“I THOUGHT I was going to be drowned.”
Terrifying thoughts for a girl of eight to endure.
But that was the case for young Deirdre O’Donoghue – now Deirdre Harper, a 55-year-old mother and grandmother, living in Birkby, Huddersfield.
Deirdre was living in care in Belfast back in the 1960s.
She had her head held repeatedly under her bathwater by a Catholic nun, whose rosary beads banged against the side of the bath.
Her crime? She had taken a bath at the wrong time – to avoid one in the Jeyes fluid used to clean the water.
She was one of many youngsters who claim they were subjected to systematic, brutal abuse at the hands of the Catholic nuns who ran Nazareth House, which was Deirdre’s home for eight frightening years.
She has told her story in the hope that it will help expose the evil that went on in that home and many other institutions in Northern Ireland.
Her evidence has been handed to police in Northern Ireland, who are helping conduct a Government-led inquiry into the alleged abuse.
The inquiry, sanctioned by the Stormont leaders, comes in the wake of the Catholic abuse scandal in the Republic of Ireland.
Deirdre has been petrified of water ever since those early days. She says the fear stems from the bath incident.
Other memories of those days include the time her face was pushed into urine-soaked sheets to punish her for wetting the bed.
Then there are the countless beatings she endured from a leather strap that hung near a string of rosary beads and the times she was pulled up flights of stairs by her hair.
Deirdre was one of hundreds of disadvantaged children taken into the care of the religious order, the Sisters of Nazareth, and placed into Nazareth House in south Belfast.
The huge red-brick building has long since been demolished, but Deirdre still has vivid, terrible memories.
She said: “I was brought up in Limerick, but we moved to Belfast when my dad got a job there.
“Then my family split up because of rows between my parents and I was taken into care, along with my two sisters and two brothers.
“We girls were sent to Nazareth House, but I was only able to see my sisters through the iron gates that separated the different yards for children of different ages.
“The first few months were okay, but as I moved into the older department, the beatings started. They were regular and often, and for any reason at all.
“I was hit repeatedly with a stick and a strap. It got so bad that I ran away, but I was brought back by the police.
“A nun dragged me up three flights of stairs by my hair, beat me with a stick and locked me in a storeroom. She said I could not come out while I was crying: I was there for a long time.
“It wasn’t just me, it was happening to other children. There was always someone getting a beating.
“Nothing changed in the eight years I was there. The thing is, no-one thought to complain about it, we thought no-one would listen.
“I have spoken to people over the years and found out they had similar stories to tell. But I never spoke publicly about it until I was in my 40s.
“I was horrified when I spoke to my brothers, who were in another institution in Northern Ireland and learned they too had been beaten.
“There was also sexual abuse at that home, but not as far as I was aware at Nazareth House.
“The Government in Northern Ireland have now agreed to an inquiry, in the wake of the abuse scandal in the Republic.
“Nothing can change what happened, but people have to know.
“I joined a campaign calling for an inquiry two years ago and arranged a petition for Stormont, so I am delighted that people are now willing to listen”.
Deirdre left Nazareth House in 1967 and was reunited with her mother, who by then had moved to Huddersfield.
She is now the mother of two sons and grandmother to four.
ALLEGED victims of childhood abuse have been urged to come forward.
The woman spearheading a campaign for justice for the Northern Ireland victims made her pleas last night.
Margaret McGuckin spoke out after a Huddersfield woman told her story of alleged abuse at the hands of Catholic nuns in the 1960s.
Mrs Deirdre Harper, of Birkby, is believed to be one of hundreds of children who had become victims.
Many of them still live in Northern Ireland, but others are thought to have made new homes in England.
Mrs McGuckin, herself a victim said: “We started our campaign two years ago, but the Government only agreed to the inquiry in December.
“Now we have a short timescale for people to come forward and tell what happened to them.
“We are gearing up for the inquiry and we need the evidence of people who suffered all sorts of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
“We have traced people as far back as the 1930s, but the inquiry is to concentrate on people from the 1950s onwards.
“The more publicity we can get for this the better but it is a matter of urgency that people come forward.”
A spokesman for the inquiry said: “Over the next few weeks, a Taskforce will be seeking the views of survivors of institutional abuse through a number of information gathering events in Belfast, Armagh and Derry/Londonderry.
“We would encourage survivors to attend and give us your views. If you can’t attend one of the planned events, we would still like to hear from you.
“It is important that we hear from as many survivors of institutional abuse as possible, either in person or by letter.”
For details ring 028 90 528287 or email firstname.lastname@example.org