independent

Monday 25 September 2017

Wexford woman recalls abuse and force-feeding in industrial school

Ita Gallagher, who spent three years at the Good Shepherd Convent in New Ross
Ita Gallagher, who spent three years at the Good Shepherd Convent in New Ross
The entrance door to the convent

David Looby

Sitting in her Ballykelly home, Ita Gallagher holds up a bundle of papers and shakes her head in disbelief. The Freedom of Information papers and files catalogue her story, much of which has been redacted using thick strokes of a marker.

The hammered typewriter print leaps from the pages, the truncated sentences hinting at the horror of life in St Aidan's industrial school beside the Good Shepherd Magdalene laundry in the Irishtown. Names of nuns of all rankings preface horrors untold, some redacted from history.

Ita takes her vaper in her other hand and outlines her story.

Ita spent three years at the industrial school from when she was 30 months until she was five-and-a-half.

Her time there, along with the time her three sisters spent there, came as a result of personal tragedy within her family; the illness of her mother who had to be hospitalised with TB shortly after Ita was born in 1953. She was to get no reprieve from the viccissitudes of life at the school in New Ross.

Ita's mother Margaret Lennon was diagnosed with TB and was taken to Brownswood Hospital in Enniscorthy where she would spend the final five years of her life.

This was the mid-1950s and Margaret in 1955, having been told her illness was terminal and under the advice of nuns at the hospital, requested for her four daughters to be cared for at St Aidan's.

At this time there was a perception that girls should only be cared for by women and this was impressed upon Margaret.

'She had been having some tests and six weeks after I was born she was told she had TB. On her death certificate it states that she had it for years. We used to go, my four sisters and two brothers, to visit her but the two youngest weren't allowed to go in so we sat in the car and she would come to the balcony and wave to us and throw down the baskets that she weaved from cigarette packets.'

Some time later a social worker arrived at the family home beside the River Barrow, a house which was shortly afterwards vacated by the family on health grounds.

Her brothers were left in the care of their father and a new era began with the family's disintegration.

'My sisters thought it (going to St Aidan's school) was an adventure. The social worker drove us to the Central Garage in New Ross and bought us an ice cream and then we were taken to St Aidan's.'

From the start her father Richard tried to get the four sisters back but as his wife had made the request he was powerless.

Shaking her head as she reads through the pages, she stops on a page which describes how her father was asked to pay 10 shillings a week to the nuns for caring for his daughters.

'He would send money when he had it but being a casual farm labourer money was not always easy to come by,' Ita says.

Other pages feature written statements to the health board from her sister describing how Ita was beaten for wetting the bed, for not eating all of the food on her plate and of how she suffered from styes in both her eyes which were never treated by a doctor.

Words like depression, long term damage and low self esteem cry out from the pages.

Ita's earliest memories of her time at St Aidan's are of crying.

'I remember crying an awful lot. I was separated from my sisters, kept in the nursery while they were in the dormitory.

'My older sisters got into trouble several times because they tried to protect me. They told me about times in the refectory where we ate, about how I was crying because I was being force fed food in one of the high chairs lined up against the wall.'

Ita and her sisters did have contact with their father, but this was under the watchful gaze of the nuns.

'My father used to come on a Sunday, perhaps once a month, and he was shown into a room with a polished floor and a nun would be there with her arms folded standing over us as my sisters talked so we couldn't tell him anything.

'We were so immaculately turned out when out in public nobody thought there was anything untoward happening in the Good Shepherd Convent as it was known then. When my sisters and the other girls went to the church for the Coprus Christi procession they recalled to avoid eye contact with people on the street as perhaps this would let people know the sadness.'

Despite being so young, Ita vividly remembers the brutality of life at the school.

'What I recall most of the time is being force fed with an old metal spoon. I remember the food we got was horrible and I remember nuns shouting at me and it pouring out of my mouth as they shoved the metal spoon into my mouth. On another occasion I was pulled from my high chair and a nun shook me.'

Three decades later Ita began suffering anxiety attacks.

'My throat would close up. I couldn't eat and lost a few stone. I didn't know why I couldn't eat but then suddenly it came to mind it could possibly have been because of the force feeding.'

Another memory is of the thunder and lightning one night.

'I was amidst the darkness under a glass ceiling. I have a memory of thinking I was going to die. I remember the lightning flashing in on me and the thunder and there was nobody there to reassure me and to care for me.'

From the summer of 1955 to July 1958 Ita and her sisters lived under the watchful gaze of the nuns.

