Christine Buckley, who died this morning, was one of the first former residents to go public on her experience of the Goldenbridge orphanage where she grew up.
Born in Dublin, she was the daughter of 31-year-old married woman and a 20-year-old Nigerian medical student. At the age of three weeks she was given up for fostering. After staying at a number of foster homes, in 1950, at the age of four, she was sent to Goldenbridge, run by the Sisters of Mercy.
She recounted her memories of Goldenbridge in a drama-documentary, Dear Daughter, broadcast by RTÉ television in 1996. Director Louis Lentin used dramatisations to depict the regime under which Buckley and her fellow residents lived. Also, the participants re-enacted childhood activities: in one sequence they were shown making rosary beads, telling how as children they had to meet a quota of 60 sets of beads a day.
The children, not known by name but by number, lived constantly with violence. The accounts of the physical and mental cruelty they endured were truly shocking. Tales of beatings, scaldings and infants strapped to potties did not make for easy viewing. One former resident told of accidentally breaking a statue of the Virgin Mary while playing. Her punishment was to stand overnight in the pose of the statue she had damaged.
Christine Buckley was once so badly beaten that she had to get 100 stitches in her leg. On another occasion, when she was 10, a kettle of boiling water was poured over her right thigh.
Dear Daughter attracted a huge audience, and the sympathy of most viewers and media went to the former residents. The Sisters of Mercy issued an apology: "Life in the Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s was generally harsh for most people. This was reflected in orphanages which were, for the most part, under-funded, under-staffed and under-resourced. In these circumstances, many sisters gave years of dedicated service. Notwithstanding these facts, clearly mistakes were made ... we now ask for forgiveness for all our failures."
Buckley described the apology as “cynical”.
However, Dear Daughter had its critics. In this newspaper, Michael Foley criticised the media's "rush to judgment". He wrote: "There are those who disagree with Ms Buckley, and without any disrespect to her or her memories, have a different story ... but few in the media were interested in listening."
Contributors to an edition of Prime Time portrayed Goldenbridge in a positive light, and the programme featured an interview with the orphanage’s former resident manager, Sister Xaviera, who was much criticised in the documentary.
Buckley responded: “This is not about one nun - it is about years and years of abuse that went on behind walls. We want an independent inquiry. How many millions were spent on the Beef Tribunal? That was an inquiry into beef. It seems we are less than beasts ...”
After completing her Leaving Certificate, Buckley went to Drogheda, where she qualified as a nurse. She married in 1977, and following an illness in 1983 began the search for her parents. She was bitterly disappointed when she finally traced her mother, who she quickly learnt did not want to know her.
To trace her father she needed her mother's permission for his name to be released. This was granted after a year's wait. Having eventually traced him to his home in Nigeria, she wrote to him. His reply began with the words, "Dear daughter", which became the title of the television documentary.
Her father visited Ireland in 1992, and father and daughter were invited onto the Gay Byrne Show to tell their story. This prompted thousands of listeners to contact her requesting help to trace their parents and with other matters.
Buckley approached politicians from the main political parties seeking help for those who had contacted her. “My requests ranged from seeking an inquiry to finding out what went on, and why, in those institutions - as well as to the provision of counselling and education for victims of abuse,” she recalled.
Bertie Ahern and Micheál Martin were among the few politicians to give her a hearing, and she praised Ahern for his apology on behalf of the State which he made in 1999. She also credited him with establishing the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and the Residential Institutions Redress Board.
In 1999, Buckley, with Carmel McDonnell Byrne, founded the Aislinn education and support centre to support former residents of industrial schools. She stood as an independent candidate in the Dublin South constituency in 1997.
Selected as Irish Volunteer of the Year in 2010, she went on to be awarded the title European Volunteer of the Year on International Volunteer Day that year. In 2012 she was conferred with an honorary doctorate of laws by Trinity College Dublin.
Carmel McDonnell Byrne said of her friend and colleague: “ Christine’s courage has enabled thousands of people to feel free - free from untruth, free from the cowardice that characterised relations between Church and State [so that] at last the awful shame so many feel is slowly lifting.”