I can't even be sure about my birthdate

Recently we publicised claims by Frances Reilly about the horrendous cruelty inflicted in an Irish convent, and the sexual abuse by an occasional carer and his brother, that robbed her of childhood.

Steven Russell

Recently we publicised claims by Frances Reilly about the horrendous cruelty inflicted in an Irish convent, and the sexual abuse by an occasional carer and his brother, that robbed her of childhood. Today, she tells Steven Russell of that dreadful legacy - and how she refused to remain a victim

FRANCES Reilly knows the addresses of two of the nuns, now in their dotage, whom she claims beat her sadistically as a child. They might soon get a present in the post: a copy of a book detailing what went on behind the convent walls and how it shaped not just a little girl's future but the lives of those dearest to her.

“They're old now and they're going to meet their maker, and if they believe in Heaven and Hell, where are they going?” she says of those Poor Sisters of Nazareth at whom she points a finger. “They told us we were going to Hell often enough if we told lies. That's the only thing I would have to say to them: Where are you going?”

Sending a book is one thing, but Frances has no appetite for a face-to-face meeting with the nun she alleges was the worst offender. Quite simply, she says she wouldn't be able to trust her emotions.

“If I went down there and approached her, and said 'Why did you treat me like that?' and she denied it, I'm likely to swing for her and end up in prison, because I couldn't trust the way I feel. She's never going to stand there and admit it.”

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Today, Frances thinks it was common to believe youngsters had the devil inside them and the only way to bring children up, and send the devil packing, was to beat him out of them.

“But we were also charity cases, from the gutter. We were nothing. The feeling was we should be grateful, like Oliver Twist - grateful for anything.”

You can't bottle up forever the pain of an upbringing that saw you frequently beaten black and blue, starved of love and used for the sexual gratification of grown-ups meant to be showing you a life more tender. Frances gave it a good go - maintaining a fa�ade for years that convinced the outside world all was well, more or less. But, sooner or later, the strain became too much and something had to give.

There had been difficulties along the way, of course, but for Frances the tipping point came a dozen or so years ago, when her younger son moved out. She was left without a focus and routine at home. Obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress, agoraphobia and anorexia swept in �- as mental health conditions are cruelly wont to do - to fill the void.

“I had nothing left in my life to look after and take me away from those memories; nothing to get up for in the morning,” she explains. “It all hit then and was a big shock. I got dressed, put on my make-up, and tried to get out the door, but I physically couldn't do it. I was sweating, having palpitations; didn't know what the hell was happening to me. The tears were running down my cheeks. I'm a strong person, but emotionally I just couldn't do it.”

She couldn't even face going down to the bottom of the communal stairs to collect her post. Mail mounted up.

“With the OCD, I'd keep checking the door was locked, the door was locked, the door was locked - even though I knew it was. My family had to literally phone me and say 'I'm on my way now, Mum; answer the door when I get there.' And they'd stand outside, shouting 'It's me! Colin!' or whatever. I couldn't cope.

“It” - the consequence of that appalling childhood - “destroys every relationship you have; you're on self-destruct most of the time. For months I would just not eat. The food disorder, anorexia, I think was a form of self-punishment as well; you don't feel you deserve anything.

“It is hard, today, thinking about how bad I was - but I know how bad I was. Even my children back then didn't want to come and see me because all they would get was tears. I was in pain.”

Unable to go out because of the agoraphobia, Frances also found herself suffering from claustrophobia - probably linked to her childhood memories of “the cubbyhole”. This was a storeroom at the convent where the most sadistic nun relished inflicting her punishments.

Frances's Colchester flat was nice-looking but tiny. The living area was big enough just for two armchairs, with the kitchen a couple of steps away. “It was driving me absolutely nuts.”

After years as an effective prisoner in, first, a convent - abandoned there by her mother at the age of two - and then a remand home for difficult teenagers, she was to all intents and purposes now incarcerated in her flat in the Highwoods area of town.

“I used to say to people 'If you've ever watched Star Trek, it's like those prison cells they've got that haven't got a door but have got an invisible force field. You can see the other side, but you physically can't get near it.”

With agoraphobia, “you feel no-one cares. You look out the window and see all these people having a life. For you, it's like being in a goldfish bowl”.

