Buckley, Christine (1946–2014), nurse and advocate for survivors of childhood abuse in state institutions, was born Christine West during the month of October 1946 at Mile End Hospital, London, the daughter of Anna West (née Kershaw), a separated Dublin woman, and Ariwodo Kalunta from Nigeria, a medical student at TCD.
Buckley returned to Ireland with her mother shortly after the birth, and aged three weeks was placed in a babies’ home. Her mother did not sign the papers necessary for Buckley to be legally adopted. After living in a series of foster homes to the age of four, in 1950 she was placed in St Vincent's Industrial School, an orphanage at Goldenbridge, Inchicore, Dublin (hereafter Goldenbridge). During the first six years of her life, her father maintained contact with her. When he visited her at Goldenbridge he was often accompanied by a woman Buckley had assumed was her mother, but was in fact her father’s landlady. He then left Buckley’s life until she was middle-aged.
Upon entry to Goldenbridge Buckley was assigned the number ‘89’ which replaced her name for the thirteen years she was a resident. At the orphanage Buckley, like other residents, endured systematic physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the Sisters of Mercy who ran the institution. Physical punishments were meted out constantly and on the smallest pretext. Buckley was once injured so badly she had to receive around 100 stitches on her leg.
At Goldenbridge children were expected to participate in a gruelling work regime from the age of seven, producing rosary beads to a strict quota system which the Sisters of Mercy sold for profit. Buckley was told to produce sixty sets a day (ninety on Saturdays), beginning work after school and sometimes working into the night. Children who did not meet their daily quota were often beaten.
While at Dr Steeven’s hospital being treated for her leg injury, Buckley met a member of the Martin family who took pity on her upon learning that she was an ‘orphan’ living at Goldenbridge. Subsequently Buckley was allowed to visit the Martin family in the nearby Maryland neighbourhood on weekends and to stay with them during the school holidays. Buckley particularly valued her relationship with kind-hearted ‘Daddy’ (Michael) Martin who she would sometimes sneak out from Goldenbridge to visit at the nearby CIE transport works at Inchicore.
Buckley and other former residents report of improvements in their living conditions at Goldenbridge from 1960, when a more sympathetic sister took over the institution’s administration. Upon completing her leaving certificate in 1963 Buckley finally left Goldenbridge after nearly fourteen years and moved to Drogheda, Co. Louth, to study to become a nurse at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital.
During her studies, Buckley finally gained access to her birth certificate (it is unclear in accounts of Buckley’s life how exactly how this difficult feat was achieved). In the document Anna West (née Kershaw) was correctly named as her mother, but her father was falsely named as Anna’s husband William West, a motor mechanic, from whom she was separated. His address was given as Stepney, London.
Qualifying as a nurse and midwife, Buckley spent a short time living and working in Guernsey. She returned to Dublin and in 1975 on a night out in the city met journalist Donal Buckley. They married in 1977 and had a daughter and two sons, the youngest born in 1982.
In 1983 Buckley was diagnosed with cervical cancer. This spurred her decision to try to find her birth parents. Encountering constant misinformation and evasion in her search, she finally managed to piece together her mother’s life story. Anna Kershaw had been found ‘wandering’ as a young teenager in Dublin and was sent to a girls’ home on the South Circular Road. In 1936 she had become pregnant by, and then married, William West. She had been separated in 1946 at the time of Christine Buckley’s birth, a birth which had come about from a two-year affair Anna West had with a medical student ten years’ her junior.
Buckley first met her mother in 1985, but the two failed to connect. Buckley described the painful event in the 1996 documentary Dear daughter: ‘To me this woman was a total stranger … there was nothing about her that I recognised. I can’t describe the feeling of sadness and guilt that I felt. It was like a bereavement’. A year later her mother gave permission for Buckley’s father’s name to be released. She traced him to Nigeria, where he was a practicing psychiatrist, and travelled there in 1988 to meet him for the first time since she was six years old. The reunion between father and daughter was much more successful. Ariwodo Kalunta in turn visited Ireland in 1992 and appeared with his daughter on the Gay Byrne Show on RTÉ Radio One on 8 November 1992. The subject was to be Buckley’s search for her parents and her reunion with her father. The conversation soon turned to her experiences of abuse at Goldenbridge, however. It was the first time that abuse at the institution had been discussed in the public domain. RTÉ was subsequently bombarded with requests for help in tracing parents from children with similar experiences to Buckley, as well supportive calls from survivors of abuse at various state funded, religious-run institutions.
The 22 February 1996 broadcast on RTÉ of Louis Lentin’s hour long documentary, Dear daughter, made Buckley into a public figure and a spokesperson for abuse survivors. The title came from the opening words of the first letter Buckley received from her father in 1988. With her personal story at the centre, the documentary used a mixture of dramatisation and interviews to camera to highlight abuse at Goldenbridge in the 1950s and 1960s. The accounts of physical and mental cruelty to babies and children by members of a religious order made the documentary extremely difficult viewing.
Dear daughter brought the experiences of Buckley and other former Goldenbridge residents into national focus, opening up discussions into what had occurred at such state-funded religious institutions in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite an outpouring of support for Buckley and other survivors at the time of the documentary’s release, there was also significant disbelief expressed in some quarters about the extremity of the abuse portrayed. Sr Xavieria Lally, who had worked at Goldenbridge from the 1940s to early 1960s, becoming resident manager in the 1950s, was defended with particular deference by those who encountered her during her time at St Kyran’s orphanage in Rathdrum, where she was transferred after Goldenbridge. While Sr Xavieria was not named in the programme, it was clear to those that knew of her career that she was being portrayed as a particularly cruel and violent nun. On 5 April Louis Lentin, wrote an article in the Irish Times with the headline ‘Doubting the orphanage victims’ truthfulness only betrays them again’, in which he pointed out that he had requested interviews with Sr Xavieria and other members of the order who had worked at Goldenbridge, but none would cooperate. Later that month RTÉ’s Prime Time aired an interview with Sr Xavieria, then seventy-eight, during in which she mounted her defence: casting herself as a victim of broader societal and systemic failings. No representative of the abuse survivors was given a right to reply during the broadcast.
