‘The nuns poured boiling water on our heads’

Pacemaker Press 18/4/2016
Margaret McGuckian, of pressure group SAVIA, speaks to the New Letter. Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse is a mutual support and campaign group of survivors and victims of institutional abuse in Northern Ireland.
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Pacemaker Press 18/4/2016 Margaret McGuckian, of pressure group SAVIA, speaks to the New Letter. Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse is a mutual support and campaign group of survivors and victims of institutional abuse in Northern Ireland. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

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Margaret McGuckin is the stalwart campaigner for victims of historical institutional abuse in NI. In this harrowing interview she talks about the horrendous years she spent in the notorious Nazareth House orphanage

Margaret McGuckin has a residual fear of going to the hairdresser as it reawakens horrific memories of the Belfast orphanage where she spent her formative years.

She recalls how the sadistic nuns in Nazareth House, a dour, cruel institution on the Ormeau Road, used to cut the children’s hair off as punishment.

‘‘Everyone used to line up, you were trembling in fear, because they (the nuns) came with big jugs of boiling water that they poured right round your scalp.’’

Margaret, now 59, adds: ‘‘To this day I hate going to a hairdresser. It’s not only about the water. The touch of scissors brings back memories of their big black scissors. They would cut your hair off as a punishment. You would see lovely girls coming in (to the orphanage) and they just chopped off their hair.’’

Margaret McGuckin is the chair and voice of SAVIA (Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse) which was established following the 2009 publication of the Ryan Report, which uncovered a shocking litany of historic abuse in the Republic of Ireland. The group campaigns for the ongoing Assembly inquiry into historical institutional abuse of children in residential care homes in Northern Ireland.

Formally established by law in January 2013, the historical inquiry is tasked with examining if there were “systemic failings” by state and church in children’s homes between 1922 and 1995. The inquiry chairman is the former high court judge Sir Anthony Hart and some 13 church and state run institutions are being investigated.

Margaret was one of the first victims to submit an application to give evidence to the inquiry, which is looking at all types of abuse: physical and emotional as well as sexual. To date hundreds of victims have come forward to give evidence.

Margaret was just three years old when she was placed into the care of the Sisters of Nazareth. Her three siblings were also taken into the orphanage after their mother left home.

‘‘My father always tried to keep us at home, but he worked,’’ says Margaret.

‘‘My older siblings tried to look after us but someone from the area phoned the Welfare and between the Welfare and the church, we were placed in Nazareth House.’’

The contrast between an idyllic life on the Saintfield Road with a lovely house, her father growing flowers and vegetables, and then being placed in an austere institution, could not be starker.

She says of Nazareth House: ‘‘It was just like something out of Dickens.’’

Her sister and brothers were in Nazareth Lodge - a different area from Margaret, who was put in the nursery.

‘‘I remember them trailing my sister away from me and crying through the railings because I just wanted my big sister. It was heart-wrenching.’’

Listening to Margaret recount the horrors of her abuse, the habitual maltreatment, wanton punishment, humiliation and neglect, it is so hard not to be moved, yet her eyes, which have seen too much, too young, look expressionless, almost dead, like a light has gone out.

‘‘I can remember being in the nursery and lots of crying and tears and, like a staleness, the painted walls, like a prison, children crying and then after a while silence - I believe that the children cried so much, they just held their tears in because nobody was coming to answer your cries for help or comfort you. It was just a loveless, cold place. You just literally had nobody.’’

Margaret, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, adds:‘‘You just withdrew into yourself. There was no contact, only being shouted at, brutalised, handled roughly, uncaringly, being left sitting on potties for maybe hours.’’

The ungodly brutality which Margaret and many others endured at the hands of a religious order, is unfathomable.

‘‘You were flung about and you had your hair pulled, you were nipped and your arms held up your back, you were beaten with sticks and bunches of keys - this was just commonplace.’’

Margaret remains composed during our interview until she starts talking about her beloved brother, who is currently in a care home due to the years of sexual abuse he endured.

‘‘He carried his secrets around so badly that he’s mentally affected now. He never told anybody and he had to be put into a care home.

