Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

"I was so very hard on myself for not being able to put a stop to all the abuse"

Mary Manning's stepfather began raping her when she was 10, and fathered her first five children. No one ever listened to or believed her as a little girl. She tells Sarah Caden while she has never got justice, she has finally made people listen and, more importantly, believe her story.

When Mary Manning was 10, her paternal grandfather, known to her as Auld Paul, took to the streets of their native Ardee in Co Louth with a hand-written placard. "MY GRANDCHILDREN ARE BEING ABUSED", it read. Auld Paul had been a respectable figure in the town at one stage, but since his son's death and his daughter-in-law's remarriage, he had hit the bottle and wasn't taken seriously as he ranted and raged around the town, shouting about how his late son's children were being mistreated.

For his one-man-protest efforts, Auld Paul was arrested and bound to the peace. Mary Manning, now in her mid-50s, believes that it was her mother who involved the guards. "This wouldn't have been McDarby's style," she says of her stepfather in her memoir, Nobody Will Believe You. McDarby's style was very different, as she knows better than anyone.

Auld Paul was right, McDarby was abusing Mary. And, the title of Mary's book is spot-on, too, because nobody believed. Not when her stepfather began raping her at the age of 10. Not when, at 17, she had her first of five children by him. Not when she lived the life of a battered, trapped young mother who was clearly, silently, screaming for help.

Auld Paul was the only person who ever tried to help Mary Manning and her younger brother Rikki. And he never got to speak to his grandchildren again, after the day with the placard. He worked as a lollipop man in the town, but Mary remembers walking past him silently, scared even to look at him for fear of how she'd be punished at home. In one of the saddest passages in her book, she recalls visiting her then mute grandfather before his death. He squeezed her hand and stared into her eyes. He knew and she knew he couldn't do anything to save her and it was a long time before anyone ever tried to help Mary Manning again.

"Because of the nature of the abuse," says Mary, who was sexually and physically abused by her stepfather for more than 20 years, "I judged myself very harshly for not being able to stop him. But one of the important pieces that came up for me in my therapeutic journey was, 'Mary, if those adults couldn't stop him, how could a little girl? But I was locked into that. You get your body back from an abuser first, but getting your mind back, that's harder, that's slower.

"And there are layers," Mary, who is now a psychotherapist, explains to me in the lounge of a Dublin hotel. "The shame piece, and all the different aspects. It takes years to break down the layers, there are so many of them. The first is to break down the secrecy. Then you make a statement, which I did eventually. And then you wait. And I didn't even get a phone call. I got a phone call from my abuser to tell me that nothing was going ahead. There are layers, but society and the judgments; that's the hardest. That society doesn't want to know."

The early years of Mary's childhood were charmed, by her own account. Her father was a successful businessman, her mother was glamorous and full of life. She and Rikki didn't know it, but they were lucky kids. Then, their father was diagnosed with cancer and died quickly from it. That was bad enough, but soon after their mother brought home her new husband, Sean McDarby, with whom she had been having an affair when Mary's father was alive.

Neither Mary nor Rikki knew anything about McDarby's existence until he arrived into their home as their stepfather, but he set about determining the dynamic immediately. He methodically set about humiliating and belittling Rikki, but McDarby was very different with Mary, and was grooming her from the get-go. He spoiled her, made her uncomfortable with over-the-top flattery and made a pet of her. She knew, in her gut, it was wrong. But she didn't know why and how until he raped her. She was 10. She didn't even know what exactly he was doing and he told her, firmly, calmly, that no one would believe her, while Mary's mother assumed an attitude of ignorance.

I ask Mary if she believes that her mother knew about the abuse, which immediately amounted to rape multiple times a week. "I think she used drink to block everything out," Mary says. "She heard stories, she knew from the family dynamic. She knew. I was very angry with her for a long time," Mary adds. "I was more angry with her than I was with him, because she was my mother. You only have one mother. I spent a lot of years being angry with her."

Mary herself was a mother not long after doing her Leaving Cert, when she gave birth to her first child with McDarby, a boy called Rory. Her mother berated her for getting pregnant and no one asked about the father.

McDarby's name did not go on Rory's birth cert. Mary can't remember if her mother bothered to ask her who was the father when she became pregnant for a second time. Mary miscarried that baby at home and when she became pregnant for a third time, McDarby took her away from Ardee and set her up in a house in the middle-class north Dublin suburb of Castleknock.

