‘Children made to eat their own vomit, Inquiry to be told’.
That’s the heading of an article in today’s Irish Times. I feel a sense of identification every time I read about this Inquiry into the Nazareth nuns who worked in the Nazareth House in Derry’s Bishop Street and in Termonbacca, a couple of miles outside the city. The Nazareth House is located directly across the road from what was St Columb’s College, where I was incarcerated for six years, and Termonbacca is where we sent our laundry each week and the place to which we trudged at weekends to play our Gaelic football games.
I never met any of the Nazareth nuns in those days – the days when they are accused of forcing children to eat their own vomit, when those who wet the bed were forced to put soiled sheets on their heads, when children were known by numbers rather than names, and were allegedly humiliated, threatened and physically abused. Some College boys must have known the nuns, because some boys were given the job of serving Mass in the Nazareth House for priests from the College
I don’t remember any of these boys commenting on the harshness of the nuns, although that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And while we sent our laundry to and played football at Termonbacca, we had no contact with the nuns or the children in these homes. However, some of the charges made sound familiar. Being physically abused, humiliated, threatened – that if it happend wasn’t the monopoly of the Nazareth nuns. We boys in the College faced the daily possibility of that, and frequently the experience as well, often at the hands of priest-teachers as well as lay-teachers. But while it was far from fun and even further from education, I don’t think it damaged many of us for life. Perhaps it did and we don’t notice it, but I’d say most of my peers would have a similar view of those days. As to the soiled sheets over the heads and the eating of vomit : we had none of that.
Did those things happen? Presumably, since those who were children in the homes are insistent it did. But I remember a man who used to come visit his boarder son in St Columb’s. He would talk to other boys as well as his son, and tell them how much easier life in the College was than it had been in his day. “Hungry?” he’d say scornfully. “We were so hungry we ate bits of bark from the trees”. Everybody kept a straight face until he’d gone, then fell about laughing. And certainly it’s true that just as ex-smokers tend to tell you they used to smoke thirty a day, those who’ve suffered hardship tend to lay on the description with a trowel.
Whether that is the case with the people who were children in the Nazareth homes – that’s the job of the Inquiry to establish. But I’d sound one note of caution: because people say something happened in the past doesn’t mean it happened, any more than it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.