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Chapter 7 — Goldenbridge

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Emotional abuse


Another witness, who had a good experience of family life before being admitted to Goldenbridge at the age of nine following the death of her mother, said that her overall impression of the Institution was of horror and fear. Her father died in 1967, but whilst he was alive he had regular contact with the family. He visited every second Sunday, but he would often arrive after he had been drinking. She recalled how Sr Eleonora21 and one of the lay staff would speak to him in a degrading way. His children would plead and beg him to take them out of Goldenbridge, and his famous saying was ‘keep your chin up ... it’s not what’s on the outside, it’s the inside that counts’. She said the family were very poor. Their mother was a lovely woman. She believed that the fact that their father visited them regularly spared her from a lot of the abuse that the other children were subjected to. One of her great dislikes in Goldenbridge was that some of the girls were treated as favourites and pets.


She spoke about being beaten and abused if underwear was dirty, and also spoke of the humiliation of being lined up naked to be painted with a treatment for scabies. She was quite clear that the way in which this treatment was carried out was designed to maximise the humiliation of the children, particularly of older girls.


Some of the witnesses at the Goldenbridge hearings were men who had been sent there as young boys. One man spoke of the loss of family contact as a result of being placed in Goldenbridge at two years of age in the early 1960s. He said: Goldenbridge was a tough place as a young little boy. When I think of my own kids and I think that if anybody hurt them I would destroy their lives. That is the only true way I have got of reflecting on what happened to me as a kid growing up.


This complainant said that it was only when he had his own children that he realised how harsh his own upbringing had been. They received no individual care and were just herded around.


One witness gave a very personal account of a tragedy that occurred during her time in Goldenbridge. She was there for 10 years from the mid-1960s, following the break-up of her parents’ marriage.


Within a year of her committal to Goldenbridge, her two older brothers died in an accident. She and two of her sisters were called down to Sr Venetia’s office, where she found two of their uncles, together with a lay teacher. They were told about the deaths and they were given two bull’s eye sweets each. They were then sent back to the recreation room. She said that: I was sent back down to the rest of the children. Nobody took me aside and put their arms around me in any shape or form, as God is my witness that is the truth, that is the truth. Nobody gave me any comfort other than the bit of comfort we tried to give each other as a family.


The pain of loss and separation was experienced not only by the children. For many parents, placing their children in care was an act of desperation.


Another complainant entered Goldenbridge in the mid-1960s, aged five years of age, with his older sister, following the separation of his mother and father. There were six children at the time, and only the eldest sister accompanied her mother to England after the separation. Initially, his father was trying to look after the remaining five children, but they eventually ended up in court and being committed to Goldenbridge. Originally, he was committed for a 10-year period, but his mother ‘kidnapped’ both him and his sister and brought them back to England. She came originally to bring them on a day out, but then went to collect his two older brothers who were in an industrial school and then travelled across to England with the four of them. The younger sister was left in another institution, because she was too young to be released on a day outing. His mother visited the youngest girl until she was old enough, by which time the courts released her and the family was reunited.


A letter which this complainant’s mother wrote in the mid-1960s and sent to the Christian Brothers is relevant: Dear Sir, I would like to inform you that I have now taken my children [X and Y] from your care without your consent. I have also taken [A and B] from Goldenbridge convent. All four are now in England with me. I have phoned [the] Artane School from England to say that I took the children with me. I could not phone Goldenbridge as I do not know their phone number, but I am letting them know by post. Please don’t blame me too much for what I have done in taking this advantage, but I could not see my children unhappy no longer. I have for one year done my best to try to get the children together but everything failed because I respected the law. Now, I have taken it into my own hands and if I am sent to jail I shall do the same again when I come out. The Justice said I could have my children when I get a home for them. He did not say I would have to have my husband’s consent so I did what I could to get the home for them, but I would not consider asking my husband for a letter of consent. If he wants them he can fight for them from me. But he won’t as he has not been to see them only twice since they were committed ... 12 months ago. Yours truly,


