For the thousands of children who grew up between the 1930s and
1970s in Ireland’s brutal residential institutions, leaving the
care system presented little choice of what to do next. Having
endured years of neglect and sometimes physical or sexual abuse,
many left under-educated, institutionalised and ill-prepared to
face the outside world.
Some had entered the system through reformatory school, often after
committing a minor misdemeanor. Others were the children of single
mothers, shamed by family or Church into giving up their babies.
Many were actively discouraged from making or maintaining contact
with their families. Discharged at the age of 16 and with no
continuing support, it is hardly surprising that for many, their
first move on leaving care was also to leave Ireland.
The plight of these survivors of Irish institutions went virtually
unrecognised until the late 1990s when a series of media expos’s
pushed Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (the Irish prime minister) into an
unprecedented public statement.
In his “sincere and long-overdue apology to the victims of
childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene”, Ahern
pledged to “do all we can to overcome the lasting effects of their
This promise finally bore fruit earlier this year with the passing
of the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002, which proposed
financial compensation for anyone who suffered abuse while in
residential care. However, as the Residential Institutions Redress
Board prepares to consider its first cases later this year, it must
first address a significant problem. With survivors of Irish
institutions now scattered to all corners of the globe, how will it
reach all those who are eligible for compensation?
According to Sally Mulready, UK co-ordinator of the Irish Survivors
Outreach Service (Isos), up to 40 per cent of those eligible for
compensation under the 2002 act are now living in the UK.
“That amounts to between 10,000 and 12,000 people,” Mulready says.
And furthermore, these exiled survivors have more than just the
baggage from their abusive childhood to deal with. “They have also
had an immigrant experience,” she explains.
To understand what it was like for these damaged and vulnerable
young people trying to make a new life in a not altogether
welcoming UK, you need look no further than the 2001 report of the
Irish compensation advisory committee. Visiting England to collect
evidence for the 2002 act, the committee found that institutional
abuse had left a long legacy of social problems.
Some survivors had sought to link up with family members already
established in the UK, but had been rejected when these already
impoverished families could not take in another young person. Many
ended up sleeping on the streets.
Others had fled Ireland to escape the harsh conditions of their
work placements between the ages of 16 and 18 years old. “These
survivors felt that they were fugitives and lived in fear of the
Catholic Church or other authorities catching up with them,” says
the committee’s report.
Exiled survivors also had mixed feelings about their national
identity. “Many of the people we talked to felt a sense of
alienation from Ireland and a loss of their national identity,”
says the report. “Many reported racial prejudice and a feeling of
being neither British nor Irish.”
Mulready suggests that it was Ahern’s apology in 1999 that gave
many survivors the confidence to speak for the first time about
their childhood experience, and to try to deal with the problems it
had created. “The apology was the first official recognition that
these people did endure great suffering,” she says. “Before this,
people often simply weren’t believed. It dignified their
However, as more and more people began to confront their past, so
their need grew for professional help to cope with the
Isos began life in 2000 based at the London Irish Centre in Camden,
north London. Funded by Ireland’s Department of Education and
Science, the service offered free and confidential advice and
support to individual survivors of institutional abuse on issues
such as health, housing and claiming benefits. Counselling was
provided by Immigrant Counselling and Psychotherapy (Icap), a
service based in north London for English-speaking immigrants. The
service’s outreach workers could also help survivors track down
family members or find information about the time they spent in an
institution. Demand was such that centres were soon opened in
Coventry, Sheffield and Manchester. An additional London base has
just opened in Haringey and Mulready is keen to expand anywhere
where there is a need.
“At the moment we have nothing in Scotland, Wales or in Liverpool
or Birmingham, both of which have big Irish communities,” she
With the Residential Institutions Redress Board due to begin
considering claims any day now, a growing role for Isos is
providing legal advice to survivors intending to make compensation
claims. Although the system proposed by the Irish government is
designed to be as simple and painless as possible, Mulready
recommends all UK-based applicants obtain a good UK-based lawyer
who is familiar with the application process.
Applicants will not need to go to civil court. Nor will they have
to prove any negligence on the part of the institution involved.
However, they will have to be able to show that they were resident
in an institution in Ireland as a child and that their injuries are
consistent with the abuse alleged. All claims must be made to the
redress board by 2005. Although legal costs will be paid by the
Irish government regardless of where the applicant lives, one bone
of contention is the UK government’s intention to means-test the
welfare benefits of any successful applicant who is currently on
income support. Irish residents have been assured that their
benefits will remain untouched. “This is a problem because around
80 per cent of the survivors in the UK are on income support,” says
Mulready. The amount of compensation each applicant will receive
depends on the extent of the abuse they suffered. A sliding scale
has been developed that, in some cases, will pay out substantial
amounts of money.
However, although the importance of financial compensation should
not be underestimated, Isos outreach worker John O’Donovan stresses
that the process of applying to the redress board may have other
more lasting benefits.
“It would be wrong to paint every survivor as homeless or on
benefits,” he says. “Many people, despite their difficult start in
life, have had very successful lives. So it’s not necessarily about
the money. They are looking for some acknowledgement of their
experience and they want to make sure that it never happens
Others will need help coping with the emotional turmoil that may
have been suppressed for decades.
“For some it’s the first time that they have come to terms with the
fact that their abuse wasn’t their fault,” says O’Donovan. “The
child will often assume that they are responsible.”
Revisiting their time in care has also led many survivors to want
to know more about the time they spent there, how they got there
and where they originally came from. Of particular concern have
been recent revelations that many children in institutions were
enrolled in trials of medical vaccines, often without proper
consent. Ireland’s recently passed Freedom of Information Act means
that much of this information can now be accessed. Likewise,
information on family background has also become available allowing
many survivors to retrace their roots.
“Some people are finding out for the first time that they have
brothers and sisters,” says O’Donovan. “There have been a number of
reunions, some of which have gone well and others not so well. It’s
a very emotional time.”
The damage done to the children of Ireland’s residential
institutions can never truly be put right. But with the Laffoy
Commission set to produce its report on the full scale of the
scandal in 2005, the Redress Act and the support offered through
organisations such as Isos it shows that Ireland is facing up to a
shameful part of its past.
– Isos can be contacted at: London Irish Centre: 020 7916 7300;
Haringey Irish Centre: 020 8885 3682; Coventry Irish Society: 02476
257943; Sheffield Irish Forum: 0114 221 0481; Manchester Irish
Community Care: 0161 205 9105.