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Women Allege Abuse at Another Mercy College in Dublin [St. Anne's, Booterstown]

The Irish Times - Friday, March 8, 1996

TWO sisters who were children in a Sisters of Mercy orphanage at St Anne's, Booterstown, Co Dublin, during the 1950s have alleged that they suffered physical abuse and ill treatment from nuns and older girls.

Ms Carmel O'Donnell Murray has told The Irish Times that she was sometimes so thirsty she had to drink from toilet bowls, and so hungry that she ate from pig's bins.

Her sister, Ms Madeline O'Donnell Hopkins, says she remembers being forced to pick nits out of other girls' hair and to eat the nits.

Madeline, who was born in 1946, was placed in St Anne's in 1950-51 at the age of five when her mother could no longer care for her. Shortly afterwards, her nine month old sister, Carmel, joined her there.

Carmel wept as she recounted being taken from bed at night and placed in a cold bath for hours because she wet the bed.

One of the two sisters' worst memories is an alleged torture known as "the chair". It was inflicted, not by nuns, but by older girls. An old "convent chair was hung by ropes from a beam in the "babies dressing room", which she recalls as having marble floor and walls. A child would be placed in the chair with its legs through the back to hold it in, and the chair was then swung with great force so that the child hit the walls. "You couldn't cry because if you cried they beat you."

Speaking from her home in Glendale, California, Ms Hopkins said: "They didn't care if you hit the wall or not. You could not put your hands out. If you cried, they beat you senseless. There were no adults there to witness it and this is the hard thing about it. We dared not say anything," she said.

Madeline recalls one "vicious nun who twice cornered her in the dining hall and beat her on the hands, head, face and legs with a stick. "I'll never forget that after she did it, she had this smirk on her face - a satisfied look."

She added: "You had to hold out your hands to be beaten, and if you dropped them or dropped to your hunkers in pain the nun would beat you all over your body. If we cried, we had someone put their hands over our mouths and they would beat us to the point where we could not cry. For years I had no tears".

Carmel was called "Number 47"; Madeline was "Number 27", and a younger sister, Mary, born in 1953, was "Number 89". When one of the daughters complained to their visiting mother about their treatment, she had black soap stuffed in her mouth and they never dared to complain again, according to Madeline.

Madeline says: "We lived in fear - not just from the nuns, but all the girls because they beat us. They took our food from us. I remember lunch came in a big metal box. It was two pieces of bread and butter. I remember putting my arm around Carmel and trying to hide her so that no one would snatch the bread from her mouth." When that alleged incident occurred, Madeline would have been seven years old and Carmel four.

Sister Helena O'Donoghue, spokeswoman for the Sisters of Mercy, said yesterday that the allegations about St Anne's were "totally new" and that she had "no knowledge" of any of it.

"I'm not aware of it, but we invite anyone who experienced such pain to come to our helpline. We are distressed if they experienced pain in our care and we would like to help."

Carmel said she had telephoned the helpline earlier this week and has been offered an appointment with a counsellor.

Sister Helena said that on January 20th, the ashes of a woman who died in England - a past pupil of Booterstown - were scattered on the graves of the two nuns who had cared for her at St Anne's. Either the woman or her husband had requested it. The woman would have been a baby in the orphanage in the 1950s.