Her second baby was a daughter, Ashley, and four months after she was born, Mary was pregnant with her daughter Iseult. She barely saw a doctor in any of these pregnancies, as the priority wasn't her well-being or that of the children, but instead keeping McDarby's role in this young woman's life a secret. "I was dropped off to give birth at different hospitals, got very little antenatal care at all so nobody would ask any questions," Mary says.

McDarby did not live with Mary and the children and, from that, you can easily wonder why, if he wasn't watching all the time, she couldn't escape or try to get help.

One reason was that he could turn up at any time, and he did, beating and raping her to remind her who was boss. He broke her mind and spirit to the point that she believed she was to blame, she was at fault and she didn't deserve any better.

Mary was skilled at compartmentalising and surviving the ongoing abuse and agony, but the pregnancy and birth of her fourth child, Andrew, nearly broke her. She tried to leave McDarby after he was born, but got beaten for her efforts. When McDarby took the family to Sligo for a holiday a year later, however, Mary looked out across the Atlantic and made a big decision.

The part of the book in which Mary Manning describes how she secretly saved money, bought a ticket to Boston, and left Ireland and her life and her children behind was one of the most difficult bits to write, she tells me.

"It's the only piece in the book that got me emotional, writing it," Mary says. "About the kids. I know now that I was like a wounded animal. I was not in my right mind then."

Boston was not the American dream for Mary. Crushed by guilt and her inability to tell anyone the truth about why she was there or what she had left behind, she slipped into a swamp of drink and drugs.

After several months in the States, she phoned home, to be told that three of the children had been taken in to care. Their father had not taken responsibility in Mary's absence, and Rory was with Mary's mother. Mary contacted social workers in Co Louth and, in the belief that she wasn't ever coming back, wrote letters saying that her daughters could be fostered and that Andrew could be adopted. She never saw Andrew again.

Ultimately, however, Mary came back to Ireland. The guilt was too much. At Dublin airport, rather than being met by a social worker McDarby welcomed her home with a beating and then raped her. She was his again. But the children were not.

When Mary approached social workers to reclaim her children, they explained that she had abandoned them and would have to prove she was a fit mother in order to get them back. She told them that McDarby was her stepfather, that he had been abusing her since the age of 10, and they told her this was "unbelievable". Mary could have felt more trapped than ever before, but what she wasn't able to do for herself up to now, which was to free herself from McDarby, she was able to do for her kids.

"I came back from America for my children," Mary says. "I may not have known the driving force behind that but that's what it was. But it took me a long time to accept that it wasn't me who put them in care."

Something was different in Mary when she came back from America. She found her fight, perhaps. In a small way, to start, and then it grew. She contacted the Rape Crisis Centre and began to have counselling. She got pregnant again by McDarby and had another daughter, Megan. She got her daughters back from care and she began to stake out a life for them, somewhat strengthened by the fact that her secret was increasingly out in the open.

When Mary's counsellor invited her to a dinner party, she met Karl. They slowly struck up a friendship and then a romantic relationship and have now been together for 23 years.

They are married and have three children together, a son Dillon and twins, Amber and Nathaniel. It is with great pride that Mary speaks of how Karl stayed the course with her.

"It's incredible to me that there are human beings like Karl," says Mary. "He is the most amazing human being with all the children. My children have a role model. There has been a lot of healing in all the relationships."

In her time of healing, Mary trained and began working as a psychotherapist. During that healing time, too, McDarby paid damages to Mary for the years of abuse, which allowed them to buy their own home, one not owned by him.

Also, Mary took a civil case against all the institutions that she claimed had let her down, which was thrown out, much to her dismay and to the disgust, in particular, of Karl and her second daughter, Iseult.

"I was approached to do the book by O'Brien Press," Mary says, "and it took me three years to think about it. I decided to do it because I didn't get justice and I did it for Iseult. There is a very powerful connection between us and she carried so much for me and I needed to take that back off her. Because it's mine; it's not hers.

"The person in front of you today is a very different person than I was even 10 years ago," says Mary. "What happened to me doesn't have the same weight or power anymore and that's because of the work I've done on myself over the years. It doesn't have the same lead weight. It's more of a light weight."

  • Nobody Will Believe You, by Mary Manning, is published by The O'Brien Press

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