Sr Alida was asked whether the children were shown love and affection. She stated that there was no doubt that the pre-school children were shown love and affection by her, by staff in charge of the nursery, and by an older girl who would be assigned to keep an eye on them. She argued that the children of school-going age were not showered with the same level of affection as would be the norm today: Looking back still I would have to say that I never had a feeling that I had a roomful of 150 sad and frightened children. I couldn’t say that from my heart. That doesn’t mean that there could be children very sad unknown to me. I didn’t know what was inside any child’s heart or in their head. We knew nothing at all about most of the families. Any research we did, it didn’t get us very far, their lives family wise was very bleak. I, at the time, wasn’t – didn’t take into consideration what state they were in. As teenagers or as babies. Babies you could compensate, the babies we loved and we hugged and we gave every kind of care to babies. They got the best. Any baby that came to our care, I can only say they got the best. When it came to children from 12 years upwards, I never knew what was inside their hearts or their minds.


Sr Gianna stated that she was very aware of the lack of emotional care for the children in Goldenbridge: I would be very conscious of that when children came in from a family that had just lost a mother and how sad they would be. I would be very moved when I would see that because it was awful for them to come into this big school with this big crowd of children and to be just one of a group after being in a family setting.


She explained: You would be very conscious of 150 children not having the hug and the love and the care of someone who really loved them closely. You would be very conscious of that. You wouldn’t witness any of that. In our time you didn’t do that, you didn’t come near or hug people. That would have been part of our training as well. In hindsight, I think it was a good thing because I might have been accused of something very different if I had hugged or loved, as you might want to do.


She stated that Sr Alida was also aware of how vulnerable these children were. She recalled one little boy who had lost his mother and was committed to Goldenbridge. Sr Alida asked her to keep an eye on him as she worked in the workroom: I remember him coming up, standing beside me, I was at the machine working, and I just remember him standing there and his little hand coming into mine every so often because he was so shy and sad.


Ms Kearney worked as a teacher in Goldenbridge for over 30 years. When she was asked about the atmosphere in Goldenbridge. She responded: Not a happy place, I was glad to get out of it. When you have the children sulking, shouting at each other across the room and shouting at you and calling you all kinds of names it’s very hard to put up with it. It wasn’t a happy atmosphere, no. There were some lovely children in it, that never gave you a bit of trouble, you felt like hugging them but you didn’t, you couldn’t, because the bold ones would take it out of them, "teacher’s pet".


The Sisters of Mercy accept that institutional life in Goldenbridge had many negative features, which they listed as follows: The large size of the institution and the number of children who lived there gave little prospect of a replication of a family’s love and nurture. The low ratio of staff to children, which for most of the period under review was approximately 1 staff member for every 30 children. The absence of childcare training for Sisters and lay staff. The capitation system of funding, together with the level of funding, led to difficult financial constraints and choices. The regimental nature of institutional life where restriction on freedom of movement operated well beyond school hours and a lack of privacy, particularly in the early years. The emphasis on conformity rather than on creativity and choice. The very limited opportunities for forming personal one to one adult/child relationships. A reliance on corporal punishment as a feature in the maintenance of discipline and good order. A failure to properly understand the level of trauma suffered by each child as a result of being separated from family, sometimes in circumstances where their placement in the institution followed the death of a parent. A failure to properly respond to the individual emotional needs of the children, including how lonely and frightened they must have been in being taken from family and placed in a large institution with children of all ages. A failure to recognise the special emotional and educational needs of children who had come from troubled backgrounds. A failure to keep children informed about their family and family events, such as births marriages and deaths. A failure to assess the individual needs of each child, either on admission or on an ongoing basis. A failure to meet the comprehensive educational needs of children and the very inadequacy of the educational process itself relative to their needs.

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  12. Irish Journal of Medical Science 1939, and 1938 textbooks on the care of young children published in Britain.
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  22. General Inspection Reports 1953, 1954.
  23. General Inspection Reports 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1962, 1963.
  24. General Inspection Reports 1955, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960.