Former husband Ken, who'd remained a good friend, had for years been telling her “Fran, you should really sue these people that brought you up.” Then, in the late summer of 1998, he pointed out a newspaper article about some women in Scotland taking an order of nuns to court for allegedly abusing them during their childhood. It was the same order under whose regime Frances had been raised - the Poor Sisters of Nazareth - though she had been at a convent across the water in Northern Ireland.

Angry about the way her experiences were making life such a misery, Frances found the strength early in 1999 to see a solicitor and try to seek justice. But it wasn't easy.

On the day she went, she could barely tell him anything, verbally. “He said on the Legal Aid form 'The most I could extract from Mrs Reilly was that she'd grown up in a convent and was abused, but I couldn't get another word out of her.' I was too distraught. This stuff had never come out to anybody.”

The full extent of the physical and mental cruelty was only then becoming clearer to her ex-husband, in fact. Ken had been told very early on in their relationship that Frances had been abused, but “there was stuff he'd never heard”.

She started seeing a counsellor and would return to her flat to write down her childhood memories in longhand, on A4 paper. Ken offered to help.

“He'd say 'Give me what you've got and I'll go and type it up for you.' My spelling's really awful: when I was talking about a uniform I'd say it was emasculate instead of immaculate and minute would come out as minuet. So he would take the bits of paper, go off and type it up and bring it back to me in some kind of order.

“I remember a couple of times looking at him and thinking 'He looks really upset. He looks like he's going to burst into tears.'

He said that when you start reading some of this stuff, it was different to hearing that I'd been abused. He said 'I didn't know it was like that for you.'”

Frances acknowledges that when you begin a new relationship, as she and Ken did in the 1970s, “the last thing you want to do is blurt out all this stuff that had ever happened to you and frighten the poor bloke. He's going to run a mile!

“The other side of it is that you physically can't, because of the pain of it. It has to keep being shoved down so that you can have some sort of normal life. Now and again it surfaced, and when it surfaced it was not nice.”

Committing her recollections to paper was painful, but it proved helpful in explaining to both her legal advisers and the police what had happened to her as a child.

Initially, Frances sought to bring criminal charges. She's full of praise for the police who listened to her, accompanied her back to the farm where she was sexually abused, and investigated her allegations. However, for various reasons the criminal route had to be discontinued.

Frances, believes, however, that she was the first person to have nuns brought to a police station in Northern Ireland and questioned there. Three other people had given statements similar to hers, she says. “They” - the nuns - “had to sit and listen to our interviews. But, of course, they denied it.”

She didn't give up, pursuing her claim through the civil court. In the spring of this year she accepted a settlement. Part of that agreement limits what she can say about the outcome, but she's delighted with the result of her decade-long legal fight.

“I got to a stage where there was a fork in the road, if you like. I was going under. I was agoraphobic; I was very depressed; I was suicidal. And I had two choices, as I saw it. It wasn't a brave thing; I had to get myself empowered to do something or I just sit here and waste away on sickness benefit.

“On the day I decided I was going to go to a solicitor, I thought 'Even if nothing comes of it, I'm going to take some of this power. I'm not going to get to an age where I look back on my life and think maybe I could have done something.'

“But I didn't know then it was going to take me 10 years. If somebody had told me how long it would take, I probably would have backed out there and then,” she smiles.

“I expected four years; I probably even expected five years. Once you're in it that long, people ask you 'How on earth do you last?' The thing is, you hang in because you feel what you've already done would be a complete waste if you just backed out.

“It did start getting to me. My immune system was knocked out with the stress of all of it. I ended up with shingles; I ended up with everything that was going. And even at that point, I thought 'I've just got to hang on.' I was afraid that if I gave up I would revert back to the person (I was). I had to keep going.”

On the day she secured her legal settlement, Frances returned to Colchester and had a ceremonial burning of 10 years' accumulation of legal papers.

“I bought an incinerator bin from B&Q and we took a bottle of wine into the back garden and burned the lot. 'That's it; I've done it and I'm not going back there again.'”

She knows of a group of former convent-raised children who get together regularly to talk about what happened to them. Many are on various medications and, not surprisingly, have their own issues to contend with. “But this is not how I want to be living my life: sitting around talking about it, but doing nothing about it.

“These people are still stuck in Nazareth House, because that's all they're going to be doing. That's the rest of their lives. So I've sort of cut myself off from that. They have a reunion every year and I think 'My god, why?' Why would you want a reunion? It wasn't a happy place.”

