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'The beatings were regular and we worked until our fingers bled': My childhood in an industrial school

Mary Harney shares her personal story on a day where the fate of records of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was debated on the Dáil floor.

Screenshot 2020-10-22 at 17.28.59 Mary Harney pictured in the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Cork, circa 1955. Source: Mary Harney

MARY HARNEY was born in the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork in 1949.

She spent the first two and a half years of her life there, with her mother, before being fostered to a family in Cork city.

She was neglected and abused in her foster home, and at the age of five was removed and sent to the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Sunday’s Well.

She refers to her time in the Good Shepherd as incarceration. Like so many others in industrial schools, she was beaten, forced into child labour, and treated without dignity.

All because she was born to a single mother in a country and a time when this was deemed to be one of the worst things a person could do.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie on a day when the Dáil debated plans to seal records compiled by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes for 30 years, and controversial legislation was narrowly passed, Mary (now 71) recalled the trauma of her childhood years.

From the time she was about seven years old, shortly after she made her First Holy Communion, she and other children “were polishing floors on our hands and knees, cleaning the headstones in the graveyard with wire brushes so that our knuckles were bleeding”.

“One of the things we had to do was what was called teasing a mattress. So, bear in mind that many of the children were emotionally and mentally disturbed, and they wet the bed.

“When we were assigned to work on these chores, one of the things we had to do was to slit open the horsehair mattress and take all the stuffing out of it. And we were in a room where there were no windows.

“These mattresses that were urine soaked, we had to tease the stuffing in them, the dust in them went up our noses. We would have to tease it from one side of the room, put it in the other side and then re-stuff the mattress with dry horsehair-type stuff.

“We had black snot for weeks after … nowadays, it would be considered a crime to make a child do that.”

Mary said children also had to wash some of the nuns’ headdresses and repair shoes.

“We repaired our own shoes, we cut the leather, we sewed the shoes ’til our fingers were bleeding with the wax thread. And that was considered normal, nobody considered that to be a problem.”

Beatings and humiliation

Mary said any “infringement of the rules” – such as talking without permission – “could get you a good beating”.

One night, when she was 12 or 13, Mary said she was caught speaking after lights out. Her punishment? To stand all night in the dormitory in her night dress and bare feet.

“It was a cold night,” she told us, “I was there for the whole night. And then I had to go to school the next morning without any sleep. My feet, I could barely move my legs, they were so blue with the cold. And those were the kinds of punishments, the beatings and the banging.

“We had one nun who used a bunch of keys. She would hold them in her fingers and give you a good belt.”

Mary said other forms of punishment involved the children being deprived of food or being “humiliated” in some way.

On one occasion, she and another girl were forced to stand under a urine-soaked mattress because the other girl had wet the bed.

“I had been charged with getting her up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, and the nun deemed that I hadn’t done my duty because she still wet the bed and therefore I was responsible.

“So both of us were made stand [under the mattress] in the corner of the room.”

Mary said beatings from certain nuns were a “regular” occurrence.

“One minute they were perfectly okay and the next minute they would fly into a rage, you know, you’d get pulled around by the hair.”

Mary pointed out that not all the nuns behaved like this, saying some “never raised the hand, never touched us, they were wonderful”.

“We had some kind and gentle nuns and that must not be forgotten either, but it was the system itself that was geared towards violence against children.”

‘Your mother is dead’

Mary, like many children in industrial schools, was incorrectly told her mother was dead.

“I think I was 11 or 12, whenever I did my Confirmation. They would say things like ‘Nobody wants you, not even your mother’. And then I was told, ‘Well, your mother is dead’.

They would say to children, ‘You’re just like your mother, you’re no good … you’re just a whore.’

“We didn’t even know sometimes what they were talking about, but then I thought my mother was dead. So there I go regularly praying for the repose of her soul for the next for the next five or six years.”

Mary believed her mother was dead until she was 17. She was finally allowed to leave the Good Shepherd when she was 16 and, after a period working as a chambermaid in a hotel, she moved to England.

“I went with the intention of finding my mother, because by that time I found out that my mother was alive.”

