Remembering the past



‘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.






10 Responses to Remembering the past

  1. Larry Murphy January 28, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    What Age Is Belfast?

    “This jewel that houses our hopes and our fears
    Was knocked up from the swamp in the last hundred years;
    But the last shall be first and the first shall be last:
    May the Lord in His mercy be kind to Belfast.”

    But as the Cavan man responded to the question from the American tourist as to how far it was to Dublin: “It depends where you start from”

    Yes Jude. – I served mass in The Nazareth House, but can only remember that I was given a breakfast considerably better than was normal in the college. I can’t remember any of the children, but then I was only a child myself.

  2. Jude Collins January 28, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    Good to hear from you, Larry. I think of you often, and Kieran even oftener…
    Re Nazareth House: there’s talk of ‘visiting priests ‘ abusing the children. If they were from St Colditz, surely some of us would have picked up a sense of it? I never heard the faintest whisper.

  3. Stranger Still January 28, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    My mother told me stories of her mistreatment as a child with tuberculosis at a sanitorium in the 1940’s. Her stories included being made to eat her vomit after having said she didn’t feel well and didn’t want her meal, but being forced to eat it by the staff member because little sick kids needed their sustenance. I found it hard to believe that someone would do such a thing to a sick child. Then again, I couldn’t see why my Mom would make up such a story.
    Having reeled in a few years, I don’t find it so hard to believe. I’ve heard similar tales of forced vomit-eating from Native residential schools.
    Anytime you have people in positions of power, there is potential for abuse. The people who actually become abusers are likely those who have themselves been abused and are simply passing it on.
    It would be nice if it such things never happened.
    I don’t think casting aspersions on those seeking redress for past abuse is the best line, Jude.

  4. Jude Collins January 28, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

    SS – thanks for thoughts and experience via your mother. Let me correct you on one important point: I am not casting aspersions on those seeking redress for past abuse. If people have been abused , they most certainly deserve redress. If they have not been abused, they do not deserve redress. I don’t think we have to assume that because someone makes a claim, that claim is necessarily true. It may be and it may not. So let’s not have this finger-pointing at anyone who would dare to suggest that a claim might not be totally true; it might well be and it might well not. That’s what the Inquiry is for.

  5. Noel McDonald January 28, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    What are your views on Eamon Martin’s recent evaluation that Catholic schools are places “where all are welcome?” Having been a pupil of St. Columb’s College under his “presidency”, I found that the foremost priority of the school was to project an image of itself as a centre for academic excellence and moral superiority. More often than not, this was far from the truth. I recall questioning several of the staff regarding the school’s dogma and receiving the general response, “if you don’t like it, go somewhere else”. Maybe a more appropriate appraisal could be summed: “all are welcome except those who don’t blindly subscribe to our policies. And girls.”

  6. Jude Collins January 28, 2014 at 4:36 pm #

    Noel – two things re St Colditz – sorry, St Columb’s : It’s over fifty years since I attended same so my thoughts are probably out-of-date; (ii) I was a boarder which, like love, changes everything. I can safely say being a boarder in St C’s was a bit like war – long periods of numbing boredom punctuated by moments of blind terror. And some times of happy camaraderie – I count some of the people who were my year as my friends still. I think the notion of academic excellence was the thing that was pushed hardest when I was there (not always very skilfully). The college motto certainly came a poor second. How long is it since you were there? To be fair, most schools like to apply their rules and anyone who tries to act otherwise is invited to take a walk. I like the addendum ‘And girls’, though. That was a serious minus for my generation of boarders

  7. ANOTHER JUDE January 28, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    More grist to the mill for the Belfast Telegraph and co, Children being treated badly by those awful Nuns, all Catholics you know. Fact is although there can never be any excuse for physical abuse of vulnerable children, I went to a Catholic school in the Seventies and like all schools corporal punishment was the norm. Some teachers used the strap, some used the palm of their hand, others used bamboo rods. Such behaviour would quite rightly be frowned upon now. It was not just Catholic teachers, Protestant friends of mine suffered just as much. It is only a matter of time before some disgruntled fifty something decides to sue a past teacher, for the slaps and canings handed out by said master. Must dash, have to ring my solicitor.

  8. michael c January 28, 2014 at 9:23 pm #

    My memories of 1970s schooling include being given a good hiding by a sadistic thug of a teacher who also happened to be (and still is) a member of the SDLP. It is therefore with some amusement that I still read letters in the newspapers from this thug launching blistering attacks on those who blighted our lives with their blind adherence to violence.Also Jude I would be of the opinion that the St Colms boys were treated differently to the orphans due to the small matter of social class.The nuns and priests would have regarded the orphans as socially inferior and acted accordingly.

  9. Jude Collins January 28, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

    I think you’re absolutely right there, Michael C. Class matters.

  10. Virginia January 29, 2014 at 3:09 am #

    Cruelty is horrid. Cruelty to disenfranchised children it is evil and will have consequences.