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Christine Buckley told the truth of ‘Ireland’s gulags’

Last update - Saturday, March 15, 2014, 03:16 By Ronit Lentin

I was very saddened to hear of the death last Tuesday of Christine Buckley, the Irish-Nigerian woman survivor of ‘Ireland’s gulags’, the industrial school system run by religious orders. Buckley has been battling with cancer and, in view of her suffering at the hand of the nuns during her childhood, her achievements are more than admirable.

Born in 1946 to a Nigerian medical student and a married Irish woman, Buckley spent her childhood in several foster homes before a foster parent put her in the Sisters of Mercy’s Goldenbridge Industrial School, where she, like the other girls, was put to producing rosary beads for the nuns; where she was humiliated, beaten and not given a proper education.
In the early 1990s, having survived cervical cancer, Buckley decided to track down her parents. Encountering huge difficulties – the nuns were not amenable to share the vital information about her parents with her – she eventually managed to locate first her Dublin mother, and then her Nigerian father.
I know quite a bit about Christine Buckley, as in 1996 my partner Louis Lentin, having heard an interview she had given to Gay Byrne’s radio show, made contact with her – meeting that led to the documentary Dear Daughter tracing her parents and her experience in Goldenbridge.
We lived with her story for many months, and when it was screened, Dear Daughter had the highest viewing figures for any documentary on RTÉ, watched by a third of Ireland’s population at the time.
It is hard to encompass the horrors of life as a young girl in Goldenbridge. Buckley and the other women interviewed for the film told of young babies left on potties for hours, of being shamed if they wet the bed, of being summoned to the landing to be giving a beating by the head nun, Sister Xavieria.
They told of their little fingers cut by the rosary beads they were making for the nuns and of having to eat rotten food, of always feeling hungry. And, while this was not always stressed, apart from being beaten and humiliated, Buckley was also called a ‘black bastard’ by the Mercy sisters.
The reactions to the film were amazing. Apart from praise and amazement, survivors of industrial schools felt vindicated and were grateful at having been believed for the first time. But others, particularly the orders and their supporters, claimed the film exaggerated the girls’ sufferings. Louis Lentin had phone calls and letters from scores of survivors wishing to tell their own hitherto untold stories.
The film was a turning point and Christine Buckley was a trailblazer. Indeed, the film started a chain of events that led to Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologising publicly on behalf of the State for having let down the 14,000 survivors of reform and industrial schools, to the Ryan and Murphy reports and to the redress board.
But crucially, Buckley was never vindictive. Yes, she was angry at the nuns, but as a believer in education, she concentrated her efforts on establishing the Aislinn Centre, which provides education to many survivors who received no education from the nuns.
Christine Buckley brought us back to Ireland’s bad old days, but she was also a social reformer and a fighter. Rest in power, Christine.

Ronit Lentin is associate professor of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Her column appears fortnightly in Metro Éireann.

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