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The Big Interview: Margaret McGuckin

Margaret McGuckin (57), historical institutional abuse campaigner and joint winner of the Belfast Telegraph's Inspirational Woman of the Year 2014 award, talks to Joanne Sweeney.

Q. You're the chair and voice of SAVIA (Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse) which has campaigned for the ongoing Assembly inquiry into abuse of children in residential care homes. How did you first come to terms with your own experience of abuse at Nazareth House Children's home?

A. When the Ryan Report [the Republic of Ireland's report into child abuse] was in the news, something was happening to me at that time that I didn't quite understand and I really didn't want to know.

I tried to shut it out and closed my ears to the television, blocked out newspaper reports. I was even going to myself, 'that's unbelievable, I'm sure the half of that didn't happen', I was one of those people who were sceptical.

I had a job working in a hostel on the Springfield Road run by the Sisters of Mercy.

And I'm in this office and it's nightime and all the residents are in their rooms.

There were still wee niggly sounds and memories getting at me through from what I was hearing on TV. I was ignoring them and then finally that night all I saw was the red brick and trees and I came back to being a child again in Nazareth House.

I think it was because I thought it was like a window in the orphanage, as I have an awful habit of just staring out windows. Staring out windows but never, ever being able to be free.

Something just happened, the red brick just seemed to get closer to me and the leaves... it was if I was just crushed in between them. I just started to cry, I didn't know what was wrong with me.

I had always helped myself, nothing was ever going to make me cry again, I was one of those strong people.

I just bent my head, I couldn't control my sobs and I was back again in the orphanage.

Q. So what happened then to make you go public?

A. Shortly after that I saw a girl on TV talking about the institution that I was in. I thought I just have to talk to her.

So I did and got myself down to the BBC. She came over from Leeds, she made me think again about what had happened. I always thought that what had happened was what was supposed to happened and that we were bad ones, I was a bad one.

But she said no, all the beatings, being half-drown, the starvation, the neglect, the physical and mental and emotional abuse, cruelty, the humiliation, it shouldn't have happened to us. We decided to do something and that's when the petition was started about five years ago now.

Q. What happened next in your life?

A. Darragh McIntryre from the BBC was going to do a programme on the abuse and came down to meet me. I thought that there was no way that I would be doing this. Nobody knew anything about what had happened to me, even my children didn't know or my ex-partner. I just went around with all these walls around me and all this attitude.

Q. What do you remember of the early days of entering Nazareth House at the age of three?

A. All I remember is the door, that dark door, and the long hallway. Then being in a cot on my own and crying a lot. Nobody coming around to lift you. And then the humiliation sticks about having soiled myself. I still can see all the cots in this room and being stood there as a wee child being berated and shouted at for having soiled underwear. I remember that dark corridor, a lot of that coldness and darkness. I remember burying my head under the blankets, but who to cry out to?

My mammy had gone away, I didn't know where my daddy was then. Where were my brothers and sisters - they were my thoughts. Everybody was split up and taken away from me.

Q. Your mother left your father with four children to look after. Do you remember her?

A. I just remember a flowery dress or maybe a spotty dress but then I don't know if I have intentionally blocked everything out about her.

I did find her again, though, I did my detective work but it was at the stage where I was starting to get rid of my anger because I was in trouble all of my life. When I did meet my mother again, there was no real connection. I was getting myself together and staying out of trouble - I had my children at this stage.

Q. What do you mean by trouble?

A. From when I got out of the home, I hid and isolated myself. I was always getting into trouble with the courts, shoplifting, rioting, disorderly behavouir, anything going, to get rid of the anger. Any riot happening, I was there. I remember people telling me 'God, you're a great rioter' but it was so far from who I really was. I was just a waif, a loose cannon. I'm still one, I suppose, but in the right way now.

Q. What was the relationship with your father like?

A. I remember my father more than my mother. He used to carry us over a wee river trying to look after us. I lived up in Saintfield, - Commons Brae where I was born - and we had a house there and then we moved over into Newtownbreda.

He tried to keep us out of the home but then the welfare took us off as my father was a worker and wasn't around to look after us during the day. There were no near relatives as he was a countryman, a real countryman and really proud. He wouldn't have taken benefits.

Q. What was it like leaving the home at the age of 11 back into your father's care?

A. I remember that long walk down the Ormeau Road where my father had a house, near the UTV studios. There was nobody to meet me. Nobody brought me down. I was just dismissed by the nuns. I thought that was OK too, but when you think of me, as a wee 11-year-old with no clothes to my name, leaving there on my own. I even had to beg for a dress. Maybe my father stopped paying them money. At the Banbridge inquiry, that's all we are hearing. The religious orders just took children in for the money.

Q. Do you have any good memories of your childhood?

A. In there, no? All my memories are of always looking down to the ground, never looking up, just looking at the walls in front of me. There was nothing but boredom.

Q. What was the relationship with your father like after you left the home?

A. There was no emotional love there. We were like strangers, even getting split up from your brothers and sisters, it's hard to maintain that connection.

I don't know if I was angry with my father, more with the mother. I tried just to extinguish her from my mind and my thoughts, so I had no emotions. I was emotionless. I never, ever thought of her and I never allowed myself then to have any emotions.

