Friday 22 February 2019

Terry Prone: Christine Buckley became a beacon of hope for abuse victims

IF Christine Buckley had been born 30 years later, she could not have made the historic impact she did on Irish life.

Thirty years after her birth, Dublin was becoming multi-racial and multi-cultural. But when she was born, in the 1940s, if you saw a black man in Dublin you knew the odds were 10-1 he was a medical student.

The Nigerian medical student who became Christine Buckley's father did not stay part of her life. Neither did her white mother.

For what no doubt seemed good reasons to them at the time, they handed their child over to an orphanage run by nuns.

Goldenbridge was regarded, at the time, as one of the best; so much so that the Sisters of Mercy institution figured in TV programmes about how childcare should be done. Christine (inset), who died yesterday, grew up there. She was educated, joined the world of work, married and had three children.

A good news story, you might say. Didn't she do well?

Until the day, almost 22 years ago, that she went on Gay Byrne's RTE1 radio programme to talk about that orphanage as a place of slavery for the children consigned to it.

A place of suffering and starvation, of loss and loneliness that left a mark as permanent as a tattoo on each of the children who went through it.

A man named Louis Lentin, hearing that radio programme, decided to turn Christine Buckley's story into a TV docudrama, an emerging genre allowing the story to be vividly told.

POWERFUL

When Dear Daughter was broadcast, the Sisters of Mercy disputed its claims, and other former residents came forward to proffer their own, rather different experiences.

None of that mattered. Little of it was heard.

Louis Lentin and Christine Buckley’s programme had a powerful effect on the minds of the general public.

From the early shots of the little multi-racial child representing Christine as a toddler to the re-enactment of rosary-making, the images stuck in viewers' brains, sparking questions and changing perceptions.

For the first time, one woman personified an untold story: the story of children handed over to the State and, in turn, handed over by the State to the religious.

It was a tangled story of the best of intentions morphing into cruel power games and life-long hurt.

It opened the floodgates, and through those gates poured one story after another of muddied, bloodied, damaged lives, of childhoods lost.

The storytellers were astonished to find cameras and microphones all around them and journalists taking notes because, up to that point, nobody had wanted to hear the sorry saga of their lives, even if they had mustered the courage to tell it.

The State, in the person of then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, apologised to them. Slowly, systems were put in place to allow some of the suffering to be shared with counsellors, to give survivors medical services, to put some semblance of support around the shattered lives of men and women now in their middle or late years.

Christine Buckley, whose televised life story was the key that opened those floodgates, devoted the rest of her life to working with and advocating for the survivors of the religious institutions that once dotted the Irish landscape.

Now that she has lost a hard-fought life, maybe the way to remember her is the way Louis Lentin portrayed her at the end of Dear Daughter – dancing with her children in the driveway of their home. Delighted to have told an untellable truth. Proud to have exposed the cruel abandonment – by society and the State – of several generations of Irish children.

Irish Independent

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