Mary's Narrative

The life of a survivor told by her daughter
Healing Garden

Mary’s Narrative

Thank you for reading Mum’s story. 

My name is Angela.

Mum, Mary Barry, whose ashes are in this Healing Garden, was born in Ireland in 1922.  1922 was a troubled year, or era, to be born in Ireland if you were poor. Partition took place in 1921 and Mum’s Dad although Irish was in the British Army as were many other Irish men. He was sadly killed when Mum was a baby.  Her Mother was now very poor.

At the age of 4 Mum was removed from her Mother and taken to the other side of Ireland some 74 miles away. I have been reading sources of evidence and in those days it was accepted for religious organisations to take away the children of the poor and put them into Church run Industrial and Reformatory Schools.  Mum always called it “The Orphanage”.  The paperwork confirmed that Mum was “charged” with wandering and her “sentence of detention” would last until she was 16.  In fact she didn’t leave until she was 19 and I don’t think Mum ever knew she would have been free to go earlier.  Despite some research I never found the definition of wandering.

From the age of 4 until she was 20 she only saw her Mother once when she was 12, it was simply too far for her Mum to travel. They were strangers then and their relationship never developed.  When they met again Mum was 20 and her Mother 62.  She told Mum that she had not been worried about her as she was sure she was being well educated – Mum blew up at this and told her Mother exactly what life was like. Her Mother then told her she had been stolen and this haunted Mum for the rest of her life.  Whether my Grandma gave Mum up, or Mum was forcibly taken, I don’t know but either way due to circumstances Mum was indeed stolen. 

Mum’s older brother Michael had a similar fate but he was placed in an institution close to their Mother so he was visited and then removed by their Mother as he was so unhappy. 

Mum never forgot her time in the Orphanage. Her memory was sharp and it obsessed her during her life.  She could clearly remember arriving there and how frightened she was in the baby’s dormitory with rusty bars on the window, these also haunted her life, it used to be the reformatory.

It was a Convent orphanage with a National school in its grounds. The National schoolgirls were favoured by the nuns and they returned home at night. The orphans were not favoured and after a day at school returned to the orphanage; Mum could always remember that walk and the dread.

Mum was always hungry. The meals were bread and dripping, cabbage, swede, potatoes, greasy soup, lumpy porridge and sour milk. Three times a year there was jelly.  Mum would eat seeds from the straw mattress she slept on, leaves and berries from hedgerows and anything that dropped to the floor.  Once a box of apples was delivered, a Nun stood on a chair and threw them at the orphans – whoever caught one was lucky.

In the dormitory for older girls the beds were iron, with wooden boards, coarse blankets and straw mattresses that smelt of urine. The mattresses were very thin as the filling had moved to the top and the bottom.  It was filthy.  Mum wet the bed regularly until she was about 8.   She was always humiliated by the nuns and made to walk around with the wet sheet on her head.

She sometimes slept under the bed on her mattress to avoid the puddle in the morning.  In the evening after school she got beaten for having wet the bed.  Her hair was full of nits and she was beaten for that also.  In later life she pulled out her hair and blamed it on looking for the nits.

Mum was constantly frightened at school, especially the sums class as the nun who taught was one of the worst. If Mum didn’t know the right answer she would be beaten, on the knuckles, head or legs.  She could remember a time when this nun beat her for no reason. She shouted at Mum to come to the front of the class and belted her, mercilessly it was a lashing and later she made fun of her bruises. Mum was terrified of her.  Mum could remember the cane, it was shredded into eight or nine strips at one end, like a horse whip.  It had a handle.

Orphans were expected to work from age 7.  Mum spent five years doing laundry work, this was physically very hard, it was the worst work as was the Nun in charge who was very cruel.  If Mum missed a spot with the smoothing iron or got a spec on the material she would beat her with the cane.   Mum cleaned windows sitting on the outside with the sash over her lap, three floors up.  She also had to fish hairs out of blocked sinks; this was a horrible job as was teasing horse-hair for mattresses for sale to the outside.  She polished the floors with dirty rags on her bare feet.

