Belfast Telegraph

'We are never going to stop until we get answers about what Granny went through'

By Lisa Smyth

She has become the face of the suffering endured by countless people living out their final months and years at Dunmurry Manor.

Annie McCourt was 89 when she was admitted in January 2016 with dementia after being assessed as unable to live alone.

She was rushed to hospital six months later after falling out of bed and was diagnosed with pneumonia and kidney failure.

But before she became a victim of the horrifying abuse that became commonplace at the care home, Annie was a vibrant and tenacious woman who dedicated her life to her family.

Her final months are made even more tragic by the many devastating setbacks she suffered and overcame throughout almost nine decades.

Born at 49 Mary Street in west Belfast on December 22, 1926, she was the second of five children. Like so many people living in the area, her parents Mary Eliza and Thomas Peake had little money and worked hard to provide for their children.

While Mary Eliza stayed at home, Thomas worked as a stone mason, despite the fact he was blind in one eye as a result of his job. Life was tough, but no one could imagine the trauma that lay ahead.

Annie's granddaughter Julieann McNally explained: "Granny's mum died when she was just five. She had TB, she had to go to Whiteabbey and then the birth was too much for her. Granny had a little sister who died when she was just six-weeks-old.

"It was so tough for granny to lose her mummy at such a young age. She had 164 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren and she used to tell them how lucky they were to have their mummies.

"She used to say it to me all the time. It really affected her. She used to pray to the Holy Mother that she would always be alive to watch her children and grandchildren grow up."

Annie helped to raise her siblings, although her father also worked hard to keep the family together.

Julieann added: "Granny used to tell a story about the priest and the nuns coming to take the children away to put them in a home, but her daddy wouldn't allow them. He worked so hard to look after them. The neighbours helped as well. He never claimed benefits his whole life."

At the age of 12 Annie started a job working in the mills to help provide for her family. She stayed there until she met her future husband Frank McCourt when she was 20. The couple married at St Peter's Cathedral on June 25, 1949. Frank was a soldier when they met, but his life took a different turn after a medical discharge.

"He'd fallen out with his family and ran away from home and joined the Army," explained Julieann. "He had served in the war, but after he left, he joined the IRA. He used to collect money and would give it out to the on-the-runs to make sure they had food.

"Grandad had a radio and he would be able to tell where the soldiers were, so the house was always being raided over the years. The floorboards were pulled up and everything.

"They had a big Alsatian dog called Shane and the soldiers loved him, they wanted to use him as a sniffer dog, but granny wouldn't have it, so the soldiers poisoned him. She used to talk about that all the time."

She added: "Things were tough for granny over the years. My grandfather worked as a rag-and-bone man, buying and selling anything and everything. Money was tight and granny never bought anything for herself - all her money went on her children. They never went out. The only pleasure they had was the odd game of bingo.

"Granny did a bit of cleaning to get a bit of extra money, but she had 10 children, so she was at home for them most of the time. She lost one of her children herself, Robert. He was her second-born son and he died at six weeks old.

"He had what is known as reflux now. She took him to the old Abbey Hospital and, in those days, you didn't stay with your child when they were in hospital.

"She got a telegraph to say he had died during the night. She never got over it. She talked about him a lot, even when she had dementia. She would talk about how she gave birth to him at home. She had all her children at home, except her baby, my Uncle Paul.

"Granny celebrated Robert's birthday every year. She remembered it every year."

Annie's family continued to play a central role in her life as the years went by. When Frank was diagnosed with stomach cancer she nursed him until he passed away. It was then that Julieann moved in with her.

"Losing my grandfather was hard on granny," said Julieann. "We didn't think she would last long after him, but once again her family meant so much to her. Her children came first and she kept fighting for us.

"I was only supposed to live with her for a while, but I ended up staying for 10 years. When the time came that I was thinking of moving out, I had a cupboard and I would buy bits and pieces and put them in the cupboard, so that when I finally moved out I would have the things I needed.

"Granny was always buying bits and pieces and putting them in the cupboard, even if it was a duvet or some pillows, she was making sure I would be okay. She was the person who held our family together, she was formidable and you wouldn't cross her. She would slap you if you got out of line and you really felt it - her slaps were hard, but she had such respect.

"Everyone loved her. She would feed everyone, the whole street would be in the house even though she had nothing.

"I remember sitting on the floor on the kitchen on newspaper, eating. She just loved her family. It meant the world to her.

"She never knew where her mummy was buried - they didn't have enough money for a grave when she died and she was going to be buried in what was known as poor ground.

"But another family let them use their grave and granny's mum was buried there, but because she was a child, she never knew where she was.

"I did some research and, about six years ago, I managed to find where she was. It was up in Milltown (cemetery) and we tidied it up and took granny up. She was so pleased to finally get to visit her mummy.

"Everything that she went through made her the person that she was, it made her strong. But she was also soft inside, soft for her family. She would never have accepted what was going on in Dunmurry.

"Our family is never going to stop until we get answers and until we know nothing like what granny went through can ever happen again."

Belfast Telegraph

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