Her book, Suffer the Little Children, will make sure Frances's voice is finally heard. Not that the possibilities of publication entered her mind for a long time.

Putting her experiences down on paper took a long time. “It didn't follow 'as a book'. It was chaotic. There were 'chapters' out of sequence. The chapters I needed to write were about the sexual abuse and about the abuse from the nuns. Those were the chapters I had to hand over to the police and solicitor. They had to understand how bad that was.”

At one point Frances got to know someone running an advocacy service - arranging for her to be accompanied to appointments at the doctor's, and so on. “While she was up, she said 'Would you mind if I read some of that?' She came back gobsmacked.

“She said 'You should get this to an agent or a publisher. This is amazing stuff.' But for me, then, it was scary. This was mine. It was private stuff.”

Eventually Frances did put it out to 20 prospective agents, all of whom were interested. She wanted someone with empathy and picked one after a three-hour phone conversation. Emailing her innermost thoughts and raw memories, later, was daunting, however. “Letting it go was very scary . . . I didn't even know if it was any good, to be honest.”

Fortunately, it had the publishers queuing up. Initially, the book was going to be called Within the Lord's Walls, but, she says, Orion suggested Just a Number was catchier. Frances came up with another - Suffer the Little Children - which everyone saw as powerful.

Was writing a book helpful?

“No, it wasn't. Not at the time. People did say to me 'Oh, it must be so cathartic', but that wasn't how it worked out. Initially, I could not speak about what had happened. If you'd asked me a question I would have just choked. It's only the last couple of years that I've come out of my shell a bit.”

So when did her two sons - both in their late 20s - find out exactly what their mum had endured as a little girl?

“Now! Colin will not read the book, so he still won't know. He wants one, and he wants me to sign it, because he's very proud of me, but he could never read it - because it's me.” He would, she says, be hurt to learn the detail of what happened. “David's already read it; in fact, he read it before it went into book form.

“They always knew I grew up in a convent, just like my grandchildren know. There are always questions: 'Where's your mother? Why isn't there another nan?' I say 'Well, I didn't grow up with a family; I grew up with hundreds of girls, and nuns.'”

There have been laughs about Frances's descriptions of convent porridge - so thick and crusted, three days or so after it was made, that it had to be cut with a knife.

“If you didn't eat it, you got it for the next meal. I can't eat porridge today.” Her ex-husband makes it for him and their grandson, but Frances can't bear to wash up the bowls. “If I see that porridge, I physically . . . the texture and round the side . . . I can't do it. Luckily I've got a dishwasher - just turn it over and put it in - but in the other house, where you had to wash it by hand, that's the one thing I couldn't do.

“So they all knew it wasn't a very nice place, and the food wasn't nice, and they knew the nuns were a bit strict, but there was never anything really said about the cruelty and violence.” Her sons have only recently become fully aware that there was more to it.

David, she says, has long viewed his mum as a fighter - someone who readily marched into schools to sort out things that needed sorting.

“When he read it, he wasn't upset by it. He said 'Mum, you ran away, they brought you back; you ran away, they brought you back again - you were always going to be that person. I've never seen you as a victim. Even doing this court case, of course you're the one who's going to be doing this, because that's who you are.'

“I think he took quite a positive line: no, it wasn't pleasant what I went through, but I'm still here and I haven't let them take my spirit. Not like these people in Ireland: they're still institutionalised. I'm quite proud that he saw it like that.”

Her grandchildren are keen to read the account. “They're both 11 and I said to them 'I will give you a copy, I will sign the copy, and each of your dads will keep that copy until you're grown up.' So one said 'What age do we have to be?' and I said 'Forty! Well, maybe not 40, but certainly an age where you know beforehand it could upset you and you make that choice as an adult and can at any point put it down. But not at the age of 11.”

The scars of Frances's upbringing will never heal, of course, but she's reached the end of one major journey and doesn't regret her long campaign through the courts.

“Looking back on it, it wasn't cathartic - it was hell - but the best thing I could have done, probably: just hanging in there. You don't even have faith that anything is going to come out of it. But I've come out of it all right, I think.”

(The first part of this feature, about Frances's experiences in the convent and remand home, can be found within the features archive on www.eadt.co.uk)

MOST of us take cake, candles and presents for granted, but imagine not being 100% sure about when you were born.

