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‘It felt more like living in a prison than a children’s home’

Frances Reilly has written a compelling memoir detailing her treatment at the hands of the Poor Sisters of Nazareth in Belfast. Jane Hardy reports

It is rare that you meet somebody that you know is a truly brave person. But Frances Reilly, a middle aged woman in a smart black leather jacket, whom I met in a corner of Jury’s Inn, Belfast, is extremely courageous. Not only has the Omagh-born woman written a memoir Suffer the Little Children, detailing her abusive convent upbringing, she has also pursued her tormentors in court, a process which took nearly 10 years, and achieved a successful outcome.

Frances’ book should take pride of place in Waterstone’s Painful Pasts section. For this first person memoir tells the story of the sadistic treatment of vulnerable girls by nuns belonging to the order of the Poor Sisters of Nazareth in the 1950s and 1960s. Ironically, the order’s mission statement, in the words of 19th century founder Victoire Larmenier (aka Mother St Basil) is, ‘See the Divine Infant in the little ones. Try to love them very much for his sake ... ’”

Mention this to Frances Reilly, more than three decades after her appalling ill-treatment in the austere redbrick orphanage building in the Ormeau Road, Belfast, which no longer exists, and she bridles. “Don’t mention that, it makes me so angry,” says the 50-something woman with a normally cheerful manner.

Her reaction and instant change of expression aren’t hard to understand. From the day in December 1956 when Frances, aged two, her baby sister Sinead, eight weeks, and older sister Loretta, were abandoned by their mother outside the wooden gate of the orphanage to her release to a remand home as a teenager, she experienced nothing but hardship. The psychological fallout from this included anorexia, agoraphobia, suicidal feelings and an obsessive compulsive disorder from which she still suffers.

One burning question any reader of Frances Reilly’s book is left with is, ‘Why did the little girls’ mother leave them on the orphanage doorstep, while keeping her sons, with nothing but a letter to give to the nuns?’ Frances looks thoughtful and says: “The only reason I can think of is that she had mental health problems. Later on, when we met, I tried to ask her but never got an answer. Yet this was the woman I’d made excuses for. I had this image of a little woman in an apron, the good mother.” The reality was somewhat different, as Frances reveals at the end of the book. After meeting up with her mother, who had been drinking, Frances realised there was going to be no real reconciliation, and doesn’t know if she is still alive.

Tolstoy famously noted in Anna Karenina that happy families resemble one another, while each unhappy family is miserable in its own way. And the misery indelibly seeps through the narrative in Frances Reilly’s haunting memoir like the pungent Jeyes fluid with which the nuns regularly scrubbed their charges until their skin was raw.

In an early chapter Frances describes one form of abuse meted out to her. “In the juniors and seniors each girl had a number, which was called out when we were allocated work. We were sometimes called by surname, but our Christian names were very rarely used. ‘You’re number four, Reilly,’ Sr Thomas told her, ‘You will sew a number four onto all your clothes.’” Also, the girls weren’t allowed personal belongings and the Reilly sisters were shown but never allowed to keep the expensive Christmas presents, dolls and clothes, sent by their mother.

Sleep deprivation was another trick up the nuns’ black cloth sleeves, and one evening Frances was ordered to polish all the nuns’ black shoes “until I can see my face in them” by Sr Thomas who promised to force her to re-do the task if the standard of polishing wasn’t acceptable. Frances was up all night polishing, and fit for nothing the next day, but couldn’t escape the orphanage’s harsh routine.

As Frances notes wryly, the one talent she gained from the years with the Poor Sisters was the ability to clean. “We weren’t educated much, and I left without being able to read and write properly, in fact I learnt while teaching my own children. But occasionally, when I’ve cleaned friends’ homes, they say ‘We’ve never seen the floor look like that’.”

The book itself began, unusually, as notes for Frances’ solicitor in Colchester, Essex, where she now lives. She recalls: “I went to a solicitor and couldn’t get the words out, there was a lump in my throat and I just sobbed.” This happened more than once, and Frances realised that if she was to make her case, she needed to write down the evidence of maltreatment.

So she began, writing longhand on sheets of A4 paper, in the sitting room of her one-bedroom flat. Frances says with a laugh: “It took a lot of biros, and making all the scraps of this and that into a book took quite a time.” Of course, publication wasn’t Frances’ original aim, and she only started thinking about the possibility after Heather, a worker for MIND (a mental health charity) who was helping her through depression, asked to read what she’d written.