A priest from the Sacred Heart Mission in Cork contacted the nuns in Bessborough on Mary’s behalf, and they told him the truth.

“In those days people’s reverence for priests was difference to what it is now, so the nuns didn’t hesitate to tell him that my mother was in England.”

Mary said she and others who went to London at that time “went with stars in our eyes and thought the streets were paved with everything other than the shit they were actually paved with”.

14be5c7f-365d-40c0-b779-ec6ef923f8d8 Mary Harney Source: Mary Harney

Mary met another girl in London who grew up in the institution at the same time as her, and the girl’s two brothers, who were also raised in industrial schools in Ireland. They were homeless for a while but, after getting very ill while sleeping rough, Mary ended up in a halfway house and got a job.

She said the nuns in Bessborough “eventually” gave her a letter telling her where her mother, Margaret ‘Peggy’ Harney, was. The aforementioned priest had acted as a go-between and spoke to her mother, who also wanted to meet her.

Their first meeting was “awkward” but they became close over time and Mary moved in with her mother and her husband and other children for a while.

“I went to live with them but it was a situation I wasn’t used to – even where I worked was an institution. So, going to a small house, I couldn’t cope mentally, the walls felt like they were closing in.

“Even though I was accepted by the family, I didn’t fit in. It’s difficult to explain because, that was my mother’s family and I was the stranger moving in so it was difficult.”

Mary noted that her mother had also lived in an industrial school before being sent into the mother and baby home.

“It’s difficult for people like us to show affection and, you know, the bond was broken. It was gone, it was long gone, it couldn’t be put back.”

Despite this, Mary said she loved her mother dearly.

“Over the 31 years we knew each other, she was my heroine, I had so much respect and love for her. But it was as if she was someone else’s mother, it’s difficult to describe to people who’ve grown up with mothers.”

Despite the many difficulties she faced, Mary is grateful she got to meet her mother as so many others were denied this opportunity.

Denied their identity

Mary, like many other survivors, has expressed anger and dismay over plans to seal records compiled by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes for three decades.

Several politicians, academics and legal experts have also expressed concern about the plans.

Under the 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act once it submits its final report – which is due to happen at the end of this month – the commission will be dissolved and, prior to its dissolution, it must deposit all records with Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman to be sealed for a period of 30 years.

The proposed legislation will see the transfer of certain records from O’Gorman to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.

Mary said sealing the files for 30 years will “put them beyond the reach of many people and people who may not be around in 30 years time to look at the records”.

Mary said sealing the records is “wrong on all fronts” and flies in the face of international human rights law and the European Convention on Human Rights.

“It’s wrong on a human rights level. It’s wrong on a civil liberties level. It’s just wrong,” Mary said, adding that survivors are “being re-traumatised again and again with all the commissions”.

Mary has two master’s degrees and her latest thesis – submitted in August, and for which she received a first-class honours from NUI Galway – aptly examines the right to access of identity.

Many other countries such as Germany, Canada, Australia and Serbia have dealt with similar situations and allowed citizens to access personal records, she noted.

But Ireland is “not doing that” rather “continuing to put us through mental and emotional torture on a daily basis”.

Mary has questioned why the records are being sealed, asking what the government is “covering up”.

“We don’t know what they are protecting, who are they protecting? They say they’re doing it to safeguard and preserve [records]. From whom?

What is the government afraid of? That government agencies, people in the government, would be named? That Catholic authorities would be named?

Mary noted it’s already common knowledge that abuse of children and women was common in the homes, as were practice such as illegal adoption, forcing residents to participate in vaccine trials, and making bodies of the deceased available to medical students.

If all of this is already known, why the secrecy, she asks.

Sealing the records amounts to “denying survivors a part of their own identity”, she said.

‘No men were held to account’

Mary said the difficulty in accessing records, coupled with the non-transparent way in which the homes operated, means the circumstances under which many women became pregnant remain unknown.

“It may have been rape, it may have been violence, it may have been incest, we don’t know.

But we know for damn sure that no men were called to account for it, the number of virgin births in Ireland must be astronomical.

