It’s now 50 years since Kate Walmsley stood at what she describes as “the giant doors” of the Nazareth House Care Home in Derry.
Kate’s mother had abandoned the family and disappeared. Her father brought his three children back to Northern Ireland from Glasgow but unable to find anywhere to live at that time, he was forced to check into a mens’ hostel. Kate and her sister were left at Nazareth House on Bishop Street.
Kate walked through those doors as a child with, as she recalls, “lovely long hair.”
Within days, any sense of a childhood had disappeared, as had her long hair. She’d been stripped, scrubbed with Jeyes Fluid and had her hair cut, as a matter of protocol.
Waiving her anonymity as a witness at the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry in February, Kate opened the floodgates, and has since spoken to many people who opened up to her privately about their own stories of neglect and abuse.
Now she wants to let people in the North West know that as a member of SAVIA (Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse), she is here to listen to their stories.
Kate’s own story doesn’t have a tidy ending. She still fights her personal demons everyday, a legacy from the unimaginable trauma she endured as a child in a church run care home here in the city.
“My life was destroyed. I didn’t want to go on. I’ve thought so often that I wish they’d just killed me right there and then,” she said this week, looking around her at the city where she grew up too soon.
“I’ve felt disgusted with myself my entire life. The effects of all this didn’t end when I grew up, it’s haunted me my whole life. That’s what people forget when they think about a child who has been abused, it doesn’t just stop when you grow up. Those feelings don’t just go away.”
The cruel rituals which became part and parcel of Kate’s every day existence as a child have played out in her mind ever since. As an eight year old, her “job” every morning in the Nazareth House Care Home was to clean the toilets. She was told to unblock toilets too, picking excrement off with her fingernails.
“I could still smell it when I went back to class. I felt like nothing, I felt like less than nothing,” says Kate. “That feeling stayed with me and as I grew up I became bulimic. I just hated myself,” she says.
One nun called Kate “a child of the devil.” and sent her to confessions.
Once again, a pattern of violent abuse began. Kate, who had barely approached puberty, was sexually abused by a priest, on a weekly basis.
The priest would take her to an office and lock her inside. She sustained consistent sexual abuse at his hands from the time she was 8 until she was 12 years old. He began by asking her to take her pants off and sit in front of him as he performed a sexual act.
It was only when Kate went to a local secondary school that things changed.
“I didn’t want to do PE. I’d be sore sitting in class after I’d been abused and I didn’t want to be changing my clothes in front of other people. I saw that other girls were bringing in notes about having their periods and noticed that this meant they didn’t have to do PE. I started faking notes but I didn’t even know what a period was, nobody had ever told me. I was bringing in notes every week and a teacher had noticed that this wasn’t normal.
“I think at that stage questions started to be asked and before I knew it I was sent off from the Nazareth House to a Convent of Mercy in Newry,”
That, she recalls, was a world away from the life she had led in the Derry care home.
“I always remember being sent there because it was the year that Dana won the Eurovision. And because I had come from Derry they were always asking me to sing ‘All Kinds of Everything.’ As if I felt like singing,” says Kate.
“The Convent of Mercy was totally different to Nazareth House. Nobody really bothered you there in the ways they would in Nazareth House.”
Kate was 15 when she eventually came out of the care system. Up until then she had been, she says “moved from pillar to post.”
Any contact she’d had with her older sister, who had also been sent to Nazareth House, was gone.
These days, it’s this part of her story which breaks Kate’s heart the most.
The siblings were separated when they were sent to Nazareth House.
“When I was 15 and out of care I headed straight for Derry, that was the last place I’d seen my daddy,” says Kate.
“My sister was there too but there was just no relationship left. She’d moved on in her life. My daddy had gotten a flat but nobody wanted me. I was just left to fend for myself. We were all like strangers to one another. That was hard, I just had nobody and I felt worthless,” she says.
Kate says she will always wonder what might have been if her abusers had allowed her to keep her bond with her sister. But they didn’t.
Nuns at Nazareth House had kept Kate and her sister apart. Along with the numerous other injustices done on her, Kate has to deal with the fact that for the rest of her life what should have been a loving and supportive relationship will remain forever fractured.
At 16, forced to do what she could to survive, Kate got married in Derry.
“It wasn’t for love,” she says. “He had a flat, It was a roof over my head and somewhere I could have a bath and soap to keep clean. In the end it didn’t last anyway,” she says.
“I had to shoplift just to eat. I’m not ashamed to say that. I had no benefits, if I didn’t do that, I’d starve.”
Eventually, Kate got the boat to England. She managed to track her mother down, but there was no happy ending in sight there either,
“She was well gone on the drink by then,” says Kate.
Kate married for a second time in England, but admits that maintaining a normal relationship was impossible for her.
“I never had any confidence. I felt so dirty. Sex made me feel like I was being raped all over again. I didn’t want to be touched.
“I didn’t know what love was because I’d never experienced it. I could never bring myself to explain what had happened to me.”
Kate returned to Derry and continued to be plagued by mental scars from the abuse she’d received as a child.
“I was a shell of a person,” she says.
Now however, the 57-year-old mother of two says she is rebuilding her life and considers herself a survivor.
She credits much of this to her friendship with Belfast woman Margaret Guckin, a founder member of SAVIA.
“I’ve been able to tell my story and share my story and it has helped me in the process,” says Kate.
“But I know for a fact there are many more people in Derry who have been through similar experiences, and they deserve to see the people who did those things be called to answer for what they have done.”
Visit survivorsni.org for more information on the support available.