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Dublin: 5 °C Wednesday 19 February, 2020

'Sometimes you’d despair for humanity. And sometimes you’d be wrong'

This story about a young girl shows there are kind people out there, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

Donal O'Keeffe

MY FRIEND WAS in the west of Ireland, around 10 years ago, home to bury his brother.

At the graveside, a woman of perhaps retirement age approached him and asked was he the garda based in the local town. When he said he was, she told him “I know that place well. My mother is buried there, in a pauper’s grave”.

Back at the house for tea and sandwiches after the funeral, this pleasant, prosperous lady told him the strange story of her childhood.

On a bleak winter’s day in the 1960s, a young mother collapsed and died while crossing the bridge in the town.

Family broken up 

She left behind her husband and small children, all living in dire poverty near a neighbouring village. The family was broken up. The children were taken into care and scattered to different institutional homes around the province.

Not yet 10, one of the daughters ended up with the nuns. From there she was farmed out as a cleaner, scrubbing floors and washing laundry for priests. Eventually she was sent to work out in the country, cleaning holiday homes belonging to the nuns.

Years of mistreatment took their toll and one day, at the age of 13, something inside her snapped. Unsupervised for a moment, she saw an open door and she ran.

With nothing, no money, no food, hardly even an identity, she began her long journey along lonely country roads. If she had a plan of escape at all, it was childish and vague but she walked on. She dreaded the sound of a motor-car and the inevitability of recapture but on she continued.

She had travelled maybe 10 miles when she came to a farmhouse and, exhausted and parched with thirst, she knocked on the door. She asked for water and was brought to the kitchen, where the man and woman of the house asked why a young girl was walking the road alone.

She lied, unconvincingly, but eventually she had to tell them the truth.

Telling her story 

She didn’t want to, but she told them about the nuns and the work and the priests. I think she told them about the cruelty and the loneliness and the abuse.

Sometimes you just know where a story is going, don’t you? You just know there can be no happy ending.

Bad as things are right now, we all know too well that the Ireland of half a century ago was a harsh and bitter place and that Church and State worked hand-in-glove, showing little love or tenderness to those most in need of kindness. As he told me this story, my garda friend told me frankly, “We were part of this too, make no mistake about that. The gardaí were as complicit as anyone.”

My heart sank at the thought of her, that brave little girl, stopped in her tracks. I knew where this story was going.

The gardaí would be called and she would be taken back to the convent. She had one mad moment of hope, but now it would be dashed. I knew where this story was going. Where else could it go?

Sometimes you’d despair for humanity. And sometimes you’d be wrong. They took her in. That family in the farmhouse, that very first door she knocked on, they took her in.

They fed her and clothed her and they told her that this was her new home. They became her new family.

She worked hard, she said, but no harder than her new brothers and sisters. Her new parents put her through school and showed her the love and kindness she had long been denied. She stayed with them until she married in her twenties.

She had a happy life 

She said she’d had a happy life, with a loving husband and children of her own, all thanks to her new family and thanks too to the sheer good luck of knocking on the right door.

I felt overwhelmed by what I’d just heard. I stuttered a bit and asked my friend whether anyone in authority had ever asked where the extra child had come from.

“No,” he said, taking a last gulp of tea. “Different times, I suppose. But you’re asking the wrong question. Nobody asked where the child came from, and that’s shocking to you and me, but what’s far worse is that nobody asked where the child had gone to.

“Think about it. A 13-year-old girl disappeared and the nuns never even reported it. She could have been killed and buried in a bog and nobody would ever have known. Slave labour and she wasn’t even worth the embarrassment of reporting her missing.

“You’d wonder, though, wouldn’t you?” he said, as he threw on his jacket and headed out into the December cold, “You’d wonder how many more kids vanished from their care”.

Later that day, I rang my Mam and told her this story. She might well have been a contemporary of this woman. I voiced my surprise over how, in such an unforgiving time, that family had taken a lost child to their hearts and made her one of their own.

After a moment, my mother replied, quietly, and with almost no trace of reproach, “People were kind then too, you know”.

Still, though, it bothers me not to know what became of that woman’s sister and brothers. I hope they were as lucky as she was. I hope they met kind people too.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for You can follow him on Twitter here

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