Mary said she has had some sleepless nights of late, as she retold her story and watched Oireachtas debates on the fate of the commission’s records.

She told us she’s “getting up there” and is “not sure I’ll be alive to see justice”.

And what would justice look like for survivors?

“That every person who was in the institution has a right to view their own documents, has a right to find out their identity,” Mary said.

She added that if a mother, or child, decides they don’t want their information to be public or shared “that has to be respected”.

Mary said, if survivors are granted access to the records, thousands of people won’t “all of a sudden demand to see their records all at once” – but they should have the option.

“Some people have lived this long without wanting to know or mothers have lived this long without wishing their children to know [their history].”

Mary is generally based in Maine in the US but is currently living in Galway, where she moved to complete her thesis.

She told us she’s proud of the academic work she has produced, as well as her many years of campaigning, but is “proudest of the young people who continue to advocate for survivors”.

“There are time when I get tired and when I think ‘will it ever happen?’ And then along comes some young people who ask me questions, who want to be involved, and that makes my spirit soar again.”

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She name-checks Dr Maeve O’Rourke, Claire McGettrick and Suzanne Egan of the Clann Project – a joint initiative by Adoption Rights Alliance and Justice for Magdalenes Research, set up to help establish the truth of what happened to unmarried mothers and their children in 20th century Ireland.

Mary said their work has enabled thousands of people to become activists.

“They are able to contact and campaign on our behalf, as well as the survivors who’ve been doing it for years and years, battling and banging on doors and forming their own committees, it all adds to it.

“What gives me hope is that the young people continue this advocacy for us and for the grandchildren and the offspring of people who’ve been in the institutions.

“They are continuing that. They’re going to be the future politicians and the current politicians should shape up and realise that this is about human rights.

It’s not about Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. Or the Green Party, who I’m terribly disappointed in – they are all talking about climate justice but it appears justice for human beings doesn’t matter to them at all.

“We have to stop voting on party lines and vote with conscience. Can anybody in their right conscience say that [sealing the records] is justice?”

Mary noted that she didn’t study international human rights law as a lawyer, telling us: “I’m a construction worker, but the passion is very strong in me still.”

She is due to return to Maine next month and “may end up teaching human rights there”.

“No matter where I go, I will work for human rights, not just for people from the institutions, but for human rights wherever I see them being trampled on, for people’s right to be who they are, to live free.

“Wherever I see it, I get involved, I can’t stop now.”

‘Impossible to ignore’

Speaking in the Dáil last night, O’Gorman said “although much of the debate has conflated the genuine aims of this Bill with the pre-existing legal requirements in place in respect of the sealing of the commission’s records for 30 years, it is impossible to ignore the volume of correspondence I have received expressing very legitimate and grave concerns that some important commission records – essential validating personal information for survivors – would be put beyond reach for 30 years”.

O’Gorman noted that people’s concerns are “centred on how the 30-year archiving of records, as required of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes, impacts the legitimate expectations of survivors and relatives to access important personal information related to the circumstances of their time in these institutions”.

This assertion has been disputed by legal experts, with Dr Maeve O’Rourke of the Clann Project stating: “Neither the Commission nor the Government is permitted under the GDPR to place a blanket seal over the entire archive it holds”.

The controversial Bill was passed in the Dáil by 78 votes to 67 this evening. 

O’Gorman last night said it is clear that “a re-examination of the current approach on how access is provided to the archives of the commission for certain validating personal information for survivors is needed”.

“In so doing, it is my view that there exists an obligation to survivors and their relatives that goes beyond purely legal questions.”

To begin this process, O’Gorman committed to two actions.

“First, I have requested – this has been agreed – a detailed engagement with the Attorney General’s Office on the issue of personal data access in the commission’s archives, which is so vitally important to so many former residents.

“Second, I intend to request the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration to lead on this re-examination in a format that would allow for survivors and their representatives, expert legal opinion and other leading academics to explore thoroughly the major principles underlying the debate on access to personal information in the commission’s archive and to make a set of recommendations aiming to resolve the very real difficulties which the passage of this legislation has highlighted.

“As part of this, I am committed to working closely with the committee towards finding a way forward.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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