Northern Ireland shines a light on dark past

It’s holding an Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry into child abuse in children’s homes and other residential institutions between 1922 and 1995.



For nearly ten years during that period, nearly 110 children in care were sent to live in Western Australia.


Now the inquiry wants them to come home and testify about what those years in care were like.


At Tuart Place in Fremantle, Western Australia there is laughter, good food and friends.


It’s a place where children who were in institutional care can talk about their past, present and future.


For one of them, a child migrant, the near future will be a trip back to the country from where she was “stolen” as a five-year-old.


Anne, the daughter of an unwed Catholic mother, spent the first five years of her life at Nazareth House in Northern Ireland before she was sent to Western Australia – without her mother’s permission.


She was one of 110 children in care who made the trip between 1947 and 1955.


Anne intends to testify at Northern Ireland’s Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, which is calling for the surviving child migrants to share their experiences.


“I want to speak on behalf of those that are unable to. Those that have passed on, including my mother, and for my family in Northern Ireland and for my family in Australia. I have a son and a partner, we’ve never married, but we’ve been together for 38 years or so. It’s on their behalf that I want to speak out because my partner’s a child migrant as well. He’s an English child migrant so I want to go and speak for them.”


Anne’s and her mother’s story began as the Second World War was coming to an end.


“In 1944 she had a relationship with an American soldier who was stationed in Northern Ireland during the war. In June, he was sent to Normandy to fight on D-Day, got injured and got repatriated back to America. My mother found out she was pregnant, so as a result she left Northern Ireland to have me in southern Ireland in a place called Manor House, Castle Pollard in West Meath. That was in November 1944.”


A few weeks later, Anne was taken to Nazareth House in Belfast, Northern Ireland where she would spend the next five years.


It was a children’s home run by Catholic nuns who, according to former residents, would beat children and lock them in cupboards until they stopped crying.


Anne says she can’t remember any of her time there or coming to Western Australia.


“To me it’s my way of coping. Not remembering the horrible stuff and I don’t even recall the trip out on the boat. It’s all been blocked out. That’s my way of coping. (Reporter: because that would have taken some time, the journey on the boat). Yeah, about five, six weeks, yeah, it would have been a while. We had two nuns that came over, but they have denied it. I can recall when they came over and said we cut your hair and you locked yourself in your cabin for three days because they cut me hair, but that’s, other than that, I don’t know a thing; don’t remember a thing.”


Unbeknown to Anne at the time, her mother came to visit her, as she often did, at the home.


She was told her daughter, who she was paying maintenance for, was gone – taken to the other side of the world.


Anne says she spoke to her mother about it, but she can’t remember what she tried to do to get her back.


In Western Australia, Anne’s new home was Saint Joseph’s in Subiaco.


She can remember this home.


“Well, brutal at times. Schooling was under duress. Frightening at times because if you couldn’t do your homework or couldn’t fathom out what was being taught you got whacked around a bit so it wasn’t the best. To me I equate it to a modern day Oliver Twist because you were always fearful. You were always looking after one another in case you were going to cop it next type thing. But then again we had our good times as well because as kids we made our own fun. We used to play tricks on the nuns. Do different things. Life was what you made it. You had your fun but you also saw a lot of brutality as well. But not all of them. Just a handful made it bad for all the others because there were some good nuns as well.”


Some of the brutality has stayed with Anne.


“Two girls ran away one time and they were away for a few hours and we’d all gone to bed and we were woken up, about eight or nine o’clock, and made to go down to the hall, form a circle and witness their punishment with a cane, which today I’ve never gotten over. It was quite brutal. The noise, the horrible noise was bad, bad.”


Anne was at the home for ten years, but her school friends knew her as Lucy.


It was common practice for children to have their names changed.


When “Lucy” reached her mid-teens, she was sent away to work.


At her last placement, when she was about 17, she refused to go back.


Anne feared if she returned to St Joseph’s, she would become a “working girl” – stuck at the children’s home working for the nuns.


She locked herself in the toilet and refused to come out until she had assurances from the owner’s son that she wouldn’t be taken back to Subiaco.


“When he came to collect me, he said ‘yes, you’re not going back’ and when I got back late in the evening, I went to bed wherever I went and that following morning when I woke up, I got such a shock because there was barbed wire on all the windows and I thought ‘far out, I’ve been sent to jail!’ I couldn’t believe it. So that was that and it was Mt Lawley receiving home. I’d been sent to a juvenile detention centre.”


She spent three weeks there and was finally found a job at Government House as a kitchen lady.


Free at last, she was encouraged by her welfare officer to see her family in Northern Ireland.


She knew their address after her mother had sent her a letter when she was in Grade Four, which the nuns made her read in front of her class.


Despite the contact, Anne didn’t really think her mother would come to get her.


“You did in a way because like from where we were in the playground or in class, you could always hear the front door bell ringing and you’d stop and you’d think ‘is it going to be for me? Is it my mother coming over?’ and then in the end you joked about it and said ‘yeah, she’s walking across the water just to come and see me’, you know you make a joke of it, but you knew that it wasn’t going to happen. It was just too far away. Not that I realised the distance in those days, but you just thought it’s never going to happen. It just wasn’t going to happen.”


So Anne moved to London in 1967 and made it happen.


For the next two years she got to know her family, including a caring step father who treated her as his own, during frequent visits to Northern Ireland.


But her six siblings only knew her as their cousin at first.


“It was a long time before I realized it shouldn’t have happened, but I didn’t get upset about it until quite a few years later. I just went with the flow. I didn’t get angry until I had my own son. When I had my own son, I realized what he was missing. There was no extended family, no cousins for him to play with. That’s when I started to get angry. (Reporter: Who were you angry at?) The system for what happened. Everything. I was just angry. I would bawl my eyes out for no reason. I just got angry at the whole situation. (Reporter: what about your mother? Any anger towards her?) When I first met her, we just had, not shouting words, you know: ‘you thought more of yourself than of me, you just dumped me, blah blah blah. The usual stuff, but there was nothing confrontational or anything like that. Just wondering why. What happened? It’s all it was really.”


But Anne had a family at last and when her mother died in 1984, the penny dropped for the remaining siblings who hadn’t figured out the truth.


Now her next trip to Northern Ireland will be to speak on their behalf, her mother’s and her own about the decades they all spent apart.


The director of Tuart Place Phillipa White says there are other child migrants who want to make the same journey as Anne, but ill health and raw emotions are preventing them.


“A lot were too young to remember anything, but of those who do recall, you know the same kind of abuse that occurred in Australia. There was violent, physical abuse, there was sexual abuse, lack of education , emotional cruelty, separation from siblings, lack of information about themselves. Some were given misinformation about whether their parents were living or not and other types of misinformation as you heard before, people’s names were changed arbitrarily, given different birth dates, that kind of thing.”


Dr White says they want the inquiry to come to them, which the inquiry is considering.


But there are others whose voices will never be heard.


“There would be a number who have died because the group are an older cohort of adults and some maybe living interstate. It was not uncommon once children left institutions to take off to rural WA or interstate and to try to get as far away as possible from their recollections of being in institutional care. So a lot don’t read newspapers. A lot don’t listen to electronic media. Particularly at the moment as there’s a lot of coverage of things like the Royal Commission and that can be quite retraumatising for people.”


No date has been set yet for child migrants to make the journey to their country of birth to relive the trauma of the past.


The inquiry is scheduled to conclude in 2015 with a report to be handed to the Northern Ireland Executive by January 2016.


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