By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / June 18, 2009

She lives in a city north of Boston but grew up in Ireland, when it wasn’t green as much as it was black and white.

When she was 7, her mother died, and the father she knew as warm and kind grew cold and mean.

When she was 14, her father put her on his bicycle and pedalled 25 miles, to a convent.

“The nuns were nice until my father left,’’ she said. “I don’t remember saying goodbye to my father.’’

The nuns ran a school for orphans and the unwanted and a laundry peopled by older cast-off’s. They took her in and took her name. They gave her the name of a saint.

On your saint’s feast day, you got a hard boiled egg. Or a tooth brush. You didn’t get both, and you didn’t decide.

The laundry was like a prison, she recalls. You couldn’t talk at work, and you worked six days a week. The rougher, meaner girls were like trustees, and they curried favor with the nuns by enforcing a brutal code.

Every Sunday, the head nun, the Reverend Mother, sat before the laundry girls in a huge chair and read out the week’s transgressions. One day the Reverend Mother read her out, saying she had been talking at work. She called the Reverend Mother a liar, and two girls held her down while the Reverend Mother used scissors to cut off her hair.

Once, a nun accused her of having a dirty uniform.

She looked down and said, “There’s no stain there, sister.’’ And all at once her face was burning, because the nun smacked her with an open hand. She reacted, pulling off the nun’s habit. As punishment, she was placed in a small room for 48 hours. There was no food, no water, no window, no bed, no toilet. She held her bladder until it was bursting, and when she finally peed on the floor she felt like nothing.

When she was 18, she was called to the Reverend Mother’s office and told she would take a train to Dublin, to work in a hospital. Two nuns escorted her to the station. No words were spoken. They handed her a one-way ticket.

She cleaned the nurses’ quarters and soon decided to start over in London. In England, she became a nurse and decided to start over again, this time in Boston, because that’s where a lot of the Irish went back then.

She never married, and when one of the two boyfriends she ever had mentioned marriage, she ran away.

She never made much money and spent a lot of what she made on therapists.

Today, at 74, she is hesitant to speak publicly, by name, about her past; some people close to her know nothing of it, and she wants to keep it that way.

Ten years ago, the Irish government set up a program that was supposed to bring a measure of justice to people abused by schools run by religious orders. They’ve paid out more than a billion dollars. Irish lawyers came to Boston and she hired one of them. Years passed. She was supposed to get either some compensation or a chance to tell her story before an official board. She got neither.

James Smith, a Boston College professor who wrote a book about women like her, got a call from her one day, out of the blue. She told him she had read his book, 10 pages at a time, each night, because that’s all she could handle.

“She’s in legal limbo,’’ he said. “At 14, she should have been put into the school. But the nuns needed a body for the laundry, so because of that quirk of fate, she is outside what they call the terms of reference. She has been officially ignored. It’s scandalous.’’

And it eats away at her.

“The lawyer sent me a letter saying there was nothing he could do, but that if I ever get something on my own, he expects his cut,’’ she said.

She has made her peace with her God and her church, and she sits there, night after night, still looking for answers to questions no one should have to ask.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Kevin Cullen’s e-mail.
© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.


3 Responses to “A refugee of evil Irish past”

  1. Andrew says:

    Very awkward of this woman not to hide in a corner and be silent – just like society was criminally silent when we were incarcerated.

  2. What is the matter with the people? How much longer must this woman suffer?
    What are they waiting for? until the life clock of the psychologically wounded runs out, – so they can save money and have one less to take care of?

    Suffering and cruelty will never end, as longs as people in charge don’t know how to respect a human being.
    Sieglinde Alexander
    ”Adults abused as Children Worldwide”

  3. Jaker says:

    Dear Paddy, On the Joe Duffy show, today Thursday…there was a very distressing piece of listening to a very distressed story about a mother whose six year old daughter told her some time ago that her father done funny things to her (abuse) her. And then it came to pass that the mother herself witnessed same…and she rightly went to the HSE & the Gardai and a case was presented to the DPP who threw it out because it was only the child’s say. You would need to listen to a replay of this show tonight on RTE’s replay service to fully understand same, because I mightn’t be doing too well explaining it by writing to you here. But I did contact the 4 in one confidentially & after wrote the following piece in very real anger….

    This is it……………………………..
    I am truly shocked at Joe Duffy…for a man that dealt with so many stories of abuse & the secrets & fear of children (now men & women) for God knows how long, that he couldn’t see the seriousness of all this for this child. The Number 1 most important person in this equation…I can’t understand that he didn’t get in touch with the HSE immediately & demand that they help the woman & her child in this regard. The Gardai should re-examine this case again…& the HSE should apply to get an order from the court for the father to sign that form of what-ever in front of a mediator, like his solicitor. It is shocking that this child is crucified for her life ahead turning into a young woman without help or counselling for this crime. The child must always be believed, & the matter thoroughly investigated, even if there is suspicion that it may be a prank. Which on hearing the circumstance’s over air of this? I for one, do not.

    That mother was pleading on your show…to be listened to…but for you, Mr Duffy, to maybe help or point her to the right body’s 1in 4 or whatever other organisation that could take the matter further. What does she get, a cross examination, for a 1 hour or so on your show for entertainment shock value. Every utterance from the Presenter was as just, because it went through the HSE & DPP that is was a done case. Nothing of the sort, the child must be tortured inside maybe now thinking that what-ever that happened to her abuse wise is accepted in our society, & that she’s on our own now. What about the horror for her of having to fear seeing her father again? Or any other man to any degree. Oh, God…why can’t the child be given the benefit of the doubt…& be given counselling & let her slowly talk about her ordeal.

    I thought from the Dail last week…after the murmuring & the roaring of TD’s on both sides of the house about this horrific sin…that children would be given safety in the bosom of the state, every child. But a week later, here we are again a mother & child story on public radio…looking for some kind of compassion & a little plea from a broken-up mother for help, from this last resource. It must have been very hard for her to come on & beg for a gentle ear…& a caring reply….but no…Question’s as to how much proof there was, oh it’s only the child’s word, sorry, doesn’t count. I am really angry & this keyboard is getting a right pelting from me as I write this…that no doubt after I’ll be suffering from a case of Tendonitis.

    Now…tomorrow…another day on, & he’ll be back on air for another show. And in the between time, a little girl is most likely shivering…& in fear…& likely crying in the night…& …wondering why no-one believes her pain, her torture, her loneliness…her obscure feeling for life, except her mother. Her childhood destroyed…her mind raped…her future, if she can understand it yet …shattered & destroyed. Her sense of fragility broken up…into little pieces…oh the suffering is unbearable….& no one from the states childcare bodies care or give a damn…& the radio Broadcaster goes on to another subject…what happened Pat, your car was broken into? Who did it to you do you know? & as the voice says “Some-hooligan’s Joe. A little child is looking towards the radio in her mammy’s house at the same time; her little voice is trembling as she is whispering tearfully the answer, “My bad Daddy”.

    “Suffer the little Children”, will it ever end?

    Joe Duffy might think I am being too hard on him in my response…but the child in this case to me, is the most important “Person/Human Being” in all this. And I won’t apologize for my thoughts or actions regarding same!

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