There was neither fun nor kindness ever shown to her.  No nuns smiled and for any slight thing she was threatened with being put in a reformatory and told she came from the gutter.

Mum always remembers the Inspector calling, the baby’s dormitory was blocked off and there were special sheets put on the beds in the other four dormitories for the day.  The orphans had to tie “Jesus” plaques to the iron frame of each bed.  The sheets and plaques were then removed after his visit.  

Mum suffered with pains in her back and legs when really young and could remember rolling round the floor screaming and crying with pain.  The nuns took no action, she was told to forget it and get on with it.  She suffered with chronic back pain all her life as she had a twisted spine.

At the end of her term, aged 19, the Nuns told her the night before that she was leaving.  She didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to the other orphans. She was released with nothing and had to fend for herself after 15 years of being controlled.  There was no such thing as counselling, there was no advice, just a few pennies in her pocket for the bus fare and a note of the address to go to as they had found her a domestic job, which turned out to be awful. She was even paid with second hand clothes.  Mum was expected to do all manner of tasks as a domestic, some were very unsavoury.

After years of moving from one domestic job to another Mum joined the British Army in 1944. Like everything, this happened by chance. She absolutely loved the freedom and Army Life.  For the first time she was valued and free.  She could remember when she signed on getting clean new clothes, especially the soft undergarments.  The other girls were making fun of these garments, as they were used to better, but to Mum they were a luxury.   In 1944 the Army applied for her birth certificate and this gave her her identity.  She treasured the Certificate which I now have.  Mum was stationed in Nottingham, England, and always said the Army saved her life.


Mum fell for me in 1948; she was determined to keep me as she wasn’t going to allow history to repeat itself.  In those days unmarried mothers were encouraged to give up their babies.  In the nursing home a couple came to see me and Mum was offered £200 – about £7500 today. After that Mum sat up all night with me in her arms and discharged herself the next morning.   Thank God for Uncle Michael and Auntie Eva.  Mum carried on working as a Housekeeper as she could keep me with her and when the going got tough, as it often did, Auntie Eva provided a safe refuge for us over the years, may they both rest in peace.

Mum never married and never had any relationships of any kind.  She was suspicious of everyone, never trusted and was frightened of any authority.  During my teenage years she was very disturbed, depressed and suffered with constant flashbacks.  She needed help, professional and medical, but was always frightened that I would be taken from her so she always rejected any suggestion.  

Memories of the orphanage dominated her life, some days it was constant which led to a massive strain on my life too as I sadly couldn’t understand, in the 1960’s, how life could have been so cruel in a religious environment.  

I so admire my Mum, she was a strong tough lady, she survived it all. She was taken into a harsh cruel regime when it should have been a safe and loving environment.  She lost her faith but this came back stronger than ever.  Mum always said that the Army, her Religion and I had saved her life. 

Finally I am very proud and humbled as her ashes were laid to rest in this lovely garden in 2010.  Mum regularly spent a lot of time here; it was a refuge for her. She loved the spring flowers, the trees, the birds and the peace.  She used to say to me that she would love for her Ashes to be laid here – both of us thought that was a dream.  When Mum passed away, I tentatively spoke to Canon John Udris who had been a source of comfort for many years to Mum he knew what she had been through and understood her.  As soon as I mentioned it, Father John was on the case and it was done and dusted.  I would like to thank him for all the love he gave her and for this final act he did for her, and for me.   

I would like to feel that Mum is a sort of symbol in this Healing Garden for the truth that has now come to light for so many who suffered in a similar way.  

I am proud to share Mum’s story.  She always felt she could write a book so I used to jot down her memories.  I am just so glad that I did and that I kept them which has enabled me to share them with you.

Thank you so much for listening and Mum, Rest in Peace my angel.