Friday, July 3, 2009

'The nun Said Nothing and Just Thumped me in the Stomach’

Original article

HAVING kept her silence for almost 30 years, Maureen is now happy to tell her side of the story. However, for legal reasons, we are unable to name the industrial school where Maureen was sent at 12 years of age. Maureen, like so many other victims of child sexual and physical abuse, took her case to the Residential Institutions Redress Board but, unhappy with the amount of compensation the board offered her, she appealed her case to the High Court. That case is scheduled to be heard tomorrow, Thursday 2 July.

Although not a victim of sexual abuse, the now-widowed mother of two says she has been left indelibly scarred by the catalogue of physical and mental abuse she suffered during her time at a Magdalene laundry.

From the day of her birth in 1952, life dealt the Carlow woman a cruel hand. Her late father, John Sullivan, died three months before she was born, leaving her mother Mary to raise an infant baby she would call Maureen, along with her two older sons. Her mother subsequently remarried and went on to have ten other children.

After attending a local primary school in Carlow, in 1964 Maureen was sent to what is now known as an industrial school. Her blood brothers, Patrick and John, were also forced to leave the family home, with one spending time in Artane and the other going to live with his grandmother. “I don’t know why I was sent there, but what I do know is that I should not have been there,” Maureen toldThe Nationalist. “What I also know is that I was sent to that school to get an education because my mother trusted the people who ran it.”

But instead of getting the education she was promised, a frightened and terrified Maureen Sullivan was sent to work in what is now commonly referred to as a Magdalene laundry at just 12 years of age. “I was taken to work in the laundry every day. The nun would come into my room and take me out of bed at 5am. I was then taken to the kitchen where I was given something to eat - mostly a little bit of bread with dripping on it and a mug of watery milk.

“We were then taken to Mass and at 8am we were taken to work in the laundry, where we stayed until 5pm. That was the routine I and the other girls had to follow five days a week, Monday to Friday.

On Saturday, we had to clean the church and on Sunday we had to scrub the floors of the nuns’ recreation area.

“If you happened to get your hands burnt or scalded in the laundry, they didn’t even give you a bit of cream to rub on them. Instead, you would receive a thump in the stomach or a box on the head,” she recalls.

When Maureen was 14 years of age, she claims she asked one of the nuns when could she return to school in Carlow. “The nun told me I couldn’t go back to school and I could never tell anyone where I had been,” she says.

Eventually, she was sent to work in a laundry with a Mercy Order in a nearby town.

From there she was sent to work in a school for the blind in Dublin. “Would you believe this - they haven’t even got a record of me there,” says Maureen.

But apart from the physical abuse Maureen suffered at the hands of the people who were meant to care for her, there was also mental abuse.

“I remember one day when the inspector called, I was hidden away in a tunnel under the stairs, and do you know why that happened? Because they were the inspectors, and I should not have been working in a Magdalene laundry at my age. It was so I couldn’t be seen.”

Maureen also remembers how the nuns would watch her dress and undress. “They were always watching you and passing remarks on you - saying horrible things. Sometimes you just blanked it out.

“If I happened to wet the bed, which I did, you were ridiculed and put down. It was soul-destroying. That is the best way I can put it. They would also drag you out of the bed at night, which was terrifying,” Maureen says.

Maureen also recalls the only visit her mother was allowed to make during her stay at the school.

“I remember saying to the nun, ‘When my mother comes here, I’m going to tell my mother that I’m not attending school’. The nun said nothing and just thumped me in the stomach.”

The visit was subsequently supervised and Maureen never had the opportunity to spend any time alone with her mother. “My mother only came to visit me once. But I can understand that: she had a lot of children to look after.”

Maureen now visits her mother on a daily basis and is delighted to be able to do so. Asked if she held any hatred for her abusers, Maureen said: “I wouldn’t call it hatred, but I have a lot of sadness.

“My friends used to always say to me, ‘You always smile but in your eyes your sorrow shows’.”

Although baptised a Catholic, Maureen has left the church whose members physically and mentally abused her. She says: “I’m now a practising member of the Church of Ireland because if anything happened to me in the morning, I wouldn’t want to have to go back to them (the Catholic Church). It’s the truth. It’s how I feel.”

The documentary, The Forgotten Maggies, will be premiered at the Galway Film Festival later this month.

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