In April 1996, as the press continued to report on the fallout from Dear daughter, Buckley organised an event at the RDS for people who grew up in Irish orphanages. She hoped it would be the start of a healing process, and would facilitate the development of new networks and friendships among abuse survivors. The event’s 500 or so attendees came from across Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Buckley was increasingly sought out as a commentator on the care of children in state-run institutions. Her characteristic intensity and bluntness made her a formidable spokesperson. In 1997 she became a prominent critic of the Children’s Bill then set to pass into law. Her main issue was the Bill’s failure to address ‘the problem of parental responsibility and proper parenting in a wide ranging way’ (Ir. Times, 20 Mar. 1997). In May 1997 Buckley announced her intention to stand as an independent candidate for Dublin South, the constituency of Goldenbridge, in that year’s general election. Her policies focussed on service provision to help vulnerable children and parents in their homes, and she advocated for a new authority that would centralise responsibilities for children’s welfare, which had previously been dispersed across a number of government departments. Her vision for the authority included inspection of all institutions dealing with children, including creches, as well as tracking individual children’s journeys through the system if they passed from school to school or institution to institution, to address the root causes of the issues they experienced. Buckley failed to get elected, coming tenth among fourteen candidates with 2.19 per cent of the vote. She continued to be a high profile, vocal advocate for survivors of abuse, refocussing her efforts on lobbying for a dedicated support and education centre.
In 1999 RTÉ broadcast Mary Raftery’s (qv) documentary series States of fear which detailed abuse suffered by children in reformatory and industrial schools in Ireland between the 1930s and 1970s, as well as highlighting government complicity in the abuse. States of fear helped to trigger the establishment of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in 2000, more commonly known as the Ryan Commission after its chair Mr Justice Seán Ryan, to investigate the extent and effects of abuse on children from 1936 onward in institutions operated by religious orders and funded by the government.
Following the broadcast of Dear daughter in 1996, Taoiseach John Bruton had promised to provide a state-funded counselling and therapeutic service for abuse survivors which failed to materialise. After States of Fear, Bruton’s successor Bertie Ahern made an apology on behalf of the state and its citizens to those who had suffered abuse as children. He pledged funding for a professional counselling service for survivors, something Buckley had long been strongly advocating for and was quickly onboard to give direction to. Buckley’s ambition was for a holistic service to be available to abuse survivors. Working with fellow industrial school survivor Carmel McDonnell-Byrne, she proposed and secured funding for the Aislinn Education and Support Centre in Dublin, which was formally opened by Minister for Health Micheál Martin in early 2000. The centre provided a safe, judgement-free community environment where abuse survivors could be among people who had similar experiences. Its aim was to support its clients to move on with their lives through educational therapy, arts and skills development. The centre has also supported many people in gaining their junior and leaving certificates, FETAC further education awards and in gaining admission to university through access programmes.
Buckley was outspoken on all issues affecting survivors of institutional abuse during the Ryan Commission (2000 to 2009), and a frequent contributor on television and radio and in print media. She was outraged at the highly contentious deal struck between the government and religious orders in 2002 which indemnified the latter from legal action in return for a transfer of property and assets to the government worth €128 million, a figure wholly inadequate to cover the costs of the commission’s work, let alone pay any compensation to survivors, who had not been consulted in the negotiations. She derided the funds as ‘a pittance’ (Ir. Times, 3 Feb. 2003).
The Ryan Report included an extensive section on Goldenbridge, highlighting the abuse exposed in Dear daughter. The profound failings in the broader network of institutions run by Sisters of Mercy were also exposed, though the order remained one of the largest education providers in the country. Responding to the report, on Wednesday 10 June 2009 the Survivors of Institutional Abuse Ireland (SOIAI), of which Buckley was a leading member, organised a silent ‘march of solidarity’ through the streets of Dublin to the dáil. In December that year Buckley wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict suggesting he visit Ireland to assist Archbishop Diarmuid Martin with a ‘major spring cleaning’ of the Irish church.
Christine Buckley was named European Volunteer of the Year in 2009 and also awarded the Volunteer Ireland award in the social work category. In December 2012 she received an honorary Doctor in Laws (LLD) degree from TCD, where her Nigerian father had studied medicine in the 1940s.
First diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1983, Buckley battled the disease for decades, finally dying from breast cancer (first diagnosed in 2000) on 11 March 2014 at St Vincent’s hospital, Dublin. In media interviews following her death her husband Donal Buckley described her as a ‘warrior’ against injustice (Ir. Times, 11 Mar. 2014; Ir. Examiner, 12 Mar. 2014). A funeral mass was held for her on 13 March 2014 at the Church of St Thérèse, Mount Merrion, and she was buried at Shanganagh Cemetery, Shankill, Dublin.
The Aislinn Centre was renamed the Christine Buckley Centre for Education and Support in 2014, and its volunteers and survivors composed and recorded a song ‘I dreamt last night I saw Christine’ as a tribute to the centre’s founder. Volunteer Ireland renamed its overall annual award the ‘Christine Buckley Volunteer Award’ in 2014.