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The stolen children

They were sent from Irish orphanages to Australia with the promise of freedom. Instead, writes Declan Cashin, our child migrants battled with abuse and slave labour

Declan Cashin, Irish Independent, Saturday March 26 2011

Des McDaid was eight when he arrived in the port of Fremantle in Perth, western Australia, in 1952. Leaving behind his orphanage in Co Derry, Des travelled all that way with a large group of other children from orphanages across England and Northern Ireland.

They had left Southampton aboard the 'New Australian' bound for a new life which, they were told, would be "riding around on horseback and picking oranges off of the trees in the sunshine".

But the harsh reality of their new lives soon hit home. Des and the other young arrivals, many of whom had been told, untruthfully, that their parents were dead, were dispatched to orphanages and Church and state-run institutions around Australia. There, they were to endure years of slave labour and, in many cases, horrendous physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

Shockingly, and unbelievably, these deportations had been authorised by the British government for many decades, and would continue to be up to as late as 1970.

Des, and thousands more child migrants like him, are today known as 'forgotten Australians', or 'lost children of the empire', and their heart-breaking stories are the subject of the new film 'Oranges and Sunshine', in which Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, the real-life Nottingham social worker who uncovered the child migrant outrage in the 1980s.

It's a deeply disturbing saga, one that's perhaps too sickeningly familiar to Irish readers and viewers in the post-Ryan and Murphy Report era. "It's a story that we need to keep telling, and I hope the movie will get more people involved," Des McDaid, now aged 66, tells 'Weekend' from his home in Perth.

Des was born in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, in 1944 (though he wouldn't get confirmation of his age until he was a teenager). His mother -- whom he chooses not to name as she's still alive but too ill to speak for herself -- was poor and, to use a now antiquated term prevalent at the time, 'illegitimate', and so begged a Catholic orphanage, St Joseph's in Derry, to take in Des at age two.

His father, he later learned, was named Ernest McMorrow, an Irish soldier from Leitrim, who had been camped in the Donegal bogs during the Second World War.

During his time at St Joseph's, it never occurred to Des to inquire about his mother. "I was told I was an orphan, and that's it," he explains. "I had no other reason to believe otherwise."

Des was never asked if he wanted to go to Australia as part of the child migrant scheme, which had been in operation, on and off, since the 1850s. Instead, he was just told he was going. "We'd always been hearing about California and Australia, so boys were being lined up for one or the other," he says.

Landing in Perth, by way of Dublin, Liverpool and Southampton, Des was then bussed to a Catholic orphanage "way out in the sticks" named Clontarf, where the eight-year-old was quickly introduced to the cruel and regimented system.

"We started very early in the day doing men's labour in the blistering summer heat," he recalls. "There was a forest of pine trees we had to pull down. Instead of getting contractors in, we had to dig the trees out and pull them down by ropes, then cut them up.

"We built a swimming pool by digging the hole out by hand and with shovels, hundreds of us. We put a new building up, but, instead of buying bricks, they'd find an old building somewhere and we'd have to break it down, chip all the bricks and bring them back on a truck to build the new place."

Des says that some of the Christian Brothers at Clontarf were especially sadistic. "There was a great deal of paedophilia, a great deal," he says. Was he abused while there? "Yes, I had a lot of acts of paedophilia put on me by certain Brothers," he replies. "Then, other times I got brutal beatings for very little, and would have to get up at 6am in the winter for freezing showers for punishment.

"The thing is, there were lots of Australian kids there too, but later when authorities analysed things, they found that 99pc of the paedophilia was performed on us child migrants. The Australian kids would stay with us for two years and then go home to someone. But we child migrants had nobody to turn to and nowhere to go."

Thinking back on that time now, one of Des's over-riding memories is of hunger. "I used to dream of eating," he says. "A lot of us did. Just to prove how underfed we were, each year a lot of us would be taken to Catholic homes for four-week holidays to 'normalise' us in the secular world. After those breaks, the boys would come back and they'd have had growth spurts and their voices would be broken, just because they had normal food for that month.

"I stayed with a family called the O'Sullivans for seven years in a row. They were very good people. They fed us, looked after us, gave us money to see pictures and buy cold drinks and ice creams, proper kids' things like that." He pauses for a grim laugh. "You'd then go back to Clontarf and say, 'I'm not going to eat this food'. But you'd soon go hungry and eat it. It was a huge psychological re-adjustment."

Didn't he -- couldn't he -- ever tell this family what was happening to him at Clontarf? "They only asked questions very rarely," Des replies. "Many years later, after all this had come out about the Church, I met that family and took them out for dinner. Hilda, the woman, asked me, 'Did I feed you all right?' She had so identified with the Catholic Church that she thought she'd mistreated me. I told her that my time with her family was the best I'd ever had. But she felt guilty on behalf of the Church."

Education was minimal at Clontarf. "We were only educated for menial work," he says. "Manual arts were a big thing, namely woodwork and metalwork." Des left Clontarf at 15, and was sent out into the world to fend for himself. "The Church gave us 60-worth of clothes as a kick-start, which we then had to pay back," he recalls. "I moved into a boarding house, and became a saw doctor. I learned the trade and the business and, in my early 20s, I started my own business."

Through hard work and smart investments, Des made a huge success of his career, so much so that he was able to retire at age 45. "I made a few million quid from the business," he says proudly. "I did very well for myself."

Des became aware of social worker Margaret Humphreys' work through a former child migrant friend, and was reunited with his mother in 1992.

"If I had not met my mother I would have lived my entire life without seeing a relative," he states matter-of-factly. "I met her when I was 48. She's my only relation. I found out that she was 'illegitimate', and then I went back to Ireland and found my grandmother's grave. It turns out she was 'illegitimate' too. My mother later married an older guy, who died 11 years before we met. She had one other child -- a girl named Louise -- who never left the hospital and died aged 10 months."

Does he have a relationship with his mother today? "Just because someone is a mother doesn't make them a nice person," he replies carefully. "She had been very parsimonious, both financially and emotionally, but it's better now. My mother just turned 88 earlier this month, but she's now in nursing care in Kent because she has dementia."

He pauses. "She abandoned me at the age of two, and guess what? I'm the only person looking after her now. Isn't it an incredible world?"

So, is he angry about what happened to him? "No, I was never an angry person, though I know many other child migrants are," he says. "Yes, I've had a few emotional frustrations, but I'd never call myself angry."

Retiring young meant Des had the time and means to travel -- he likes to go scuba-diving in Phuket several times a year -- and teach young people how to surf at his local club.

He's also a committee member of the International Association of Former Child Migrants, whose high-profile work was a key factor in securing formal apologies, and limited restitution, from the Australian and British governments in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

Des never married, however. I ask if he was simply too emotionally damaged by his childhood to build or maintain adult relationships. "They don't call them the formative years for nothing, so it must have something to do with it," he says. "A lot of child migrants never marry. I know some are homosexual, but a lot more are just like me.

"I think I was socially handicapped when I left Clontarf. I later saw friends getting married and I just didn't feel like it. I thought, 'It'll come to me sooner or later'. As time went by it didn't come to me.

"I've just never had the desire to marry. I don't feel like I'm missing anything, and it doesn't bother me. I am a very, very content person."

'Oranges and Sunshine' is released in cinemas on April 1. 'Empty Cradles' by Margaret Humphreys is published by Corgi

- Declan Cashin


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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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