Christine Buckley: a 21st century Irish hero

State child abuse campaigner rose above the grim hand fate dealt her to become an icon

Christine Buckley, who died on March 11th last, came from obscure origins.

She was, in the harsh language of the day, illegitimate, half caste and abandoned.

It was Ireland 1946, that same year Irish-born Fr Edward Flanagan of Boys' Town in the US was appalled by the condition of children in such places as she grew up in. They were "a disgrace to the nation", he said, before achieving the seemingly impossible and uniting all shades of Irish political opinion in untrammelled apoplexy.

At the Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin's Inchicore where Buckley grew up, they said her mother was a whore and her father was Willie West. Neither was true.


She was a number, not a name, in a childhood full of terror, of endless beatings, casual cruelties, verbal lacerations, scaldings, and infants strapped to potties. She got 100 stitches in her leg after a beating. She made rosary beads, to a quota of 60 sets a day, and no one saw the irony.

Such was the childhood of a 21st century Irish hero.

It wouldn’t have happened in 20th century Ireland – a pious land where no bastard child of an Irish mother and a Nigerian father could hope to become a hero.

It is testimony to the character, intelligence and tenacity of Buckley that she rose so far above the grim hand fate dealt her to become an icon.

Those who knew her speak of a life in three parts: the dark years in Goldenbridge; the lighter, happier years as a nurse in Drogheda; and afterwards the more intense later decades when she shifted a culture on its axis and forced Ireland to look at itself in the mirror and admit the shame.

Life and soul

Those who remember her from Drogheda recall someone who was the life and soul of the party, at every party. Later, she was a nurse in London, Innsbruck, Munich, and


before returning to Dublin where she did midwifery at the Rotunda hospital. Subsequently, she worked at the Coombe, Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children and

Cherry Orchard

. She loved nursing children.

In 1975, she met journalist Donal Buckley at the Zhivago nightclub in Dublin "where love stories begin", as the advertising said. They married in 1977 and had three children, Clíona, Darragh, and Conor.

After a bout of illness in the early 1980s she began to wonder about her origins. She was 37. She discovered she had been born to a 31-year-old separated Dublin woman and a 20-year-old Nigerian medical student. At three weeks old she was fostered out and in 1950, after several foster homes, she was sent to Goldenbridge.

When she finally traced her mother in 1985 it resulted in bitter disappointment.

Her mother didn’t want to know her.

She traced her father and wrote to him in Nigeria.

His reply began, “Dear daughter”, which became the title of the 1996 documentary which turned her into a public figure.

In 1988 she went to Nigeria and met her father, then practising as a doctor there. Both of her parents are now dead.

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.”

She told her father about her life in Goldenbridge and how she intended to go public about the horrors of the place once he returned to Ireland to meet her children, his grandchildren.

He visited Ireland in 1992. As a medical student at Trinity College Dublin he had befriended Al Byrne, broadcaster Gay Byrne's brother. Christine and her father were invited on to RTÉ Radio's The Gay Byrne Show. Thousands of listeners contacted her requesting help in tracing their parents.

Little more happened.

She would say later how “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”.

Dear Daughter

“For this reason I agreed to Louis Lentin’s invitation to participate in his

Dear Daughter

documentary . . . I persuaded him to incorporate the harrowing tales of other brave women in Goldenbridge.”

(Lentin himself died in July this year. He paid emotional tribute to Christine Buckley on The Late Late Show last March and again at a special function in Dublin's Aislinn Centre, weeks before he died.)

In early 1999, out of frustration at repeated “one-liner” replies from politicians, Christine Buckley, Carmel McDonnell-Byrne and Bernadette Fahy who had also been in Goldenbridge, went directly to see then minister for education Micheál Martin.

They met him again later with taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Other meetings with the two politicians followed and the women were told of plans for a public apology 10 to 14 days before it happened. They were also told about plans for a commission of investigation and a redress scheme.

At the same time the late Mary Raftery's States of Fear series on institutional abuse, and with which Christine Buckley assisted, was being prepared. It was broadcast on RTÉ television in April/May 1999. After which, le déluge . . .

The public apology to all abuse survivors was delivered by Bertie Ahern. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was set up and its 2,600-page report was published in May 2009. The Residential Institutions Redress Board was also set up and is completing its work after making awards to more than 15,600 survivors.

Buckley was devoted to the Aislinn Centre which she and Carmel McDonnell-Byrne opened to help survivors in 1999. It took up much of her time in the latter years, even as she struggled with bouts of cancer since 2000.

In 2010 she was named European Volunteer of the Year and in 2012 was awarded an honorary doctorate by Trinity College Dublin, her father’s alma mater and where her son Conor played rugby.

The honours keep coming, even in death. Earlier this month the Christine Buckley Volunteer of the Year Award, as it shall be known, was presented by Clíona Buckley on behalf of Volunteer Ireland to Jim Kavanagh of Chernobyl Children International in Dublin's City Hall. Earlier, Darragh Buckley accepted an honorary higher diploma in arts from UCD on his mother's behalf.

At the funeral last March, her sister Cynthia Emienike reminded everyone of the person behind the public face. "Behind her tenacity and her public pursuit of justice was a humble, loving, compassionate, caring and faithful" woman, she said. And behind that woman was a loving, compassionate and supportive family.

Christine Buckley was an original among Irishwomen and a pioneer in exposing how this State “cherished” so many of its children, whatever their age, throughout the 20th century.

Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann. (We shall not see her like again).

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times