'It was only when we came out for my mother's funeral that my father decided we weren't going back and he took us home in the ass and cart.

'We used to play out in a yard with a big tree in the middle and I remember clearly hearing the noise of the women wailing and machinery going. I never knew this was coming from the Magdalene Laundry situated to the rear of our building. These were women who had lost their babies. You'd hear them and the noise of the machinery going. I presume some of the women were pregnant when they were in there. Does anybody know what happened to their babies?'

To this day Ita cannot understand how nuns could have so little empathy for children in their care.

'I cannot imagine not feeling for someone who had a tough life. I don't normally comment on things but for some reason last night I went on Facebook and talked about my time at St Aidan's.

The Good Shepherd laundry closed its doors 50 years ago. The building was demolished in late 2015. The infamous laundry was established as a refuge for women in 1860 with funding from two lay persons. The premises had long standing connections with the Good Shepherd order originally as an orphanage and later as an industrial school, and later still as a boarding school.

It says her experience at St Aidan's steeled her at a young age to succeed in school and to forge a life for herself. 'Myself and my sisters attended the national school in Ballykelly when we came out of the convent and my experience there was a determination to succeed at whatever cost, doing my homework sitting in the ditch on the way to school as lighting at home was mainly by candlelight.'

The family moved apart over the years after the death of their father in 1963. Her siblings left for foreign shores, one after the other with one sister remaining at home in the homestead.

At the age of 12 Ita was offered a place at a teaching nunnery run by nuns in Youghal and she jumped at the opportunity.

'It cost £3,000 a year to be educated there and I was determined that I was going to do my best to further my education. They were offering it to me for free because of my circumstances. I knew it was my only path to further education and it was with the Sacred Heart nuns.'

Describing her time in Youghal as 'absolutely fantastic', she said: 'I had a great education and learned French, Latin, Alegbra etc, so many subjects I would never have learned had I not got this opportunity.' Ita stayed at the nunnery for two years.

'I was well fed there and after my second year I was told when I was coming home that I would be made a nun within a year but I never went back.'

Ita moved to England in 1967 and spent her time there working and furthering her education.

She has been back living in Ireland since 1991 and has settled into her local community with ease, remembering the lovely neighbours who had been so kind to her family as children.

The scars of her time at St Aidan's remained, however, and deepened, leading her to become overprotective of her children.

'I became overprotective of my children. I needed them near me all of the time, but they haven't suffered because of it as I was always honest about my past'

Ita has met with some former residents of St Aidan's but somehow couldn't relate to them.

She says this might be because they were older than her when at the school, and because she associated them with putting the babies to bed and being left in distress.

She shudders as she recalls registering her girls at St Mary's Secondary School.

'I approached a nun and told her how much it pained me to be there and she suggested I go to counselling with nuns in New Ross. I went once, but walked out in disgust. I couldn't stand to look at the nun. She was wearing a jumper but all I could see was the nun's habit and how it framed her face.'

To this day Ita, 64, cannot sleep in the dark and needs to have her bedroom door left ajar.

Confronting her demons, Ita attended the redress board around 12 years ago having been encouraged by a local woman she knew who was at St Aidan's who had gone before the redress board.

'The process was almost as bad as being in the home. My sister had gotten a lump sum. She had taken a lot of beatings when she came to my rescue. I remember when I went before the board I insisted my sister be there with me. It was a big long table and it felt very intimidating and cold surrounded by somewhat judgemental people questioning my case, having been assessed previously by a psychiatrist who had said that I was articulate and confident, I certainly didn't feel that way on the day.'

Ita was awarded a nominal sum for her apparent 'suffering', whilst in the care of the nuns under the Redress system.

She has also benefited from Caranua, the State agency set up in recent years up to help people who, as children, experienced abuse in residential institutions.

Looking back at her time at the old school in the Irishtown, Ita says: 'I don't want anybody else to go through what I went through. I honestly believe nuns shouldn't have been looking after us children. We got no medical care, We got no emotional care and we defintely got no affection. Girls were not properly educated, they were used to doing the chores, the polishing of floors on their hands and knees being just one of them.

Ita said many people spent time there but what happened in Tuam has brought it all back to me, along with a recently published staged photo of the Convent girls in their finery with dolls in hand,' she says, breaking down in tears.

Sitting upright in her armchair, Ita says she has faced her demons and is no longer a slave to her past.

'I am proud of myself. I've come full circle. I can smile now and look at what happened objectively. I am one of the lucky one's I guess.'

Gorey Guardian

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