The President's emigrant
Sally Mulready’s life began in a children’s institution in 1950s Ireland, followed by emigration and involvement in some of the biggest campaigns of the past two decades. Now she’s on the Council of State, writes MARK HENNESSY, London Editor
ENTERING THE WARMTH of Sally Mulready’s home in Hackney, in northeast London, on a bitterly cold day, you are greeted by echoes of Ireland: the sound of Pat Kenny’s radio show, and The Irish Times and Irish Independent on the dining-room table. Bridie the cat comes to investigate.
On the day we meet, Mulready is preparing to leave for Dublin, for the first meeting of President Michael D Higgins’s Council of State, at Áras an Uachtaráin – followed, sadly, by the funeral of Mary Raftery, the journalist who helped reveal the scandal of Ireland’s children’s institutions.
Raftery’s death is especially poignant, as the broadcast of her documentary series States of Fear, in 1999, changed Mulready’s life, propelling her on a decade-long campaign to help abuse victims who had fled Ireland for Britain, and many of whom had never found peace.
Mulready herself knows something about the institutions. Born in 1950, she spent her first four years in the mother-and-babies home on Navan Road in Dublin with her mother, Sheila, before the two were separated, in accordance with the rules of the time, when Mulready was four.
Her mother went to England. Mulready went to an orphanage elsewhere in Dublin – “a benign, beautiful place on the Kilmacud Road in Stillorgan” – though at the age of nine her life changed once more with her transfer to St Mary’s Industrial School, in Sandymount.
“That was a completely different kind of institution, a big melting pot of children, from orphans to children sent there by the courts, children who were suddenly bereaved. It was a very, very wild place, [but] it wasn’t vicious.”
Fifty years on, she still keeps in occasional touch with one of the nuns. “I am 60. How old was she when she was looking after me? We had no sense of them being anything other than nuns. We never saw them as human beings, with feelings.”
Even while at St Mary’s, Mulready knew that boys in other institutions were being physically abused. It was not until Raftery’s investigation was broadcast that she understood about sexual abuse, “although it came as no surprise to me”.
The suffering was visible at Christmas, when the children held in the institutions were brought together for charity evenings at the Savoy – hosted, separately, by Cadbury and CIÉ – where they were encouraged “to stuff our faces with chocolate” and sing Christmas songs.
“I saw even then the absolute hardship and suffering of young boys. They had it in their faces. They were very subdued; they never smiled,” she says, adding that the St Mary’s children were “more assertive; we weren’t afraid”.
Decades later, having watched States of Fear, Mulready, by then secretary of the Federation of Irish Societies, knew that something had to be done in Britain, because there “was very little reference to the possibility that there were survivors outside of Ireland”.
Before States of Fear, two small groups of men had begun to gather separately in Coventry and Sheffield to talk among themselves about their experiences. But the programme opened the floodgates.
Mulready travelled Britain, briefing survivors on the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which was set up in Ireland in 2000, and the later Residential Institutions Redress Board, which dealt with financial compensation. “A meeting that started at one o’clock would still be going on at six. People would just stand up and preface what they had to say by saying, ‘I’m telling this for the first time: I have never told a soul this.’ We heard testimonial after testimonial after testimonial.”
Unlike some former inmates of the industrial schools in Britain, Mulready accepts that the redress board “did its best with the evidence it had”. Most of those who went before it – she did not go before it – had their cases settled without having to give evidence. “Had we all been marched into court it would have taken us all eight to nine years to have our cases heard. Very few of us would have been able to produce any witnesses to the assaults. The people we were accusing were dead,” she says.
She is bitterly critical of the religious orders, however. “They have delivered less than a quarter of the promised funding, and Ruairí Quinn is having one hell of a battle to try to get more resources out of them.”
Today, Mulready, a British Labour Party councillor, is deeply involved in the fight for recognition by some of the 30,000 women who were held in the church-run Magdalen laundries, who were denied the right to seek compensation from the redress board.
Mulready was an experienced campaigner by the time States of Fear emerged, having supported the miners’ strike in Britain in 1984, the Birmingham Six release campaign, and efforts to get the Irish government to fund organisations working with vulnerable Irish emigrants.
