One morning in 1950, five-year-old Ann McVeigh was awakened by one of the nuns caring for her at a children’s home in Belfast and taken on a journey that would change her life forever.
He was one of around 120 children from Northern Ireland who were sent to Australia as so-called child migrants in the late 1940s and 1950s. Many of them, including Ann, were taken to the other side of the world without their families’ permission.
A little over a week ago, the child migrants received a public apology from the organizations involved in the practice. The apology was recommended in the final report of the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry into allegations of abuse in 22 homes and other residential establishments in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1922 1995
The investigation, which ended in 2017 after 233 days of evidence, also looked into the circumstances surrounding the posting of migrant children to Australia 1947 and 1956. Most of the children sent to Australia were under the care of the Order of the Sisters of Nazareth.
Although recommended in the 2017 HIA report, it took five years before the public apology was finally delivered to those in the care of sState, church and charitable institutions.
During the event in Stormont on March 11, ministers from Northern Ireland’s five main political parties issued statements of apology.
Representatives of six institutions also spoke in the meeting room – four representatives from Catholic religious orders, one from the charity Barnardo’s and one from a Church of Ireland missionary organization.
Speaking on behalf of the Sisters of Nazareth, Sister Cornelia Walsh said there was no “acceptable excuse” for how the children in her care, including those sent to Australia, had been treated.
Ann McVeigh watched coverage of the apology from the Australian city of Perth, where it first arrived 72 years ago.
“The apology should have come sooner but I’m glad there was recognition for what happened to us,” said Ann, who is now 77.
In a stance that many will find remarkable, Ann said she forgives those responsible for sending her to Australia.
“They were only told what to do. There is no point in dwelling on the past and what could have been. I accepted it, it just happened. I can’t undo the past,” she said Sunday independent.
During its investigation, the HIA Inquiry found that three children were sent to Australia from Northern Ireland in 1938 and 1939.
The child migrant program was shut down during World War II however, resumed in 1947. A further 119 children between the ages of four and 17 were sent to institutions in Australia before the program ended in 1956.
As evidence of the 2014 inquiry on behalf of the Order of the Sisters of Nazareth, Sister Brenda McCall said the Australian Government was closely involved in the selection of the children and had sent an official to Northern Ireland to screen children proposed for emigration.
She said the Australian government wanted children who were “white and in good health” and in a 1947 letter complained to authorities in Northern Ireland about sending “inferior children” and administered an IQ test into the program.
When asked if there was any financial incentive for the Sisters of Nazareth to send children to Australia, Sister Brenda replied, “Not at all, no.”
Organizations involved in the child migrant program claimed it was designed to give children a “better life.”
However, Sister Brenda told the inquest that, in hindsight, it was “a grave injustice” to the children and their families.
ann was one of those kids. After becoming pregnant, her unmarried mother, who was from Armagh, was sent to a church facility for mothers and babies in Castlepollard. Co Westmeath, 1945.
“I was born in Castlepollard Mother and Child and when I was about three weeks old my mother took me to Nazareth House in Belfast. She wanted to come and pick me up when she got her life in order,” Ann said.
For some unknown reason, Ann’s first name was changed to Lucy when she entered the Belfast home. That was her name until she was 17 years old.
Ann has no recollection of the day she was put on a boat to Australia without her mother’s permission.
“My mother used to visit me at the home but there was a long interval between visits and the nuns probably thought I had been abandoned so they said ‘Off to Australia young lady’.
“I don’t remember that trip at all. It’s a blank because my way of coping is to block things out. That’s how I managed to stay sane.
“But a few years after I was sent to Australia, a couple of Irish nuns came to visit the home. One of the nuns told me that she was the person who escorted me to Australia.
“She said when I was on the boat I cut my hair, confined myself to the cabin and didn’t leave for three days. I don’t remember that, but she did.
“Obviously it was a traumatic experience for a child, but I choose to erase it from my memory.”
Ann was placed at St Joseph Girls Orphanage in the Subiaco area of Perth in Western Australia.
“Most of the children were left there by their parents or, like us, had been taken there by the nuns. Nobody had people who wanted to visit them, so we were all in the same boat.
“We all became friends and supported each other, and I’m still friends with a lot of those girls to this day. We were all in a bad situation so we tried to make the best of it. You got your belts and other forms of punishment, but we were all in the same boat.”
Ann stayed at St. Joseph’s until she was 15, before being sent to work on a farm.
“I didn’t get a full education. They probably thought I wasn’t too bright and shouldn’t be educated the way I should have been. They sent me to work on the farm, doing housework for the farmer’s wife.”
Despite believing that she would never see her mother again, they managed to connect and eventually met.
“My mother was unaware that I was being sent to Australia but was later able to find out the home I had been sent to and wrote me a letter. I wrote back but I doubt it was ever posted.
“However, when I was 17 I got her address and we started corresponding, but as I was a migrant child I wasn’t allowed to leave Australia until I was 21 as by then I was under the care of the welfare system.
“When I was 21, a friend said she was going to Holland to meet her grandmother. She asked me if I wanted to come and I said I would like to go to Ireland to meet my family.
“We got on the boat and she got off in Rotterdam. I got off in Southampton and then drove to London to fly to Belfast.”
After having them, Ann’s mother had six more children with her husband.
Ann was able to develop a relationship with her mother and in many “night talks” they spoke about their experiences. Her mother died in the early 1970s, but Ann remains in close contact with her Irish family.
“I got on well with my siblings and my stepfather was a lovely man. I worked in London for a couple of years so I went to Armagh for the holidays to meet family.
“I’m still very close with my siblings and we’re in touch all the time. In the last 12 months I sadly lost a sister and a brother.”
Ann has never married but has been with her partner for 42 years, who himself was sent to Australia from England as a child migrant. She is happy with her life in Australia and has no grudges about how she was treated.
“You just keep going, you don’t dwell on things,” she said.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/i-forgive-those-who-sent-me-to-australia-says-irish-woman-taken-away-from-her-family-when-she-was-five-years-old-41466695.html “I forgive those who sent me to Australia,” says an Irish woman who was separated from her family at the age of five