I'm a twit too

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Suffer little children......

One common punishment for resiliently rebellious children like Kathleen Clarke and Margaret Coyne was to tie the little bastards to the gum tree over the bull-ants nest.
"How Sister Rita thought up punishments like that, I'll never know. She was worse than Hitler!" is what they both told me in separate moments of place and time, confirming all the worst abuses which were a part of institutional life.

St.John's Orphanage, Thurgoona NSW
 Kathleen Clarke 3rd row down 5th from right.

Instilling terror in a child by dressing them in red and putting them in a paddock with a bull was another method to break the spirit of a girl, but it didn't matter how bullied Mum(or Margaret)was, how many times a nun's belt would be unfurled, there was nothing to do but sulk and drag your feet and cop it again. 

Like any prisoner of circumstance, there were times when looking for ways to escape needed the right opportunity, like a cricket match when the ball came sailing through her airspace and dropped behind close to the fence and the dirt road.

Instead of bending to retrieve the ball, Kath kicked it further until she reached the gap and dropped to the ground, slid under and ran for her life!

When you're a kid the distance and tree cover you've kept to, is no match to the Daverns and their truck with the hawkish eyes of a fat, red-faced fuming nun. Home-made calipers with bricks and sticks addressed such behaviour. With only five nuns to a hundred little terrors.

The litany of Deuteronomic curses for their disobedience was constant and when the New South Wales Welfare worker came every six months to check on the orphans, one nun sat on either side of their charge in her medieval garb whilst the officer asked their State Ward, how things were going in the new country....Fine. Kids were a bit shy.

Everything was fine in the promised land. No mention of any harm by nun or priest was heard. When it was Mum's turn to take Father Ryan's dinner across to his house, alone, she was quick to not get too close because that priest gave her the creeps and it was whispered about that he was a 'dirty old bugger'.

Margaret confirmed told me of a rape. She was sent to Victoria when found pregnant and returned without the baby boy - over the border back to the place of the crime. Nothing said by anybody.

It wasn't all bad. There was the casual escape into the graveyard where the nuns were buried to smoke some tobacco the odd-job-man bartered for stolen farm goods.
1996 I travel to St.John's Orphanage, Thurgoona to
see where Mum was in the 1950's and meet Margaret Landsdowne nee Coyne who came out on the ship with my mother,from Nazareth House, Birmingham! She confirmed the punishments as true.
The girls would crush eucalypt leaves to erase the illicit tobacco smell. Kath was surrounded by mountain and rural landscape more massive than the Lickey Hills back at Nazareth House in Birmingham. "Carrots" horizon had broadened in her psyche, and she was losing her Brummie accent, and picking up the colloquialisms of the Australian girls.
Perfection at  St.John's Cemetery, Thurgoona 1950's.
Being anti-authoritarian wasn't  only because Mum had orange hair as a kid, or the priest saying she had the look of the rebel Irish in her, (although she went really crazy when they chopped off her long plaits). It was strong within me, at nine years of age too - the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter.

I can picture myself  coming to a stand-still at the crossroads of Exeter and Tiverton Road thinking so clearly; My Dad did not deserve my love. Or God! If there was one. There was too much suffering in this world and it was mainly on women and children. 

Dad had committed adultery. God was no use. It was all lies to do as you were told...by men!  I wanted to ease my mind of all these thoughts. I wanted to be free of Dad, and free of God. I wanted them to disappear. That meant I didn't have to attend Catechism anymore.

I looked at the big old Church of  St. Wulstans, and the hall  where my sisters and I had gone to Sunday School, leaving mum to have a lie-in, and guessed I was leaving childhood behind. 
Perhaps if the teacher had been less dull I would have stayed and made it to Confirmation, but when I questioned what was being said, to probe for a deeper understanding the instructor said there was no time, and I had to accept the Word of God, full stop.

I reasoned it was worth the risk of getting into trouble by God.  He should understand me anyway!  My father was a hypocrite. Always espousing moral certitude, the difference between right and wrong and he had destroyed my respect for him.  He had accused me of being a liar when I had gone up the hill to Nan with the truth that he was having an affair with Barbara from around the club.

When Dad lied to Nan too and told me off for saying lies to her,  and sent me to bed, I felt crucified. No wonder... I was absorbed in painting the Easter Mural on the classroom wall depicting Jesus on the Cross. 

Mum screamed at Dad as he brought his cases down the stairs. She called Barbara all the course names she could think of.  I didn't blame her for taking Dad away. I viewed her with disdain, as she pulled pints and men at the bar with her gold necklaces falling into her cleavage and flashing her false eyelashes.
Why Dad was leaving us for a woman who flirted with every man was beyond me. I was now resolutely on Mum's side - Your Father has always been selfish! Always gets what he wants, and now he thinks he's gone up in the world with her siting beside him in his new car.
After 12 years of helping him with his business, bringing up his kids, and now he can afford a Rover he pisses me off. That's all the thanks I get." 

Mum had suffered all her life all because she was illegitimate. She'd survived the cruelty of the nuns, came back to Birmingham when she was 18 years, but didn't get on with her mother. 
She'd had a baby boy but it died in the first week. The blood didn't match. The twins had a total blood transfusion and the last Rites performed by a passing Priest, but not the boy. Would Dad have stayed with us if he'd had a son? Maybe that was why the marriage was over. Yes! Like mum said, Dad was a Bastard, not her!

I didn't want to speak to him anymore. He didn't even tell us where he was living. It was like a disease in our area - men leaving their wives with the burdens and daily grind of bringing up the kids so they could go off with the Secretary or  bar-maid. 

In the back garden Exeter Rd. 1972 before heading
up the road to Brownie Guides.
I still had the Brownie Guides at the Church Hall, with Brown Owl leading the pack of pixies, gnomes, and elves....We were busy rehearsing a play of The Pied Piper and I was learning a solo song. 

Only a year before,  I had been pulled out of school to go for a family interview at  Australia House. We were going to emigrate to Australia.  Mum had always wanted to go back where the sunshine was, intuitively sensing a second trip would be a second chance of success - at least where the loads of washing would get dry in an hour! 
She reckoned Dad's ideas and his Protestant work ethic would enable them to build the home of their dreams. 

In the background, there was the hope a new life away from the ordinary temptations and habits was the solution 
to their crumbling marriage. 
The corrupting influences of his native Selly Oak & Bournbrook would dissipate in the spacious isolation of a NSW country town!
The day before we were supposed to set sail on the cruise ship for ten pounds each, Dad chickened out.

Under orders from Mum, my dad tried to explain why everything had changed. He couldn't emigrate...leave his Mum and Dad behind. He would miss Selly Oak! 
Mum didn't have any strong family ties, but he couldn't leave his Mum, or the house he was born in.
I listened, head bowed. Being eight years old I trusted my Dad knew best. It was an instinct in me to imagine myself in his shoes, unhappy not seeing Nan ever again.

Returning to the corner of my childhood Revelations! - My return to childhood home of Exeter Rd. Selly Oak. Birmingham, England. My house is on the other side. August2010

(c)copyright Julie McNeill Oct 2010
all rights reserved


  1. Lovely reading this Julie as it brings back my own happy memories of Selly Oak! Sad to hear the abuses of your Mother suffered as a Child, and your naughty Daddy.

  2. Your Mom suffered appalling cruelty and abuse at the hands of the Catholic church, it’s a wonder she turn out as sane as she has. It brought mix emotions of my days St Patricks Convent, abuse but no where as cruel as what you Mom suffered.

    Love Josie


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