My childhood in an industrial school: Denied my identity

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22/06/2021 by socialistfight

By Mary Harney (the better one politically! as told to The

Mary Harney pictured in the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Cork in 1955

“The beatings were regular and we worked until our fingers bled”:

Mary Harney shares her personal story on a day where the fate of records of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was debated on the Dáil floor.

She was born in the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork in 1949.

She spent the first two and a half years of her life there, with her mother, before being fostered to a family in Cork city. She was neglected and abused in her foster home, and at the age of five was removed and sent to the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Sunday’s Well.

She refers to her time in the Good Shepherd as incarceration. Like so many others in industrial schools, she was beaten, forced into child labour, and treated without dignity.

All because she was born to a single mother in a country and a time when this was deemed to be one of the worst things a person could do. Speaking to on a day when the Dáil debated plans to seal records compiled by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes for 30 years, and controversial legislation was narrowly passed, Mary (now 71) recalled the trauma of her childhood years. From the time she was about seven years old, shortly after she made her First Holy Communion, she and other children “were polishing floors on our hands and knees, cleaning the headstones in the graveyard with wire brushes so that our knuckles were bleeding”.

“One of the things we had to do was what was called teasing a mattress. So, bear in mind that many of the children were emotionally and mentally disturbed, and they wet the bed. When we were assigned to work on these chores, one of the things we had to do was to slit open the horsehair mattress and take all the stuffing out of it. And we were in a room where there were no windows. These mattresses that were urine soaked, we had to tease the stuffing in them, the dust in them went up our noses. We would have to tease it from one side of the room, put it in the other side and then re-stuff the mattress with dry horsehair-type stuff.

“We had black snot for weeks after … nowadays, it would be considered a crime to make a child do that.”

Mary said children also had to wash some of the nuns’ headdresses and repair shoes.

“We repaired our own shoes, we cut the leather, we sewed the shoes ‘til our fingers were bleeding with the wax thread. And that was considered normal, nobody considered that to be a problem.”

Beatings and humiliation

Mary said any “infringement of the rules”– such as talking without permission – “could get you a good beating”.

One night, when she was 12 or 13, Mary said she was caught speaking after lights out. Her punishment? To stand all night in the dormitory in her night dress and bare feet.

“It was a cold night,”  she told us, “I was there for the whole night. And then I had to go to school the next morning without any sleep. My feet, I could barely move my legs, they were so blue with the cold. And those were the kinds of punishments, the beatings and the banging.

“We had one nun who used a bunch of keys. She would hold them in her fingers and give you a good belt.”

Mary said other forms of punishment involved the children being deprived of food or being “humiliated”  in some way.

On one occasion, she and another girl were forced to stand under a urine-soaked mattress because the other girl had wet the bed.

“I had been charged with getting her up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, and the nun deemed that I hadn’t done my duty because she still wet the bed and therefore I was responsible.

“So both of us were made stand [under the mattress] in the corner of the room.”

Mary said beatings from certain nuns were a “regular”  occurrence.

“One minute they were perfectly okay and the next minute they would fly into a rage, you know, you’d get pulled around by the hair.”

Mary pointed out that not all the nuns behaved like this, saying some “never raised the hand, never touched us, they were wonderful”.

“We had some kind and gentle nuns and that must not be forgotten either, but it was the system itself that was geared towards violence against children.”

‘Your mother is dead’

Mary, like many children in industrial schools, was incorrectly told her mother was dead.

“I think I was 11 or 12, whenever I did my Confirmation. They would say things like ‘Nobody wants you, not even your mother’. And then I was told, ‘Well, your mother is dead’.

They would say to children, ‘You’re just like your mother, you’re no good … you’re just a whore.’

“We didn’t even know sometimes what they were talking about, but then I thought my mother was dead. So there I go regularly praying for the repose of her soul for the next for the next five or six years.”

Mary believed her mother was dead until she was 17. She was finally allowed to leave the Good Shepherd when she was 16 and, after a period working as a chambermaid in a hotel, she moved to England.

“I went with the intention of finding my mother, because by that time I found out that my mother was alive.”

A priest from the Sacred Heart Mission in Cork contacted the nuns in Bessborough on Mary’s behalf, and they told him the truth.

“In those days people’s reverence for priests was difference to what it is now, so the nuns didn’t hesitate to tell him that my mother was in England.”

Mary noted that her mother had also lived in an industrial school before being sent into the mother and baby home.

“It’s difficult for people like us to show affection and, you know, the bond was broken. It was gone, it was long gone, it couldn’t be put back.”  Despite this, Mary said she loved her mother dearly. “Over the 31 years we knew each other, she was my heroine, I had so much respect and love for her. But it was as if she was someone else’s mother, it’s difficult to describe to people who’ve grown up with mothers.”

Denied their identity

Mary, like many other survivors, has expressed anger and dismay over plans to seal records compiled by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes for three decades.

Several politicians, academics and legal experts have also expressed concern about the plans. The Dáil passed the Government’s Mother and Baby Homes Bill on 22.10.20

Mary said sealing the files for 30 years will “put them beyond the reach of many people and people who may not be around in 30 years time to look at the records”. Mary said sealing the records is “wrong on all fronts”  and flies in the face of international human rights law and the European Convention on Human Rights.

“It’s wrong on a human rights level. It’s wrong on a civil liberties level. It’s just wrong,”  Mary said, adding that survivors are “being re-traumatised again and again with all the commissions”. Mary has two master’s degrees and her latest thesis – submitted in August, and for which she received a first-class honours from NUI Galway – aptly examines the right to access of identity. Many other countries such as Germany, Canada, Australia and Serbia have dealt with similar situations and allowed citizens to access personal records, she noted.

But Ireland is “not doing that”  rather “continuing to put us through mental and emotional torture on a daily basis”. Mary has questioned why the records are being sealed, asking what the government is “covering up”.

“We don’t know what they are protecting, who are they protecting? They say they’re doing it to safeguard and preserve [records]. From whom? What is the government afraid of? That government agencies, people in the government, would be named? That Catholic authorities would be named?

Mary noted it’s already common knowledge that abuse of children and women was common in the homes, as were practice such as illegal adoption, forcing residents to participate in vaccine trials, and making bodies of the deceased available to medical students.

If all of this is already known, why the secrecy, she asks.

It’s not about Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. Or the Green Party, who I’m terribly disappointed in – they are all talking about climate justice but it appears justice for human beings doesn’t matter to them at all.

“We have to stop voting on party lines and vote with conscience. Can anybody in their right conscience say that [sealing the records] is justice?”▲

Horror: The scandal of the babies in the mass grave in the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Galway was discovered by local historian, Catherine Corless in 2011-13. Then all these homes in the rest of Ireland were found to have the same brutal horror stories.

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