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