I learnt that in the home. All of your crying and tears weren't getting heard anyway in there, so I learnt just to get my shoulders up, toughen myself up and get my walls up around me. But inside I was breaking apart.

Q. What has been the main thing to help you deal with the aftermath of the abuse and neglect?

A. I made a commitment to get myself back on the right track. Even when I was out shoplifting, I knew it wasn't me.

I was pretending to be the hard nut and there was somebody else really trying to get out. I was crying out to God to help me, I just knew that I needed help, so I cried out to him to come into my life.

Then I noticed things changing and it wasn't from going to the church as that was all about put-downs and burn in hell to me. I knew that there was more than that, so I said to a close friend I would love to get a bible and find out more because I was itching for knowledge to find out more about Him, about Jesus to find out if he was real because I felt Him here [points to her heart]. I felt the hope because there was nothing else in my life because I tried everything, nothing helped me. I got a bible and then I heard that there was a wee Christian group in the Falls Road area.

Q. So you found God again?

A. I thought Christians were Orangemen in their bowler hats and the umbrellas. But the people at that group were just lovely people, all non-denominational, and I started to do an Alpha course in someone's house in the Springfield Road.

I went and said to myself I'll go for the sandwiches and the tea. At that time I was going for relaxation and aromatherapy classes, I was trying to do something with myself as I thought I was bad, evil.

Even in the Alpha course when the teacher asked people to close their eyes, well, I would not close my eyes, my guard was up. I could never relax as I was waiting on being attacked all the time.

That was the way I walked about.

I read books advising about what you give out, you give out and to smile at people. I started doing that and I got that back.

Q. So you believe that your faith in God has helped you change your life, helped you to get this point?

A. Absolutely, he is everything, it's Him, Him, Him. That's why I do what I do. I know that He's in this. I suppose only certain people may understand this, but He's given me dreams and visions where I'm standing at that door all over again, that round door of the home but there's no handle in it and I'm going straight through.

I'm going down that long, dark corridor but this time I'm dancing down it, I'm waltzing.

It was like Him telling me, 'Now, Margaret, I'm going to bring you down here again but this time you'll be dancing with joy.'

Q. Was there one particular nun that was the worst to you?

A. Oh yes, I just felt that she hated me. She's not that long past away, it was several years ago. I can see her eyes now, under the white cloth of her veil, laughing and smirking at some child being humiliated.

One night about six years ago I sat in the kitchen writing. All I could see in my mind was this nun. I began to write stuff like, 'why did you do this, what happened to you in your childhood, did something happen to you in order for you to do this to me?'

Something just hit me with the feeling that yes, she had come through all of this, and I just cried. I cried uncontrollably and felt her pain then. I ended up saying 'I forgive you', something amazing had happened and I knew God was in my life and doing this.

Q. What will giving evidence to the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry in Banbridge mean to you personally?

A. Now I understand that it was wrong the way we were treated. Everything about it was wrong. So, yes, I'm waiting for that day. Any type of abuse there shouldn't have happened when they were supposed to be loving and caring for us, even the basic help wasn't given to us, food, clothing or education.

Q. It's been a long fight for you and SAVIA to have the inquiry held. How difficult is it currently for you and other survivors?

A. Yes, it is difficult for all of us, on a personal level and for my three sons. But I feel that I'm being protected by God for to do this.

It's like I'm on an assignment specially to do this.

Even when I try to hand it over to other people, and I think of giving up, I can't. So many people look to you. But I'm getting more knowledge out of it and understanding that I know that these things shouldn't have happened. Now when I really know what happened in those days, it's unbelievable.

Now they are blaming each other (the institutions and the state).

Let them fight it out. Let the show begin.

Q. Is SAVIA adequately funded?

A. Well, it's not all about money and we do get help from different funders from time to time. We do really need admit support to help me to get out and about more and meet with our members.

I always want to be available for someone at the end of the phone, no matter what time of night as I know what it's like not to be heard or understood.

I work on a voluntary basis and was on ESP benefit and getting £71 per week but that has been stopped now.

It can be a struggle to get petrol as my car is 14 years old and there's no handle to get in at the front so I get in from the back. I'll keep going, nothing is going to stop me.

Q. What is the next stage of your campaign?

A. We want the Assembly to set the compensation level now, not at the end of the inquiry when it reports in early 2016.

We have never really spoken about compensation but we know that it's a factor as lives have been ruined.

They failed in their duty of care. Because our people are getting older, the oldest are 80 and 84, we need to be discussing compensation right now. My voice will not be silent.

Q. You now share the Inspirational Woman of the Year Award with Una Crudden?

A. I know, I still can't believe it. It doesn't sound like but it nice every now and then to say it out loud.

Q. What gives you joy now in your personal life?

A. Well, I have my faith, my church, my sons, my work and all my friends. I would dearly love a grandchild one day.

But I also love my wee dog Cara. She and I go for walks along the towpath and she's always out and about with me doing my work.

I love going up to Ardara, Co Donegal, with her and walking along the beaches at Maghera and Portnoo where I get a real sense of peace and contentment.


From Belfast Telegraph