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Opinion: After two decades as a journalist, no project I’ve handled has been quite as harrowing

In the course of compiling a book about the abuse of children in industrial schools, I came face to face with one of the darkest chapters in Ireland’s history.

Bette Browne

IRELAND SEEMS TO be constantly traumatised by its mistreatment of unmarried mothers and their babies – those whom poverty or family abandonment consigned to the margins of society to suffer unimaginable pain in religious-run, State-funded institutions.

I felt it was important to show solidarity with survivors some years ago after the horrors revealed in the landmark Ryan report on institutional abuse, and to record not only the abuse but its enduring effects on survivors’ lives as adults.

Thus, Stolen Lives grew out of the aftermath of the first national March of Solidarity with survivors of institutional abuse on 10 June, 2009, which the late Christine Buckley and I organised with the support of Barnardos, One in Four and the Children’s Rights Alliance, after publication of the Ryan Report.

A day after the solidarity march, which brought 5,000 people onto the streets in Dublin in a silent protest under the banner “Cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”, a Dáil debate on the Ryan report was opened.

Stolen childhoods

The abuse was described by then-Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, now An Taoiseach, as “torture, pure and simple”. Eamon Gilmore, now An Tánaiste, said it was “a stain on the conscience of our nation.” Michael D Higgins, now An tUachtarain, said: “There is evidence of an institutional collusion that was deep, continuous and sinister in terms of its relationship between church and State”.

Through such “collusion” not only were childhoods stolen but the horrors these children suffered blighted their entire lives. Some found their suffering unendurable and died by suicide.

My book focuses on 10 survivors ranging in age from 54 to 87, who reveal the shocking details of the abuse and how it shattered their adulthood. With no chance of happiness, some lives descended into alcohol, drugs or crime and others ended up abandoned once again on the margins of society or on the streets of London or Liverpool and beyond.

After two decades as a journalist with Reuters in various parts of the world, no project I’ve handled has been quite as harrowing as this book. In the course of compiling it I have come to believe that the abuse of children in industrial schools was one of the darkest chapters in Ireland’s history. Childhoods were stolen, adult lives were rent asunder.

Isolated from the outside world

There have been other appalling cases of religious and secular abuse here, as in other countries, but what made the institutional abuse particularly horrific was that the crimes were committed against children largely isolated from the outside world.

In the Dáil debate on June 11, 2009, Enda Kenny also said: “We cannot re-write those stories, nor can we write a happy ending to them. But it is our clear and inescapable duty to reach out and rescue, to listen and to learn and to create something out of this catalogue of cruelty in which, as a nation, we can take some pride”.

But five years later we still have a long way to go to try to fashion something in which we can take pride. Within weeks of the publication of the book, the Tuam babies case and other like it around the country were revealing a fresh catalogue of horror, convulsing the nation again.

There have been many apologies. Yet in the case of the Ryan report, the Government is still pursuing the religious congregations for their half of the bill for the abuse, which now stands at €1.36 billion.

In writing Stolen Lives I also found little had changed as regards transparency since the Ryan report. The Christian Brothers, through Province Leader Br Kevin Mullan, said they were “not in a position to furnish information” as to whether certain Brothers were still alive to respond to allegations in Stolen Lives nor did he proffer a reason or reasons for not providing such information.

Against such walls of silence and indifference, those who have told their stories are owed a huge debt of gratitude for their courage in reliving the horrors they suffered and the nightmares they still endure.

I would like to acknowledge especially their foremost champion, the late Christine Buckley, for her unstinting support with this book, which she hoped would be completed for this 5th anniversary of the Ryan report.

Bette Browne has worked as a journalist with Reuters in Europe, the United States and Asia. She now lives and works in Dublin. Her official website can be found at www.BetteBrowne.com

Proceeds from Stolen Lives, priced at €7.99 and available at www.bettebrowne.com, are going after covering publication costs to the Aislinn Education & Support Centre for Survivors of Institutional Abuse, co-founded by Christine and Carmel McDonnell-Byrne, where countless survivors have found solace and support.

Read: TD says sending children to adult psychiatric units is ‘inhumane’

Read: Here’s a list of maternity homes in Ireland in 1947

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Bette Browne

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