Marie Therese Rogers-Moloney is still shadowed by the unhappy memories of her upbringing in Nazareth House, a dour and cruel orphanage on Belfast’s Ormeau Road, where punishment was perpetually lurking.
Now 65, Marie Therese was dispatched there as an infant, spending 17 years of her life with twisted, sadistic nuns who regularly beat her and made her witness the sickening degradation of other children.
The notorious Nazareth House, which was razed to the ground in 2003, is one of the institutions under investigation by the Historical Abuse Inquiry, examining abuse in residential institutions from 1922 to 1995.
The children’s days in Nazareth House were strictly regimented and punctuated throughout by tedious, pointless chores, endless cleaning, scrubbing and floor polishing, whilst lavish punishments were meted out for minor misdemeanours.
Marie Therese remembers being locked in a storeroom all day, forgotten about, with nothing to eat.
Another time she had her neck scrubbed so vigorously by Sister Elizabeth it nearly bled.
She says: ‘‘I was swarthy skinned, the nun was trying to rub off the ‘dirt’!’’.
On another occasion the children were made to kneel with their hands on their heads all night; ‘‘it was worse than getting a good thrashing’’ recalls Marie Therese.
I met Marie Therese recently; she was passing this newspaper’s offices and, on a whim, decided to come in and tell someone about her book, For the Sins of my Mother.
Sitting in a wheelchair (she told me later, she had a lot of back surgery) there seemed to be an inconsolable sadness about her, but also huge dignity, resilience and a lovely sense of humour.
As she began to recount her upbringing, I was transfixed by her story; a rush of recollections, memories filled with emotional and physical terror.
She began: ‘‘In rural southern Ireland in 1950, a woman had an affair with a visiting stranger.
‘‘To conceal her pregnancy, she went to Belfast, where she gave birth to a baby girl - that baby girl was me’’.
Marie Therese’ mother returned to village life, leaving her to face a life of misery in Nazareth House, where the tortures were physical, but also psychological.
‘‘When Sister Maura punished you, she did her best to break you mentally,’’ says Marie Therese.
On another occasion the girls counted to 100 before a nun stopped beating a girl called Anne.
Children were bathed in eye-stinging Jeyes Fluid and Marie Therese, known as ‘Number 51’ was routinely humiliated for her bed-wetting, which continued until she was 18.
At one stage the nuns placed a ‘‘large, strange cover’’ on her bed containing small wires. During the night if water hit these wires, a piercing alarm sounded.
Writing in her utterly compelling book she says she hated this contraption.
‘‘It not only woke me but the rest of the girls in the dormitory and I was shouted at for waking them.’’
The beatings and degradations were awful, but the really poignant moments in the book are when Marie Therese reflects on her isolation and lack of maternal love; the comforting arms of a mother around her were all she wanted.
She writes: ‘‘I would cry under the bedclothes because I knew there was nobody to turn to for comfort and help. You just suffered because nobody heard your cries.’’
This gaping lack of tenderness from the nuns, is heartbreaking.
What was it, though, that caused such cruelty by women towards children?
Marie Therese says she never saw the nuns smile during her time there.
‘‘What did these religious nuns know about the emotional, psychological, educational and physical well being of children? she writes.
‘‘In my view nobody cared about the nuns so they didn’t care about us’’
She recalls how Christmas day was the only time you got brown or red sauce. The children got presents from Belfast companies, but they just disappeared.
Marie Therese grew up withdrawn and an outsider. Because she was quiet, the nuns assumed she had special needs and in 1960 sent her to special school for the educationally subnormal.
At 17, uneducated and afraid, she was forced to leave the orphanage to live with a manipulative couple. A year later she suffered a breakdown.
Yet, astonishingly in the midst of this turmoil, she took control of her life, educating herself and gaining the confidence to establish a nursing career.
This is a lady who does not give up. So determined was she to follow her nursing dream, she sat her English O Level 11 times.
Determined to find out who she was, she finally set out to trace a mother who the nuns told her did not exist.
Marie Therese’ book is definitely not a misery memoir. There are plenty of lighter moments like when the girls break into a orchard to steal apples or escape to go to a dance.
‘‘We got up to plenty of mischief.
‘‘There was a furnace under the building and some Saturdays we used to sneak down to have a smoke of paper. Imagine smoking paper!’’.
Her story is about the resilience of the human spirit and the need we all have to discover who we are.
*For the Sins of my Mother, by Marie Therese Rogers-Moloney is published by Colourprint, priced £9.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online at amazon.co.uk.