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'A nun poured urine on my head because I snored': Survivors contact DPC and gardaí over destruction of testimony

People who spent time in Mother and Baby Homes and County Homes say they have been “re-traumatised” by recent developments.

Mary Teresa pictured as a child
Mary Teresa pictured as a child
Image: Laura Angela Collins

Updated Feb 9th 2021, 12:05 AM

PEOPLE WHO GAVE evidence to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission are contacting the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) and gardaí about the destruction of audio recordings of their testimony.

One witness, Mary Teresa Collins, says she was not informed that the recording of her testimony would be destroyed and she would not have testified if she knew this was the case.

Mary Teresa (60) spent time in the Cork County Home, then a Magdalene Laundry with her mother, before being moved to Coleman’s Industrial School for Girls in Cobh.

She has lived in England since she was 18 and gave her testimony to the commission in a hotel in London in 2020.

She learned about the destruction of the recordings in recent media reports.

Mary Teresa has contacted the DPC about the destruction of the records. She also plans to lodge a formal complaint with gardaí.

Mary Teresa says she “laid my soul bare” and told the commission about the horrific abuse she endured, in the hopes she would get some form of justice for her mother and sisters – who all spent time in institutions.

She says the process “re-traumatised” her and she would never have done it if she knew the audio would be destroyed.

Survivors and campaigners have questioned why the recordings were destroyed when Section 43 of the Commissions of Investigation Act states that, before the dissolution of a commission, “all evidence received by and all documents created by or for the commission” must be given to the relevant minister.

This includes “records of interviews conducted” by a commission.

The Clann Project, which advocates on behalf of survivors, has encouraged witnesses to contact the DPC and An Garda Síochána about the destruction of the audio recordings.

It is understood that a number of witnesses have contacted the DPC and gardaí to date.

The DPC last week confirmed that it has asked the commission to provide a legal basis for the deletion of the records.

‘She poured urine on my head’

Mary Teresa says she generally tries to not think about what happened to her or her mother for the sake of her own mental health, but made an exception for the commission.

“I have to protect myself and protect my own mental health – the best way I could do that is to try to just leave it alone, you know, it’s too much for the mind,” she says, adding that her memories are “vivid”. 

“I get angry and I fill up with rage at what’s going on in Ireland, I would be depressed (if I dwelled on it),” she tells TheJournal.ie.

“I told [the commission] what happened to me in the home, I told them about my life story, my post-traumatic stress disorder.

I laid my soul bare to them and this is how they repay you, they’ve destroyed everything. They put me through all that, it was traumatic going through what I went through as a child.

Mary Teresa was regularly physically and emotionally abused as a child, being told by nuns that she would become a “whore” like her mother. She believed this abuse was exacerbated by the fact she was a Traveller.

“I was definitely treated worse because I was a Traveller – they called me a knacker, a bad egg.”

image (18) Mary Teresa and Laura Angela Collins at a protest outside Leinster House Source: Laura Angela Collins

She says a nun poured pots of urine over her head at night because she snored.

“I was asleep when this happened, it was because I was snoring. When I woke up she reminded me I was dirty and would turn out like my mother … She seemed to really hate me.”

Stripped and beaten

One one occasion, Mary Teresa says she was stripped naked by a nun and beaten.

“I was struggling when she was hitting me. So she grabbed me and laid me down naked and I was screaming. She called the big girls in to hold me down. They got pillows to put over my head so she couldn’t hear my screaming.

“She kept telling me I was like my mother. I remember lying there not being able to breath. When she finished the beating she threw me off the table. My body hurt.”

Mary Teresa says she was unable to walk so, under instruction, the older girls carried her out to the coal house where she fell asleep.

Mary Teresa says she was also regularly beaten for being unable to spell or pronounce words properly, giving her lifelong anxiety about how she speaks.

“I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve always been quiet, because I had a speech impediment.”

Years later, Mary Teresa developed a very bad sinus infection and went to a doctor. An x-ray and subsequent operation revealed that the reason she her nose was slightly crooked, and the fact she spoke in a nasal way, was because there were tiny stones stuck in her nose.

She believes they may have been lodged there since, as a child, she was sometimes forced to sleep in the coal house at night. 

“I was beaten senseless all because I couldn’t pronounce my words, and all because there were stones stuck up my nose.

“They had to realign my whole nose. To this day I’m very conscious of how I speak because a big thing made of it when I was a child.”

Her three children were taken away

Mary Teresa was born in the 1960s to Traveller parents. Her mother was Angela (previously Angelica; she was renamed in the laundry) Collins, from Mayo, and her father Patrick Ward was from Galway. They were in a relationship but not married.

Angela’s family say she was taken from a halting site in Galway and put into a county home, before being sent to St Vincent’s Magdalene laundry in Cork city.

Her three daughters, including Mary Teresa, were put into various institutions. One of them died by suicide in the 1980s, after failing to locate Angela.

image (5) Angela (Angelica) pictured with her friend Mary Ellen Morgan at St Vincent's Source: Laura Angela Collins

Mary Teresa says she and her sisters were in institutions run by different religious orders but she believes some of the nuns were in contact and deliberately kept them apart.

She now works in a centre in London for people with mental health needs. She says she loves her work and needs to keep busy to keep her mind off her past.

“Because of my experiences, I do find that people that are going through hard times seem to trust and relate to me.”

‘Very distressed’

Mary Teresa co-founded the advocacy group Justice For All Women & Children with her daughter, Laura Angela Collins.

Laura Angela told us that the destruction of the audio recordings left her mother “very distressed”.

