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The Compassionate Side of Our States of Fear

Irish Independent, August 08 2003

A former pupil of Ireland's Industrial Schools, Florence Horsman Hogan, tells CATHERINE MURPHY that, contrary to popular belief, for many children they were a Godsend

One can't imagine words like kindness, compassion and mercy regularly popping up in submissions by abuse victims to the Laffoy Commission. Nor were they commonly uttered in States of Fear, the stark 1996 documentary series investigating industrial school abuse which has just been repeated by RTE.

But they are the words used by one woman with a personal campaign to defend nuns who cared for her in the west of Ireland during the mid 1960s.

For over a year, Florence Horsman Hogan has been speaking out in defence of the Sister of Mercy nuns in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway who reared her between the ages of six weeks and five years.

On a broader level, she is speaking out in defence of carers in the clergy who she says are being tarred with the same brush as abusers and against people who she says are putting forward false abuse claims in the hope of making money.

A fiesty, vocal woman, Florence was previously involved in the Campaign for Irish Prisoners Overseas and A Nurse for Daniel, the charity set up to fund home care for terminally ill children following the highlighted case of Daniel Harbison.

Now she wants to set up a group called Let Our Voices Emerge (LOVE) in the hope that people with positive experiences of industrial schools will come forward and tell their stories.

From Eyrecourt in Co. Galway, Florence was born to a 48-year-old mother, a Schizophrenia sufferer who sang in the streets, danced in church and shouted abuse at imaginary assailants. Relatives say she adored her young daughter but could not relate to her.

Florence nicknamed her father the 'fiery fox' for his bad temper. An alcoholic with low self esteem and a big ego, he would 'fight with his own shadow' and become abusive when drunk.

Although both parents came from land-owning families, they were poverty-stricken and baby Florence struggled to survive solely on bottles of tea.

At the age of six weeks, she was rushed to hospital suffering from malnutrition and upon recovering, was brought to the Convent of Mercy in Ballinasloe to be cared for by the nuns.

Now aged 40 and with four children of her own, she equates her formative years at the orphanage with self-respect and confidence and later years with her parents with shame and embarrassment.

"I was a young child at the time but my over-riding memory of the orphanage was of warmth and affection, of getting into fights with other children, going for walks and being taken out of my cot into the beds of bigger children if I was upset at night.

"We got into lots of mischief but I don't remember being slapped. I certainly wasn't whipped and tied to the mast. If you did something wrong, you went to bed early, missed your treats and were given a long lecture by Sr John, the nun who ran the place.

"She always told us we were as good as anyone else and to hold our heads high and keep our shoulders up if the village kids hurled abuse or stones at us.

"The nuns did all the work, cleaning laundry until their hands were weeping, sore and chaffed. They had fifty children to care for, including a number of babies, and when the state grants didn't come through, they would ask their own families and friends for money to see the orphanage through.

"I often go to charity balls now and everyone's dressed up in their gowns and paying €300 or €400 for a ticket. A week later, you look for your photo in VIP or Image magazine. And while I think people on the charity circuit do great work, I often think that the nuns should be there in diamonds and gowns being rewarded for the hard work they did. But the way of nuns is to hold their peace and accept things as they are.

"I was happy and content for those five years but then the orphanage closed down due to lack of state funding. I felt fear and terror at being taken away from the nuns and returned to my parents, a strange, smelly woman living in a world of her own and a crying man. For days I didn't speak at all except to call out for Sr John. The psychological abuse, neglect and starvation I suffered were while living with my parents."

An aunt subsequently paid for Florence to go to boarding school, which gave her a fresh chance at a good life. She now works as a casualty nurse in Temple Street hospital.

'It is important that abuse cases are brought out," she says. "There are things which need to be redressed and stories that need to be told. It is a cathartic exercise from which Ireland will become a better place. The church has covered up but all institutions cover up, including the government, hospitals and schools. We should recognise that there are a few abusers and many carers and should blame individual abusers rather than the church.

"I also believe that since the Laffoy commission was set up, some people are putting in false abuse claims in the hope of making money. None of us can judge what other people are living through but they should examine their consciences before making a false claim that could jeopardise genuine claims."