‘‘But we know now that he was sexually, physically and mentally abused all his days as a wee child in Nazareth Lodge - he was raped and abused.’’

Her brother was eventually moved to Rubane House on the Ards Peninsula, which was run by the De La Salle Christian brothers. Heartbreakingly, the abuse continued there.

‘‘He said he was made to play ‘love games’ and then given sweets, Hum Bugs and Bon Bons. It is so sad, him thinking that was love and affection.

‘‘This has all come out now and it broke my heart. The effects of that abuse are that he has to wear special padded clothing because he still bleeds.’’

It is shocking to hear the stark details of abuse, but Margaret says calmly and quietly: ‘‘Nobody knows the real raw facts.’’

Margaret has a habit of referring to herself in the third person; the young child in the orphanage was ‘wee Margaret Mary’, after she left, she became ‘Mad Margaret’ and now she’s Margaret or Mags. You don’t have to be a psychologist to realise she is trying to detach herself from all the hurt.

‘‘‘When I think of that wee girl now, wee Margaret Mary....’’ she trails off. ‘‘You weren’t called by your first name in there - you were called by your surname - I hate the sound of my name, I would love to get it changed by Deed poll.

‘‘We also had a number - I don’t remember what it was because there’s lots of stuff I don’t want to remember.

‘‘It was like a prison, we were always down on our knees with rags, and dressed in rags. It was like something out of Dickens asking for more food. But there wasn’t good food there. We were fed something like pig’s swill -there was no meat, it was all fat and gristle. The fried bread was ‘buttered’ with the grease from cooked sausages.’’

Margaret left Nazareth House when she was 11, going to Holy Rosary Primary, and then St Monica’s on the Ravenhill Road (it’s now Aquinas), but left school without any qualifications.

‘‘School was wasted - after getting out of that place you were just full of shame. I didn’t believe in myself then. I felt I was going to be attacked throughout my life, so I put up walls of defence and began to retaliate, thinking that I would be put down constantly. In certain instances then I just isolated myself and went into corners.’’

After leaving school Margaret’s life took one bad turn after another.

Again speaking in the third person she says: ‘‘Then ‘she’ got the name of ‘Mad Maggie’ growing up. But that wasn’t who she was. It was just to fight people off, it was a false persona so nobody could find the real person underneath, or know about her secrets or her past.

‘‘She acted the clown and she always was the one that got into trouble. She was drinking too much and fighting with the police and Army.’’

Margaret was in and out of prison for fighting and shoplifting.

‘‘I didn’t know what was wrong with me. We are only finding out now what was wrong with us. I am 59 now and it is such a waste of a life.’’

Margaret now lives in Ballycastle and enjoys the solitude, but admits she can never really settle.

‘‘I’ve moved house so many times in my life. There’s an unsettling in me; if you were locked up constantly all of them years - I don’t want the idea of being tied down, that’s even in relationships’’

Margaret has never really spoken to her three (now grown-up) sons about what happened to her, but adds: ‘‘I want them to know that maybe this is why I was so depressed and angry. My so-called carers in the home were so filled with rage and anger, that that’s the way I turned out to be because that’s all I ever knew.

‘‘Now my children see what I’m doing and they are beginning to understand and I know they are grieving for me - I know that secretly they are so angry because of what I went through.’’

What does give her hope now, and brings a smile to her otherwise impassive demeanour, is the thought of her little grandson

‘‘He’s just over one and that’s making me love again,’’ she says, eyes twinkling.

‘‘I can be silly with him and be that child again myself because I never had a childhood.

‘‘None of us has ever really grown up - the people that I’ve met, we’ve made a special bond with each other, we’re like wee children now, because we never had our childhood - we were stunted.’’

Nazareth House was razed to the ground in 2003. It is now an apartment complex, but it still looks the same to Margaret.

‘‘Driving up past there, past the red brick, is still scary.

‘’If I was ever on a bus going past it, I would have turned away from it, because the pain would have just shot right through me. It’s all still very raw.’’