Christine Buckley helped shift cultural axis on child abuse
She persisted ‘through denial, denunciation and obfuscation to expose the rotten story’
Those who insist that history is about movements not individuals might reflect on the achievements of Christine Buckley.
Her story is history as driven by one person. She was an original, a pioneer in exposing how badly this State “cherished” many of its children, whatever their age, throughout most of the 20th century, up to 1996 when the last Magdalene laundry closed. If a high point of much of her work was then taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s 1999 apology on behalf of the State to all who had been in residential institutions as children, as well as his announcement then of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Ryan Commission) and the setting up of the Residential Institutions Redress Board, it was not all.
It is no exaggeration to claim that such huge shift in the cultural axis of Ireland, made possible by Christine Buckley, paved the way for the Murphy Commission which investigated the handling of clerical sexual abuse allegations in Dublin and Cloyne dioceses, as well as the McAleese committee which investigated the Magdalene laundries. All were of piece
She was not alone in bringing these about but she was among the very first, the most consistent and most persistent in her determination that such truths should out so that survivors be helped. She ploughed through denial, denunciation and obfuscation to expose the rotten story of what went on in this State’s residential institutions for children.
Her own story, as we now know, was in many ways typical. Through its telling she liberated others to do likewise, and not just from an institutional context. Writing in this newspaper in 1997 she recalled: “My mother lived within 20 minutes of the orphanage where I was placed as a child. I never knew it. Nobody seemed to know it. After a two-year courtship she took the baby boat to England in 1946 to hide, to wait and to give birth to her dark secret.
“ She forgot to tell my father that she was separated from her husband. She forgot to tell him she already had children, one of them in an institution. Two weeks after my birth we returned to Ireland. My father refused to support her. The following day she placed me with, an adoption agency, vehemently refusing to sign the adoption papers and nobody asked her why.
“Guilt ridden, my father tracked me down six months later in a baby home. For six years he was the pivot of my life until one Saturday he never came back.”
Her campaign began after she met her birth mother for the first time in 1985. Three years later she travelled to Nigeria to meet her father. She “told him about my life in Goldenbridge . . . and how I intended to go public about the horrors of that place once he returned to Ireland to meet my children.”
In 1992 her father arrived in Ireland where Gay Byrne invited both to tell their story on RTÉ Radio One. After that “the phones hopped,” then little more happened. “Those following years of delay, exacerbated by the denials or dismissals by the religious and their apologists in the lay world, as well as elements in the media . . . meant that further, more telling evidence was required. For this reason I agreed to Louis Lentin’s invitation to participate in his 1996 TV documentary Dear Daughter . . . I persuaded him to incorporate the harrowing tales of other brave women in Goldenbridge.”
In early 1999, out of frustration at repeated “one-liner” replies from politicians, she, Bernadette Fahy, and Carmel McDonnell Byrne who had also been in Goldenbridge, went directly to see the minister for education Micheál Martin. They met him again with then taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
A series of meetings with both men followed with Mr Ahern telling them of his plans for a public apology, between 10 to 14 days before it happened.
They were also told in advance about plans for a commission of investiagtion and a redress scheme, she recalled. At the same time Mary Raftery’s States of Fear series on institutional abuse and with which Christine Buckley assisted, was being broadcast on RTÉ. The rest, as they say, is history.
She was devoted to the Aislinn Centre, which she and Carmel McDonnell Byrne opened to help survivors in 1999, and blessed with a happy family life. But behind the public persona was a light-hearted woman who, for instance, when asked by this newspaper in 2012 whether she had a healthy lifestyle, responded: “Absolutely not. I enjoy what’s not good for me too much. I’m still addicted to nicotine. I have made attempts to stop, but sadly the battle continues.”
It has ended.