Voices of the lost: Speaking of being sent to Australia as a child migrant

Ann with her family Ann McVeigh (second left) who was sent to an Australian orphanage now has extensive contact with her family in Northern Ireland.

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Ann McVeigh was five years old when the nuns sent her away.

Born to a single mother in 1944, she had been put in an orphanage at the age of three weeks.

Her mother, from Armagh, never forgot her. She had gone on to marry and have other children and always intended coming back for her eldest daughter.

But when the day came and Ann's mother arrived at the Nazareth House facility run by nuns in Belfast, Ann had disappeared.

"I was there for five years," says the 68-year-old from her home in Perth.

"In between times my mother would come and visit me regularly as did her future husband and when the time came to come and collect me when I was five years old she was told I was not there.

Australia

"I had already been sent out to Australia without her consent and without her knowledge."

Ann's mother was not told at the time that her daughter had been sent to Australia. It was several years before she discovered. Ann, meanwhile, had been sent to an orphanage in Western Australia, part of a government scheme to help populate the country after the war.

Ann McVeigh and her sister. Ann McVeigh and her sister. Ann was sent to Australia as a child without her mothers knowledge.

Ann was one of 1,355 children from the UK, 112 of them from Northern Ireland, who were sent to Australia in the 1940s and 1950s. Most were sent out by religious orders, like the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers, who ran care homes.

Some were orphans, but others were not and in many cases the children were told they had no living relatives to ensure they did not try to return.

Last month, a team of experts that are running an inquiry into historical abuse in institutions in Northern Ireland went to Australia to take submissions from some of those who had been sent there.

Philippa White works for an organisation called Tuart Place based in Freemantle that helps so-called 'child migrants' like Ann.

She says: "From the sound of things there were some recruiting drives, there were quotas to fill and in some instances it sounds like a fairly aggressive process of finding children for migration."

Ann remained in care in the orphanage until the age of 15 when she was sent to work on an outback farm. She was 17 before she was able to write to her family and 21 before she was allowed to visit.

'Angry and bereft'

Cutting her off from her family left her feeling angry and bereft for the relationships she had been denied.

"Especially around Christmas time, when I was working in a department store and I'd see families with the kids and the mums and grandmas. That used to upset me because I used to think, I had none of that," she said.

Start Quote

I started to get angry then when I had my own son, because I thought he'd missed out on aunties and uncles and cousins.”

End Quote Ann McVeigh

"I started to get angry then when I had my own son, because I thought he'd missed out on aunties and uncles and cousins."

Paddy Monaghan is 76. His family came from near Belleek in County Fermanagh, though it took him more than 70 years to discover that fact.

Born outside of marriage he was given into the care of the nuns as a baby and was 10 when he was sent out to Australia.

He said the regime there was harsh, physically and psychologically abusive. For years he tried to find his family but was told he didn't have any.

"When I got married the first time I tried to find out about my relations but I was told that they'd all been killed during the Blitz in Ireland," he said.

"They just said, 'they're all dead'.

Reunited

"Well what would you do if someone tells you your family is all dead, you say 'what's the point in looking?'"

He kept trying to find them however, visiting Ireland several times in the 1990s, but without success. His mother died in 1999.

Then a letter handed over by a nun in Sligo in 2009 unlocked the mystery of who he was and where he had come from.

It had been written by his mother more than 70 years earlier, agreeing to give up any claim on her child.

It led him to find an extended family of cousins in Ireland, England and Australia whom he now visits regularly.

After a 47-year search, he said he has found an instant family.

Both Ann and Paddy now have extensive contact with their families in Northern Ireland.

Both have made submissions to the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry. Ann says she is hoping for an apology from the religious orders in Ireland like the ones that have already been given by those in her country.

And she says she would like to see a monument in Belfast docks to the children who were shipped to Australia.

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