Mary Teresa also gave evidence to the Ryan Commission into child abuse and the McAleese report into Magdalene Laundries, and Laura Angela says the recent publication of the mother and baby home commission’s report, and the ongoing fallout, “has stirred up all that raw emotion”.

Laura Angela, who also lives in England, says her mother was not informed “in any way” that her testimony would be deleted.

“My mum wouldn’t have re-traumatised herself and put herself through that process if she knew it was going to turn out like this. My mum feels like it’s another form of abuse, that she doesn’t have the same rights other people do within society.”

Laura Angela says people in the institutions were treated “like cattle”, not humans, and the authorities think they “can do whatever they want in regards to their information and their lives”.

She says assertions that the response to the commission’s report is “survivor-focused” are inaccurate as people like her mother were not asked if they wanted the audio to be kept on file or for a copy to be sent to them.

“How can survivors and their families trust them? How can people trust them? I don’t trust them at all after the way that they’ve treated my mum. How do they expect survivors to even want to partake in that?”

Laura Angela says she doesn’t understand why the Oireachtas debated preserving the commission’s records last October, when the recordings were already destroyed. 

“There was even a sense that we needed to lock the records for 30 years to preserve the evidence. I don’t understand it because they went out and made a big fuss in regards to that. But then when it came to actually preserving audio, they never even gave survivors any form of contact.”

Laura Angela believes the government views the abuse suffered in mother and baby homes, county homes and other institutions are “historical” when, in fact, the impact of it is ongoing for many families.

“I don’t think that the government actually understands the trauma that our family members have to face.

“They don’t have that understanding because most of them haven’t been in survivors’ shoes, or in their children’s shoes, and see their pain.

“When I look at my mum and when I speak to my aunt, this is raw and not a lot of people get to see that. And I don’t think the government have that understanding of the impact on our family and the impact that lingers on for them.

“They see it as all historic. It’s not, survivors are still among us. Survivors have impacted on their children, on their family unit, and while these traumas continue, it continues to impact our family.”

‘This is not historical abuse, it’s ongoing’

Mary’s mother Angela remained in the Magdalene Laundry for 27 years.

In a 1977 letter, seen by TheJournal.ie, a doctor recommended that Angela undergo a hysterectomy. This was never arranged and she died from ovarian cancer in 1988.

She is buried in a mass grave with other people who lived in the institution in St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork.

Her family sought to have her body exhumed in 2014 so they could bury her in a family plot but they could not secure permission from the religious order.

image (8) The grave in Cork where Angela Collins and others are buried. Source: Laura Angela Collins

Laura Angela says the ongoing impact institutional abuse has on families like hers needs to be acknowledged.

“This has all affected not just survivors’ childhoods or early lives, but even their later life.

“I was once an eight-year-old child standing at my nana’s mass grave, looking on at my mother and thinking she will soon get justice. I now have an eight-year-old child of my own.”

She believes successive governments have adopted a “deny until they die” approach, but people and institutions needs to be “held to account for the continuous abuse”.

Extending the commission’s term

Last Thursday Leo Varadkar told the Dáil he was “quite surprised” to hear that audio recordings of witness testimony had been destroyed.

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The Tánaiste’s comments came amid calls for Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman to “take immediate action” to preserve the testimony of witnesses who gave evidence to the commission.

A number of campaigners and opposition TDs have also called for the commission to not be dissolved as planned at the end of the month amid concerns of the deletion of audio recording of testimony.

They say the commission should remain in operation until its members answer questions about its final report, as well as the destruction of audio recordings of witness testimony.

Varadkar said O’Gorman is examining if it “makes sense” to extend the term of the commission so these issues can be examined.

“One of the flaws in the process is an independent body like a commission can spend five years hearing evidence, examining evidence, and then makes its report, but then is not there to explain it,” the Tánaiste said, adding that this needs to change in the future.

The commission is due to remain in operation until 28 February “in order to deal with its archives and other administrative matters”.

img_4451 Laura Angela at her grandmother's grave as a child Source: Laura Angela Collins

When previously asked by TheJournal.ie about the destruction of the audio recordings, a spokesperson for the Department of Children said it was “a matter for the commission”.

The commission has not replied to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the DPC said the body “has written to the commission with a number of questions around the deletion, and the legal basis for the deletion, of these records. We are awaiting their response”.

The chairperson of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes last week declined an invitation from the Oireachtas Children’s Committee to appear before it.

The committee wrote to former judge Yvonne Murphy seeking her attendance at a meeting on 16 February to discuss the commission’s final report, as well as the destruction of audio recordings of witness testimony.

In an email received by the committee on Friday, Justice Murphy declined the invitation, with a spokesperson saying she is “unavailable”. She is not legally obliged to attend.

Committee chair Kathleen Funchion said the committee has sent a follow-up email saying it “would facilitate a different date” if needed.

The Sinn Féin TD told TheJournal.ie that committee members are “very disappointed” by the latest development.

If Justice Murphy cannot attend, the committee has extended the invitation to the other commissioners – Dr Mary Daly, retired professor of Irish History at University College Dublin and former president of the Royal Irish Academy, and Dr William Duncan, retired professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin.

“It’s such an important issue. So many different families and women and people were waiting so long for the report. Nearly six years that people have been waiting for this, they’ve had to deal with extensions (to the commission’s deadline) and cooperated as best they could with them,” Funchion said.

She said the destruction of the audio recordings of witness testimony “has to be taken very seriously”.

The TD said the committee wants to have “a proper dialogue and proper engagement” with the commission, and is hopeful that the former judge may appear before it at a later date.

Information on counselling services can be read here. 

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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