Frances says: “Once Heather had read two chapters, she said to me, ‘You absolutely must publish this!’.” Her enthusiasm is understandable once you start reading Suffer the Little Children. Frances is a natural storyteller and understands how to structure her painful narrative. One recurring motif is of the convent as a prison. She notes sadly that once she and Loretta lost hope that their mother would return. “Life for us was our miserable existence in Nazareth House, which really was more like a prison than a children’s home”.

You can’t help wondering which parts of the tale were most difficult to write. In fact, Frances started with the two most traumatic episodes, her incarceration in Sr Thomas’ infamous “cubbyhole” and her sexual abuse by the two men, both now long dead, who used to provide her with holidays from the orphanage.

“These passages were hard, as to do it properly, you have to re-live it, go through it all again, and I’d sit there with tears running down my face. But at least I was alone — I hate crying in front of people.”

Sr Thomas’ cubbyhole, a walk-in cupboard containing cleaning brushes, clothes, floor polish and Vim, represented the nadir of Frances’ punishments. As she writes, “I’d been to the cubbyhole many times, but my visits usually had nothing to do with cleaning. This was where Sr Thomas took me, and others, to be punished. I hated the cubbyhole. It was the very worst part of my living nightmare.”

For the heinous offence of looking at the nun on the way to Mass (and she’d been punished for not looking at her some weeks earlier, being told that looking down was “gazing into Hell”) Frances was stripped naked, beaten and then left in the cubbyhole for hours.

When the inevitable call of nature came, the little girl wet herself and waited in terror for the even more inevitable recriminations. When the nun returned, she lost her temper and used Frances as a sort of human mop, finally cleaning her in a bath of cold water and Jeyes fluid.

Once Frances had written several chapters, she emailed 15 agents, telling them her story in outline.

She signed up with Robert Smith in London, who rang her and talked for three hours. “I thought if he took so much trouble, he’d be the right person.” He couldn’t believe once he read her manuscript, that she hadn’t been edited. Frances declares: “I wouldn’t let my editor change anything, but we did put the story into the first person.”

You can’t help wondering why on earth nobody noticed or blew the whistle. One government education inspector spotted one of the nun’s canes in class and asked what it was for, but was fobbed off by the lie that it was her “pointing stick”.

Of course, at that period, the nuns were protected by the children’s fears of reprisals if they told anyone about the cruel regime plus the fact that nobody really wanted to believe anything bad about the holier-than-everybody Catholic Church.

There is a touching scene where Frances and her friends write pleas for help (‘The nuns are cruel. Please help.’) on paper planes which they manage to fly over the convent wall.

Mis lit, ie misery literature, is a perennially popular genre encompassing the 1996 classic Angela’s Ashes and bestsellers such as A Child Called It. Frances’ tale bears comparison with Kathy’s Story: A Childhood Hell inside the Magdalene Laundries and you can imagine that, with the right cast, it would make a terrific film.

Funnily enough, Frances hasn’t read any examples of the genre. She explains: “It would make me too sad and too angry, I’d empathise with the person. When I read, I like escapism and fiction.” One of her favourite authors is Terry Pratchett, whom she met at a publisher’s party. “I even had a photo taken with him. He was very down to earth.”

There are few photos illustrating Suffer the Little Children — not many were taken at the time. But one, showing rows of smiling girls next to a slide is, in France’s phrase, a propaganda photo. “We were told to smile by the nuns. This benefactor, standing at the back, bought us a slide but we never got to use it.”

There is a happy ending. Frances left the remand home at 16, worked as a nanny in Omagh and then went to England.

The mother of five now lives with her second ex-husband as a lodger (“We’ve always functioned well as a family, and he rents a room from me.”) in a spacious new house.

She’s no longer in her one bedroom flat. And she has written a sequel, an equally powerful story called Troubled Times.

Frances’ sons and grandchildren are suitably proud of her achievements.

In fact, the only people who won’t welcome publication are the few so-called nuns’ pets, the friends of Sr Thomas and one or two others. “They’ll hate it,” observes Frances with grim satisfaction.

Suffer the Little Children by Frances Reilly, Orion Books, £10.99

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