Carmel McDonnell Byrne remembers a difficult past

‘In July 1965, my mother abandoned eight children and our lives changed forever’

July has always been a difficult month for Carmel McDonnell Byrne.

It was the month her mother abandoned her and her seven siblings. It was the month two of her brothers drowned.

It is the month to be reminded of her eldest brother, the deceased Danny, who was born in July. All on the same date too, July 9th – if in different years.

She has never had a reason to like July – until 2015.


Co-founder in 1999 with the late Christine Buckley of the Aislinn centre in Dublin – which helps people who had been in orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories as children – she was nine when her mother left the family home forever in Dublin’s Drimnagh on July 9th, 1965.

“On this day in 1965 my mother abandoned eight children and our lives were changed forever,” she said on Thursday.

“There was a court case. She was not too pleased. I heard her say to Danny ‘I’m leaving’ and I knew immediately what she meant.”

She does not know what the court case was about. It was 40 years before she saw her mother again.

The eight children were all under 14. Their father, a bricklayer, was unable to look after them and, while relatives helped, eventually they were “separated and placed in different industrial schools and orphanages”.

Two days before her 10th birthday, on August 28th, 1965, she, her two sisters, and two younger brothers were placed in Dublin’s Goldenbridge orphanage.

The older boys were placed in St Saviour’s orphanage on Dublin’s Dominick Street.


At Goldenbridge “we suffered at the hands of cruel perpetrators who violated each of us physically, mentally, emotionally”.

Her sister Doreen was sexually abused there by a workman. “We were starved and reduced to eating stale scraps of food from the ground.”

She persuaded her father, then in Manchester, to take her two younger brothers out. They were reared happily by a childless Dublin couple in Birmingham.

On the first anniversary of their mother's leaving them, July 9th, 1966, two of her brothers drowned at Rossnowlagh in Co Donegal, along with another boy. Harry and Robert had been at St Saviour's.

“They were allowed swim unsupervised at 7pm in the evening while the priests were saying Mass.”

After a troubled life, Doreen died in 2007 at Dublin’s Townsend Street. “All we found were bones. She had been dead for weeks.”

She had been separated, had a boy and a girl, but struggled with depression all her life. Danny had heart problems and died last year aged 61.

“Had my mother not abandoned us I wonder if four of my siblings would be alive today?” McDonnell Byrne asked.

Her two surviving brothers are in England and her surviving sister, Geraldine, lives in Dublin.

She tracked her mother to a house in Manchester. It was in July too, of 2005. Earlier attempts to contact her had been rebuffed.

Along with her brother, John, she went to meet the mother they hadn’t seen since 1965.

It was not a happy encounter.

They challenged her about leaving her eight children and McDonnell Byrne accused her of abandoning her to be sexually abused by her father in the weeks before being put in Goldenbridge.

They discovered their mother had a ninth child in England from a second relationship, but that this girl had spina bifida and died at 22.

After a 35-minute meeting, they left. “I felt like jumping in the air. I think I said ‘I did it, now I can have closure’.”

Their mother died in 2010, their father in 1997.

‘Parents I should have had'

When she left Goldenbridge, McDonnell Byrne went to live “with my fabulous uncle and aunt very close to my old home in Drimnagh”.

She became friendly with Seán and Marie Becton in Inchicore "who took me into their home. They were the kindest people I ever met and became the parents I should have had".

The Becton’s three sons “look after me so well” and “always introduce me as their sister Carmel.”

She has four children of her own, but is amicably divorced.

Meanwhile, she is continuing her work at Aislinn, which is tough due to cutbacks.

On June 20th they had the second annual Christine Buckley Summer Barbecue at the Everleigh Garden club on Dublin's Harcourt Street to help raise funds and there is talk of a ball in October for the same purpose, "to coincide with Christine's birthday".

The situation at Aislinn is “so bad. Since Christine died (in March 2014) there have been 150 new people looking for help and we have only one and a half staff”.

But she goes on.

As well as her four children she has four grandchildren, the latest of whom, Alfie David, was born less than two weeks ago – on July 1st.

His arrival has been very welcome and its timing appears to be helping take the grim edge off her Julys for the first time in 50 years.

She also has a significant event to look forward to, as on August 30th she will be 60.

Regardless, July 9th will always be poignant, as indicated by her post on Facebook on Thursday.

Gone my beautiful family Danny, Harry, Robert & Doreen but always in my heart and never forgotten on this day, your ever loving sister Carmel McDonnell Byrne.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times