Frances Reilly was “all different ages” in the convent where she was brought up - and, in any case, birthdays weren't celebrated there, she says. To cap it all, she later discovered there was some doubt about her status in the eyes of officialdom.

It was hard to get a copy of her birth certificate when she wanted to marry Ken. The one she got bore the name Agnes Frances - and her sisters reckoned it wasn't her but another sibling who had died but who had never been registered as dead.

“That's the only birth certificate I can find,” she explains. “It's made it really hard. So what I've done is I've accepted this birth certificate, 'cos I need to exist. I can't keep being told I don't exist!”

So Agnes Frances Reilly she is: born May 4, 1954.

She took precious few tangible assets with her into the big wide world when she left the remand home in the summer of 1969, but there was lots of invisible baggage: mental scars and damaged self-esteem.

What happened next is prime material for her next book - already with the publishers. The Troubles were full-on, with soldiers on the streets, and her sheltered upbringing hadn't equipped her to understand the sectarian tension or its history. Personally, it was also a deeply unhappy time.

Things started looking up in 1977 when she met Ken during his first night in Ireland. He was in the Royal Air Force and aged only 18.

“Poor Ken. By the time I did meet him at 23 and marry him, I took an awful lot out on him. Didn't mean to. He said there were occasions when I'd be pushing him away. I used to say 'What are you doing with me? You could be with anybody.' I was assuming that one day he'd leave anyway - so make it now . . .”

(By the way, we've changed the names of Ken and the sons he and Frances had. They've been through the mill and deserve a bit of privacy.)

The couple married in the spring of 1978 and settled in England. Ken was stationed in Norfolk for a while. He was sent to the Falklands early in the conflict, working on Chinook helicopters. It wasn't easy for kin left behind.

“The milkman used to deliver around the married quarters and tell the news about which vessel had been blown up and how many men were dead,” remembers Frances.

“If the station commander turned up at your door with a padre, it meant your husband was dead. A couple of times I was looking out the window, saying 'Not my door . . . not my door. . .'”

When he had the chance to stay with the forces or leave, Ken chose not to sign on for a further term because he didn't want to put his wife and children through something like that again.

He spent about three years working for an aircraft company in Oman, says Frances. She initially stayed with her sister-in-law in Tendring while Ken was away, and Essex has effectively been home since that time: Walton-on-the-Naze, Thorpe-le-Soken, Frinton-on-Sea, Harwich, and the Colchester area.

Frances discovered as a child that she had a good singing voice. She remembers one night in Ireland when she had to get up on stage at her sister's bidding. “I was pretty shy back then. I did some country songs. It was a bit like open-mic, with a backing band. I was glad when it finished and I could go back to my seat and kill my sister, but they wouldn't let me go and called me back up again.”

When she came to England, she brought those talents with her and made “quite a good living when the boys were younger” by singing in pubs and clubs. There was lots of work in the Ipswich area, at Walton-on-the-Naze, and down as far as Southend. She recalls singing at the Sizewell power station social club.

Frances could be out five nights a week or more. There was even an audition for Opportunity Knocks, where she covered Helen Reddy's Angie Baby.

One of the legacies of her institutional upbringing and its associated violence is an inability to trust people. It's getting better, but Frances still finds it hard.

“That's what my life has taught me: rely on yourself. I didn't know anybody who stood by you, who was 'real'. Even when I was singing I was very guarded and very aware of people. I'd make sure somebody I knew would come with me: get the equipment in the car and straight off. You didn't spend time talking to people. It was a job: you did your job, got paid and went home.

“I'm still guarded - about people knowing where I live; I'm ex-directory. It doesn't mean I won't be pleasant and nice if I meet somebody, but I am guarded.

“For me, my life revolves around my children and my grandchildren, and trying to give them what I never had; the good Christmas, the good birthdays I never had. There's nobody else gets in on my life; we don't have an 'outside' of a family life. I don't trust.

“Even my agent, who I get on very well with, says 'You're very nice, very friendly, but there comes a point with you where you're like: pwoom . . . That's it; I'm getting on a train now; I'm going home.'”

Tragically, the sex abuse Frances suffered at the hands of two men - brothers who welcomed her into their home at weekends and for holidays, under the guise of a charitable act - also left its mark. It damaged her relationship with Ken.

