By Patricia Devlin
WHEN Margaret McGuckin began a justice campaign for historical abuse victims in the north, she was told: “You can’t take on the church and the state.”
Seven years later she has not only helped clinch a cross-party supported public inquiry, but is close to getting government approval on a £20 million victim redress scheme.
If there’s one thing that those dark days inside Belfast’s Nazereth House taught her it was to never give up.
“What I have learned from this campaign is, sometimes mere words mean very little without action,” she told The Star.
“You have to keep pestering them almost daily to get them (the government) to move. And we are nearly there.”
It’s been over 50 years since the Belfast woman walked through the doors of the Sisters of Nazareth institution at just three years old.
Taken there with her sister and two brothers in 1958, the siblings were forced apart in what the 59 year-old described as “hell”.
“I can still remember the smell of orange wax and carbolic soap,” she said,
“We were treated like child slaves being made to scrub the floors, windows and walls. It was like something out of a Dickens’ book.
“It was hell – filled with coldness with no love. That is so difficult and confusing for a young child who has just been separated from her family.
“They wouldn’t even let me speak to my sister which might have helped.
“Anytime I saw her through the railings in the segregated playground, we were pulled away from each other if we tried to talk or hold hands.
“My whole life there was just lived in fear — fear of the next beating, the next humiliation.
“I remember one day being beaten the whole way to a cupboard by one of the Sisters.
“When she got me there she kept beating me with a stick and telling me I was evil and a liar and the worst type of person that walked the earth.
“When I cried she battered me even more. She left me in the cupboard I cried out for someone to come and take me away so many times, but no one came to rescue me.”
At the age of 11 Margaret inexplicably left the institution, possibly because her father couldn’t afford to pay for her upkeep there. It was an early escape, but the damage had already been done.
“I wasn’t prepared for the outside world. I didn’t take to many people because I always felt so worthless and ashamed,” she explained.
“I always felt embarrassed and ashamed, like I was dirty and unclean. That was the scene set for the rest of my life.
“What happened to me in Nazareth House affected my job positions, my friendships and relationships with a wide range of people.
“I always felt unloved, ugly, rejected, dirty, evil, no good. I have hated myself so much because I was led to believe that I was a monster of some sort.
“I was made to feel worthless, that I was a bad person and I kept those beliefs with me my whole life.
“It is only recently that I have faced up to what happened me, and I can now look in the mirror and smile.”
Margaret, who helped form the Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (SAVIA) group, said it was only in 2009 when the Ryan Report was published that she knew she had to confront her demons.
“I tried to close my ears to it. I didn’t want to be reminded of it and my family and friends never knew what happened to me. “Then I heard a girl who had been with me in the home speaking on TV about what she suffered.”
She made contact with the woman she saw on TV and when they met up, the floodgates opened.
For the first time in Margaret faced up to what happened in her childhood.
From that day she channelled her energies into making a change for victims of historical abuse.
“I used to walk around filled with so much anger and sadness, but there is more joy and laughter in me now,” she said.
“I look in the mirror now and I am smiling. I want other victims to feel the same.”
Asked how she finds the strength to continue in her fight for truth and justice for survivors Margaret said: “Having met so many helpless victims of abuse who never dared speak up, including my brother Kevin and my new friend Kate Walmsley
“And what I would say to anyone out there who is suffering in silence, just like I did for many years, is speak up.
“Too many in authority don’t want to hear, or profess they don’t know what to do or how to deal with abuse victims.
“Tell someone who has been through it. They are the ones who will truly and genuinely care and support you.”