identify the nun in charge of Goldenbridge during years of alleged abuse.
The women have mixed feelings towards her.
"I'd feel pity for her - that nun could not have lived comfortably after living a life like that," replies Caroline Hunt, now a childcare worker in London.
"I would like to ask her. 'Why?' " demands Bernadette Fahy, a qualified counsellor also in London.
"You can use her age as an excuse but to me she was an evil woman," holds Helen Dillon, who spent eight years at the orphanage. "I'd love to sit across from her and hear her side of it. Why did she do these tnines?"
Christine Buckley discounts pity from her emotions. "It's hard to have pity for someone who beat you from 5.15am to two in the morning. It's not hatred. It goes so much deeper than.”
Former residents at Goldenbridge re-enact how they were forced to display their bedsheets each morning hatred that I can't describe it. It is a feeling 1 hope I never feel for another human being."
Sr Helena O'Donohue was not involved in Goldcnbridgc but as provincial leader she is aware how damaging this record is to the order's reputation.
"We have been able to establish that the overall programme of care at the time left a lot to be desired," she acknowledges.
"Because of the time lapse many of the sisters referred to are now very elderly or in poor health, so as a congregation we are taking responsibility for it as a whole body. We apologise and are deeply sorry to anybody who has suffered as it has been described."
Following Thursday's broadcast, the Sisters of Mercy will offer a helpline to assist past victims of abuse.
However, many of the survivors are unwilling to use a helpline operated by the.very order they feel has scarred them for life. They don't trust it. They feel counselling from that quarter would be counter-productive.
"I would hope that when people hear what we are saying they won't try to justify it as the times we lived in or because it was "a long time ago," suggests Bernadette Fahy.
"The question I ask is, what is being done about it? Are we taking this stuff seriously at all? Children are still being abused and the fact that is that adults are still hurting children. All children are vulnerable but a child put in care is extremely vulnerable."
The Inchicore orphanage was demolished about 10 years ago and two homes are now run in its place by the Eastern Health Board.
"We're talking about 1946 and 1996," concludes Christine Buckley, who has single-handedly re-opened this issue. "What has changed?" she asks.