Sunday, May 12, 2024

‘There was no love there. Only beatings’ – Westbank orphans appeal to Simon Harris as they tell heartbreaking tale of childhood in his hometown

Colm Begley endured difficult times as a young boy in Westbank, Greystones

The typed report said his name was Robin Mathers and he was 11 years and three months old. It was 1977 and the school principal at St Patrick’s National School in Greystones, Co Wicklow, had referred the boy to the local health board for psychological assessment because of his “slow academic progress”.

“Robin is a very quiet, nervous boy who is very small for his age. He does not mix very well with the children in his class and his school and homework have been particularly poor of late.

“He was ill-at-ease throughout assessment and his hands trembled when he manipulated the puzzles in the IQ test.

“Factors in Robin’s institutional background are probably responsible for his poor achievement in academic and social areas,” the psychologist wrote.

The boy’s “institutionalised background” was in a dysfunctional orphanage in Greystones run by the volatile evangelical Adeline Mathers, who made children call her “Auntie”.

The name the adults called him was not even his own. He was 20 when he learned the name “Robin Mathers” was imposed on him by Adeline Mathers, who forced all the children in her care to take her name. His name — his real name — is Colm Begley.

Now in his late 50s, it pains Colm to read the psychological assessment of his 11-year-old self as a clearly terrified child with trembling fingers.

“I’d say that was a lot to do with nerves. I was nervous all the time, waiting for the next beating to come,” he said.

“There was no love there. Only beatings. That’s all I remember. You would get the electric flex if you stole an apple from the tree in the orchard, or if you wet the bed...

“Even though we were sleeping in the nursery on mattresses on the floor, sometimes we would be afraid to get up to go to the toilet — and that’s how we would wet the bed…

“What would happen was we would get up in the morning. Auntie — Adeline Mathers — she would find out you had wet the bed because all the sheets would be wet. And then you’d be called into the little kitchen and she would tell you to bend over the bench.”

A second woman administered an injection, he said. “And then Adeline Mathers would come with the electric flex and she would whip you right across your legs and backside with the flex.”

To this day he has no idea what he was injected with.

Along with the beatings, he recalls the starvation. Porridge and tins of Heinz baby food were mixed together and served in a slop.

“You’d get one scoop — one ladle of baby food — that could be your breakfast. And you might have that for your evening meal as well, when you came home in the evening,” he said.

He broke into the fridge freezer one night and ate frozen bread and butter. He stole dog biscuits from the pantry and took tins of sponge pudding that he stabbed open with rusty nails.

Colm is one of around 19 former residents who say they were beaten and starved, and in some cases sexually abused, during their time at Westbank orphanage in the hometown of new Taoiseach Simon Harris.

The Westbank Orphanage Redress Campaign is calling on the TD for Wicklow to use his power and influence to not just acknowledge the wrong done to them as children, but to correct the wrong done to them as adults.

They are denied access to the State’s residential redress scheme for children raised in institutions, and were also excluded from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. So now the Westbank survivors want the Taoiseach to finally include them.

They are not the only ones pressing for inclusion. Two reports of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation suggested that Westbank survivors were “unfairly excluded” from the Residential Institutions Redress Scheme and acknowledge that it should have been open to them.

An Oireachtas joint committee recommended in 2022 that the Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme should be extended to Westbank residents.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit reminded Simon Harris on his first outing as Taoiseach of the “shameful exclusion” of and “the grave injustice” done to the Westbank “orphans”.

Sidney Herdman, who like Colm Begley suffered years of beatings and starvation as a child in Westbank, emailed the Taoiseach on Monday.

“Westbank Orphanage children were subject to sexual abuse as well as to emotional and physical abuse,” he wrote.

“It was a dysfunctional Protestant evangelical orphanage that closed in the 1990s, for which the Irish government had an established statutory responsibility, to which all Protestant denominations sent children and which they supported. On behalf of Westbank residents, I demand that the Irish Government adhere to a central recommendation of its own Commission of Inquiry. The Westbank Orphanage is a blot on the landscape of Wicklow, the garden of Ireland.”

​The legislation underpinning the Residential Institutions Redress Act recognised industrial schools, reformatory schools, orphanages or special schools that were subject to state inspections.

According to Niall Meehan, the retired head of journalism at Griffith College who is co-ordinating the redress campaign, Westbank was subject to inspection, but was simply never considered for inclusion in the scheme. Subsequent attempts to include it were deemed too late.

Founded as the Protestant Home for Orphan & Destitute Girls, the orphanage moved from Harold’s Cross in Dublin to Wicklow in the late 1940s. Adeline Mathers, an evangelical Presbyterian from Portadown, presided there with apparent impunity for decades.

Up to 50 children lived there until her death in 1999, after which Westbank closed. Many children entered as infants through a network of Protestant institutions, such as the Bethany Mother and Baby Home on Orwell Road in Dublin.

Mathers relied on devout donors, many of them evangelical Free Presbyterians. Children recall being brought across the Border to churches where they would literally sing for their supper.

She enrolled some children into fee-paying schools with a Protestant ethos. 

But not all of them prospered. 

The children were farmed out to Protestant families in summertime, where they were usually put to work. Some were abused.

She was insistent on rearing the children as a “family”, changing their names to hers. She lied to children about their parents - and children were not told if they had other siblings in the home.

There were no paid staff. The children and volunteers did all the work. Few were ever adopted from the home. Some adoptions to Scotland and the UK were illegally done.

Colm Begley left Westbank aged 17. Mathers told him he was joining the army and put him on a boat to London with £10 in his pocket. It turned out he was being sent to a Salvation Army hostel.

Mathers had told him his mother was dead and he had no siblings. Yet years later he discovered he had a brother, Andrew - who actually lived in the orphanage at the same time as he did, until Andrew was adopted.

Other residents in the campaign group tell similar stories.

One man, who asked not to be named, says he was beaten, starved and “bible- bashed”. He recalls being locked in a room with a well-known Free Presbyterian minister who often visited the home.

“He was praying. I wasn’t let out of the room until I asked the lord into my heart,” he said.

On another occasion, he was sent to stay with a minister in Northern Ireland who tutored him in French, and beat him with a poker when he got a word wrong.

A woman, who also asked not to be named, was “psychologically abused” by Mathers. She was told her mother never loved her and that she had no siblings. However, her sister was also living at Westbank all along.

This woman still lives in the Wicklow constituency of Simon Harris, who was born in 1986 and lived in a different Greystones in a different era to the children of Westbank.

Her message to him is to listen: “Open your eyes, open your ears. Hear us. We are real people, and we are hurting.”