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Illegitimate, So They Told me I was Rotten to the Core

Sisters of Mercy Abuse in Ireland


August 23, 2005


Illegitimate, so they told me I was rotten to the core

Tormented by the Sisters of Mercy during her childhood in Ireland, Kathleen O'Malley has written a book about her ordeal to exorcise her demons
KATHLEEN O’MALLEY lives in a neat bungalow with shiny furniture and lots of photographs of her husband, her son and herself. She always looks very glamorous and today, her hair and make-up considered and precise, her pronunciation received and modulated, she looks like what she is, a Hertfordshire lady golfer and magistrate. She is a woman with exceptional poise, and it is not long before she indicates that she has no intention of losing it: “You aren’t going to make me cry are you, please?” she says with an uncharacteristic downward glance.

Of course, I don’t want to make her cry, but I am here to talk about her catastrophic childhood in an industrial school — a euphemism for workhouse — in Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s, and as anyone who survived this experience will confirm, it is a painful subject. There, incarcerated by 6ft walls and under the tutelage of the Sisters of Mercy nuns, Kathleen was beaten, starved and humiliated to a point where she felt worthless and wanted only to be invisible. Her education was scant; instead she was put to work scrubbing floors, in the laundry and, barefoot and dressed in rags, in the surrounding fields. She knew only cruelty and so, like the other girls, she became cruel, too. She stole food, sometimes raw potatoes from the store, sometimes she rifled through the pigswill bin, scraping out banana skins and eating orange pith. Denied water between what passed for meals, she drank from toilets. And for years afterwards she told no one, heeding the words of the nun who warned her that her past must be a secret because people would judge her by it. “When each girl left Sister Cecilia said, ‘Don’t tell anyone where you come from, they will look down on you’. Well, that sticks with you. Why would you tell anyone?”

It was only when Kathleen became a magistrate eight years ago that she recognised her own worth and allowed herself to look into her past. Her son was an adult — “I would never have done anything while he was growing up because I still had this fear of being found out, where I was from” — and she was aware that in Ireland other survivors of industrial and reformatory schools were talking openly about their abuse and lobbying the Irish Government for reparation. That was when she instructed a solicitor in Dublin to retrieve the papers that tell her story, which is published this month in Childhood Interrupted, a moving account of her early years, and of a society dominated by an intolerant and hypocritical Roman Catholic Church.

She dedicates the book to her late Mammy, Mary O’Malley, and it is primarily a vindication of this “greatest mother and most courageous woman” whose unmarried status made her a target for Ireland’s mid-20th century moral guardians: the State, the Catholic Church and the NSPCC. Kathleen was born in 1942 and, like her older sister, never knew her father. But her mother, a colourful woman who worked as a cleaner, had spirit and pride and made a loving home for her children in a Dublin tenement. “We were poor, but so what? I had everything I needed, I had my rice pudding after my main meal and got to go to sleep in Mammy’s bed. I just remember being loved and cuddled,” Kathleen says. The girls even had ribbons in their hair, but the quality of their mother’s care counted for nothing when the NSPCC charged her with being “destitute” — ie, unmarried — and sent her daughters to St Vincent’s Goldenbridge, an Industrial School. Kathleen was 5.

There she was put to work threading rosary beads on to wire that cut into her hands, and she was beaten: “There did not have to be a reason.” The greatest shock, she says, was that there was no toilet paper. “We wiped our bottoms with our fingers, then we wiped them on the walls. There was always a lingering stench.” Further persecution came when the nuns ordered the girls to gather in a yard and remove their pants. These were put on a pole and the other girls had to vote on whether they were soiled or not. Girls who had dirty pants were beaten in front of everybody. “I never did understand it. How could we be expected to keep ourselves clean?”

By the time Kathleen and her sister escaped a year later, they had scabies and ringworm and were painfully thin, enabling Mammy to argue in court that she should keep them on the ground of health, Kathleen believes. Their happy life resumed, but when Kathleen was 8 she was locked in a room by a neighbour and raped. She said nothing, but within a few days she could barely walk; when her mother took her to hospital the child was found to have gonorrhoea. Boldly, given the mores of the time — sex, let alone sexual abuse, was deemed shameful and never discussed — Mammy made the assault public and pushed for a prosecution, unwittingly giving the NSPCC the proof it needed that she was an unfit mother and that her children needed “protection”. This time her daughters — there were now three — were committed to Mount Carmel Industrial School in Moate, Co Westmeath, until their 16th birthdays.