“We got to the point where I said 'Look, if I'm going to be with you, I'm going to have to be drunk all the time, and I don't want to be an alcoholic.' It's the only way I could cope with going to bed with Ken; a couple of bottles of wine and then I was OK. But you can't live your life drinking wine, so . . .”

Happily, they're still good friends. In fact, Ken rents a room in his ex-wife's house, where other members of the wider family also live. They've all been through some tough times over the years “but we're all still here. It's not perfect, but we function as a family. Which is good”.

Frances is speaking in her living room. There are stockings on the mantelpiece for her grandchildren and a pretty Christmas tree by the window. In light of her loveless experiences in the convent - where she says she was allowed to see and touch, but not keep, the presents sent annually by her mother - what does she feel at this time of year?

“I couldn't deal with Christmas - but I have to now for my grandchildren. It's something I had to stand back from. Every single year I'd go upstairs and lock myself in the bathroom, because I wouldn't want my children seeing it. I'd break down and sob my heart out.

“But I do want my family to have what I never had: for them opening presents and saying 'Gosh!' That's what I never had. I go over the top with birthdays and Christmas; I spend a fortune on them. I'm overcompensating - and not just with the little ones. David's nearly 30, but he'll still get over 100 quid spent on him. People should wake up and know some joy in life on Christmas morning.”

It's still impossible to forget the past.

Even now, if a bell rings, it makes Frances jump. (Bells regulated the regime at the convent.) Even the sight of people in a burkha, who look like a nun from a distance, can trigger a flashback.

“People think flashbacks are like they are in the films, all slow motion. They're not like that. It's literally like you're that age again. You get the same smells of the convent - Jeyes Fluid and the incense from the chapel - and the same downright fear you had . . . ducking . . . You couldn't do anything right. Just the same big load of feelings. You forget you're now an adult and don't need to be feeling that. It takes you right back.

“I've been unfortunate enough to be on Liverpool Street station with two nuns behind me. It made me walk right out of the station, even though I had to catch a train. Before I knew it, I was just walking down roads. I had to get away from them.

“It's there for life, I think. I don't think it's ever going to leave.”

The obsessive compulsive disorder is better, though not gone.

“I still clean, though not in the same way. I'm more relaxed about it. It used to be 'Urgh! Urgh! Urgh!” Frances mimes a furious movement with her hand and an imaginary cloth. “I don't know what I was trying to wash away. There was anger - and also I'd been brought up with this idea that you didn't get into Heaven unless you were clean. It was drummed into you.

“Today, I can do the same amount of cleaning, but I'm more relaxed, I've got music on, but it still has to be clean. And everything still has to be ironed: socks have to be ironed; tea towels, even dish-clothes. My sons take the mickey out of it. 'Mum, we know those dish-clothes are years old; but you'd think you'd just bought them from a shop. They're bleached and they're ironed.' I'm still the same - there's an everyday ritual that goes on.

“I used to actually cry up at Highwoods because my cupboards weren't actually white. They were cream. My son used to tell me they were cream - they were never going to be white! - but I used to say 'I can't get them white! I can't do it!' I'd literally be bleaching them - even unscrewing them and taking them down off the wall to work on them. It was awful.

“If anybody came in and used one tin out of my cupboard, I had to get down to Tesco to replace it, because there had to be six of everything and they had to be facing out. There couldn't be an odd number. You'd open that cupboard and it would be like a shop. It would physically make me cry if it wasn't.

“The boys used to wind me up. Fortunately, they are balanced. David would leave my house and turn the peas upside down or something, just to wind me up. But I'm glad they're like that, because it's made me push myself on a bit, that they didn't just pussyfoot around.”

Videos would be lined up alphabetically, millimetre-perfect. “I even tried to sleep so I wouldn't disturb the quilt.”

Frances is aware how common it is for the victims of childhood abuse to grow up to abuse their own children. Fortunately, she says, that hasn't happened with her.

“I couldn't even lift my hand. I've never lifted my hand to a child - ever. I couldn't trust it. Yes, stop their pocket money; tell them to go upstairs to bed. But I've never had a problem, and I've never lifted a hand to any of them.”

Suffer the Little Children is published by Orion Books at �12.99. ISBN 978 0 7528 7456 2