The children allege that they were beaten with electric flexes and coathangers, that they were constantly hungry and starving and that Ms Mathers, who insisted on the name ‘Auntie’ ran a sort of a reign of terror.
ADELINE MATHERS RAN the Westbank (aka Mayil) orphanage in Co Wicklow for over 50 years.
Originally known as the Protestant Home for Orphan & Destitute Girls and based in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, the institution moved to Wicklow in the late 1940s, and began taking in boys as well as girls.
Over the following decades, Mathers presided over a regime whereby children were forced to carry out manual labour, deprived of food, whipped and beaten (so badly, at least on one occasion, that the authorities had be called).
Between 30 and 50 children, aged from just a few months old to their late teens, were resident in the home at any given time. Mathers, who began her career as a nurse, named all of the children after herself, residents recall — perhaps in an attempt to ‘Anglicise’ their names.
Residents were also trafficked illegally over the border and placed with unregistered foster carers — in some of these arrangements, the children also suffered from physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse.
Former residents of the home, together with survivors of other Protestant-run institutions, recently met with Children’s Minister Charlie Flanagan in an effort to have them included in the upcoming Commission of Investigation into mother-and-baby homes.
The home, which only closed its doors for good in 2002, was part of a network of Protestant institutions — mother-and-baby homes and orphanages — that operated in a parallel system to the Catholic-run homes. It included the Bethany Home, on Dublin’s Orwell Road, Denny House on Leeson Street, and the Ovoca House orphanage in Wicklow.
Adeline Mathers, pictured at Westbank [RTÉ/Would You Believe]
So far, nothing’s been decided on their inclusion — the Government’s inter-departmental review of information is still going on, ahead of the formal start of the Commission in a few weeks’ time.
But Niall Meehan, who is campaigning on behalf of the former residents, says it’s clear they must be included.
“Protestants suffered exactly the same treatment in Irish society as Catholics,” he says.
The Irish state farmed out its welfare and attention services to churches irrespective of whether they were Catholic or Protestant.
“We said to the Minister that it’s all very well for the State to say that these were done by private institutions — but in fact they were done by private institutions at the behest of the State, and regulated by the State, so therefore these institutions also have to be included.”
Members of the Bethany Survivors’ Campaign pictured outside Leinster House last year.
What happened at Westbank?
A defining feature of the home was that it was “almost impossible to get adopted out of it” says Meehan, who heads the journalism department at Dublin’s Griffith College and has collected testimony from around 20 former residents of Protestant homes in recent years.
“You didn’t have a lot of throughput … There wasn’t a constant turn-over of children — the children remained there until they were 16 or 18 and they could more or less escape.
“Some remained until they were adults, until their late 20s. It was an entirely disfunctional organisation.
“The way it raised money is that Ms Mathers would bring children across the border and use them as fundraisers for the organisation in church halls and Orange Halls in Northern Ireland.
The children would be paraded up and down in front of prospective donors, says Meehan: “Here are the poor Protestant orphans from the South — please give us some money”.
They’d be sent to local primary and secondary schools in the area, but spent their spare time “scrubbing floors, changing beds — whatever was required to keep the institution going”.
The children allege that they were beaten with electric flexes and coat-hangers — that they were constantly hungry and starving that Ms. Mathers, who insisted on the name ‘Auntie’ ran a sort of a reign of terror.
“They were terrified of her.”
The vast majority of the children in the home were Protestant, and many residents arrived from the Bethany Home in Dublin. The institutions were supported by all of the main Protestant denominations.
[Photo: Niall Meehan]
Victor Stevenson, a former resident of Westbank, recalls young children being severely beaten, isolated from the rest of the group, and deprived of food:
In one case, Miss Mathers was forced to seek emergency medical help for a young boy’s wounds, which he sustained after being stripped and beaten severely with a piece of flex.
“Another young boy was beaten so badly, that he had to stay in bed in a filthy outhouse, sleeping quarters for many of the children.
The order was issued to all of the residents that, under no circumstances, was the boy to be fed.
“To this day, former residents break down when they relate how, under great fear, they squirrelled scraps of food to the unfortunate boy.
It is a fear they feel to this day.
While surprisingly few children were ever adopted out of Westbank, others were trafficked into Northern Ireland and placed with unregistered foster parents.
There were also illegal adoptions: Colleen Anderson — a former resident of the Greystones home — recalls how she was “spirited out of the country” by Mathers and taken to Scotland:
My adoption went against the 1952 Adoption Act where it is stated that no child of a marriage could be put up for adoption, nor an Irish baby be taken out of the country without the necessary permissions. I was taken cross-border to NI in the middle of the night, very secret going – on.
“My adoptive parents had my identity changed and at no point were Irish authorities informed of the intention to adopt. I had to have my adoption formally recognized in Dublin just a few years ago to obtain a passport.
“Also I had five older siblings of whom I knew nothing, but Adeline Mathers later admitted she knew my mother and my family and that there had been a meeting of my mother and the couple who took me away from Mayil (later moved to Westbank) as I was handed over.
“The shock of all these discoveries has been almost too much to bear in recent years. I have done fairly well in life, so I have people to fall back on, but all the concealment and illegalities have touched me badly.
Anderson says Mathers “seems to have moved with impunity” within Irish society “arranging all sorts of things and usually for a sum of money”.
The matriarch of Westbank also rechristened the children in her care — all were given new, Anglicised first names (Josephine would become Joyce, for instance) — along with the surname ‘Mathers’.
The highly unorthodox arrangement caused problems when the children were sent to secondary school, Meehan explains…
They went to Newpark Comprehensive, and other schools. Newpark wouldn’t allow all of the children to have the name Mathers.
The children were essentially rechristened a second time with their original birth names, but kept their false first names.
“The first time the children heard about it was when they did the entrance exam for Newpark. They were told ‘put your name here’ on the entrance exam — ‘and this is the name you’re to use’.
“It was very traumatic.
“The children suddenly found out that they had brothers and sisters right there beside them.
There were even twins who found out about their relationship.
It should be pointed out that other former residents have positive memories of their time at Westbank, and of Mathers — who was named Greystones ‘Person of the Year’ towards the end of her life.
In an RTÉ documentary on the home, broadcast in 2011, Dorothy McKeown — who arrived in the orphanage in 1952, when she was 2, and stayed until she married in 1975 —described her childhood as “normal”…
“I always remember Auntie telling us we weren’t orphans, because she was our Mum and God was our father.”
Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin, where children from Bethany were buried.
The survivors of the home who met with Minister Flanagan last month are calling for the the movement of children and pregnant women over the borders to be examined by the Commission, in tandem with the ongoing Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry in Northern Ireland.
They’re also calling for all records kept by Westbank to be made available. Residential records were removed from the PACT counselling service three years ago — in the wake of the broadcast of the RTÉ documentary — by Westbank’s Trustees from Bray Gospel Hall.
Says Meehan, “we’re calling for legislation to force all holders of private information about orphaned children or children in care in any context to hand over those records to the State.
“The State should administer them in a public trust and in the public interest.
It should be part of the Commission’s remit to investigate and to recommend this.
Read: It’s not just Tuam… Mother-and-baby probe needs to examine at least 100 institutions, Minister told