In the early 1990s, the decayed bodies of a succession of elderly Irishmen were found dead in their flats in Camden – months and years after their lonely, ignored deaths – prompting demands for action.
In 1994, the Irish Elderly Advice Network was formed, with Mulready at its head and a budget of just £9,000 (€10,800). To date it has helped 4,000 vulnerable Irish people, aiding them, among other ways by securing millions in unclaimed welfare and pensions benefits.
Before the network was set up, she wrote to the Department of Foreign Affairs, in Dublin, seeking funds. She got a letter back saying the group was not a priority at the time. “I was absolutely astonished, but it actually put a bit of fight in me. “I said, ‘I’m not accepting this.’ This is the community that sent money back home in remittances, that had kept Irish families off their knees – brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers – through the money that they sent home every week in cash in envelopes.” Two years later, after campaigning by Mulready, the Federation of Irish Societies under Seamus McGarry, and the Council of Irish Counties, among others, funding arrived from Dublin and it has kept coming.
THE 1990s MARKED a sea change in the way Ireland looked on its emigrants, spurred on by documentaries that highlighted the squalidness that some endured.
Equally, the Irish Embassy started to change. “I have been here for 40 years, and it wasn’t until Ted Barrington came [as ambassador, in 1995] that I ever got an invitation to the Embassy. The Irish Embassy was some sort of remote place that well-to-do people in the community went to. Those with influence congregated around the Irish Embassy and the Irish Club in Eaton Square, and the rest of us did our socialising in the Irish Centre in Camden and in the pubs around Camden, Brent, Ealing, all those places.”
Like other Irish emigrants of the 1960s, Mulready remembers having to be most wary of one’s own people. “It was absolutely dreadful; I remember that myself. I came here in 1966 looking for accommodation, and like lots of people we were living in rooms. An awful lot of the landlords were Irish, and they were just downright exploitative, unpleasant, bossy,” she says, adding that her grandmother always used to say, “Strangers are better to you than your own.”
Mulready did benefit from the kindness of strangers, when she worked first in a laundry and in the London Electricity Board. “I was taken care of, looked after, my interests protected . . . They were all Londoners, old-fashioned, from Hackney.”
With just a primary education from St Mary’s, Mulready went back to school for a day a week, earning an A-Level and, later, “the whole Educating Rita bit”, achieving a degree in history.
“For the first five years of my life here I didn’t mix that much with Irish people. I went to the odd dance in the Gresham ballroom, on Holloway Road. But I found the Irish community difficult,” she says, referring to sexism and cliquishness.
Today, she says, “the Irish community is better, stronger, more caring than it ever was, and much more connected . . . but there are still hard-core sections of the Irish community, not just single Irishmen, who need help.”
Most new emigrants are better educated and more confident than their predecessors, “but not all of them are educated and competent. There are going to be a lot of really vulnerable people, feeling really rejected and disappointed, who are not leaving of their free will.”
The place on the Council of State offers a platform, but Mulready is not yet sure quite what she can do with it. “It means an awful lot. It is a terrific honour for me and my family. I have to pinch myself constantly and ask, ‘Is it really me?’ I don’t come from the normal classes on whom an honour of this sort is usually bestowed. It means an awful lot to the Irish community, too.”
The proposed Constitutional Convention offers the Irish in Britain the chance to be heard, she says, particularly on the right to vote in some elections, although she says she has not made up her mind on the issue. “I think we have to have a dialogue about what we mean about votes for the Irish. I have been here 40 years; I pay my taxes in this country; I am fully settled,” she says, adding, “My family is here; my whole life is here.
“I never wanted to leave Ireland, but, ironically, I regard it as the best thing I ever did. I wouldn’t have had any of those doors open for me. I believe that if I went back tomorrow they probably still wouldn’t be open to me.”
But now she must rush for her flight. The President is waiting.
Why is she in the news?President Michael D Higgins has appointed her to the Council of State
What does she do?She’s a British Labour Party councillor and head of the Irish Elderly Advice Network, which has helped 4,000 vulnerable Irish in Britain. She has also campaigned on behalf of abuse victims, the Birmingham Six and, more recently, those who were held in the Magdalen laundries, who have so far been denied compensation by the State