The physical deprivation was similar to Goldenbridge: one pair of clean pants a fortnight, the same jumper worn all winter. “We must have stank, we were urchins really,” says Kathleen. But as she describes the eight years of persistent neglect and abuse that she endured, it is the emotional deprivation that is most disturbing. The girls were not allowed to talk to each other, which meant that there was no friendship or solidarity between them, no care for each other, no way of expressing how they felt — indeed they learnt not to express their feelings. Kathleen felt lost and alone and as she cried herself to sleep each night (and then invariably wet the bed), she could only conclude that she was a very bad girl.

This feeling came from the rape — Kathleen had made the connection between that abuse and being sent to Moate — and was cruelly reinforced by the nuns who demonised the O’Malley sisters. One would shake her head whenever she saw Kathleen and say: “Them O’Malleys. They’re rotten to the core.” The rationale was that because their mother was unmarried, she was both worthless and a threat to the social order. Therefore, so were her daughters, and they must be punished for their mother’s sin. Kathleen reads from the NSPCC form that committed her to Moate in 1947: “ ‘Being illegitimate whose mother is unable to support her and consents to her being sent to a certified industrial school’. My mother never consented to that.”

Her sense of shame was not helped by the rape trial, at which she testified (the abuser was convicted). She urges me to read the transcript — much of the time she was mute — and says that when she read it for the first time she felt merely numb. “I’ve just got in my memory a picture of a little girl in the dock. Motionless. Nobody beside me. I know now that when you are persecuted the perpetrator will make you feel that you really made them do it. I was burdened with that, and at Moate I was put down on a daily, hourly, basis and if you’re not, the girl next to you is.

“This is ongoing, the pattern of behaviour is repeated. I automatically took on responsibility for what had happened. We had no rights. We were fortunate that the nuns gave us a roof over our heads or we’d be walking the streets of Dublin. They had such power. When people visited we were threatened to within an inch of our lives. We had to say, ‘I’m very well, thank you, I’m very happy, thank you, we have lovely food, thank you’. You did it because you were within 6ft walls, there was no one to talk to and if you talked, you knew what you would get.”

And so she came to trust the nuns with what she calls a “terrible adoration”, a mixture of awe and fear. “I look back and they were heavenly, they were Christ’s brides. Even to get a glimpse of them walking down the cloister — everything they did — hero worship. But, then, victims do look up to bullies. It’s renowned. I see it now, but as a child I had an enormous need to please. I still do, though to a lesser degree. It’s rather sad.”

She recognises now that she was brainwashed by the nuns into believing that their treatment was for her own good. “We were robotic.” This is unsurprising, as she had no access to any other authority figures, and for years after she left she sent the nuns presents and visited them; she even took her baby son to see them 20 years later. Meanwhile, as she became institutionalised and lost the ability to ask questions or have opinions, her relationship with her mother stalled. She resented Mammy for not having protected her and, with her elder sister, fled to London, where she reinvented herself, losing her accent — “Everything associated with Ireland was wrong. I needed to get rid of the entire skin, to be the same as everyone else” — and explaining that she had been at boarding school.

“I was riddled with shame and felt such worthlessness about myself. My past was a closed door. Dealing with religion [she no longer has a faith] and being able to ask questions was what I was developing and learning.”

She spent years fearing that she would be found out, especially when she became a beautician and worked alongside grand colleagues on Old Bond Street. She was cagey and defensive, she says, but determined, too, and forged out the middle-class life she craved. When she met her husband, Steve, she told him about her past and he did not reject her, though she admits that her past did affect her as a mother: she was needy and overprotective, she says. “My son did demand his independence.”

She puts her survival down to her mother’s love and diligence, though when Mammy died in 1976 Kathleen had not discussed her past with her, and felt embarrassed by the Irish woman who did not fit into her carefully constructed new life. Has she made her peace with her past now, I ask. “Oh yes, I’ve vindicated my mother and moved on. When I was appointed a magistrate I was accepted for me and that was really when I became myself again, not having to pretend that I went to boarding school or lived on a farm. I started to be myself.”