I never met Christine Buckley. In fact I never heard of the woman until she spoke out about the ill treatment she experienced growing up in Goldenbridge Orphanage during the 1950s and 60s. In doing so she raised an unsavoury reality that most people would prefer not to consider. Throughout human history the strong have preyed upon the weak. It has happened in all societies at all times. Ireland was and is no exception.
This article first appeared in Scan Magazine in June 2015 under the byline "Gabriel Conroy"
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In the late summer of 1971, an American professor named Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment at Stanford University. He set up a mock prison in which volunteer students took on the roles of guards and prisoners. Very quickly the ‘guards’ became abusive: humiliating and tormenting the ‘prisoners’ in various ways in a bid to assert their authority. Some ‘prisoners’ accepted this treatment while others rebelled. Although the experiment should have continued for two weeks, Zimbardo had to end it after six days to prevent things getting worse.
The results of the Stanford experiment are noteworthy in light of the now-familiar accounts of abuse perpetrated in religious institutions such as Goldenbridge Orphanage. Among the similar practices were the administering of physical punishment, the rewarding of ‘favourites’ with better treatment, and the use of numbers rather than names when addressing inmates. Details of what went on in Goldenbridge were revealed by the Ryan Commission in 2009. However the first insights emerged in 1992 on Gay Byrne’s radio show when he interviewed Christine Buckley.
In Ireland during the 1950s and 60s, Christine Buckley had several disadvantages. She was, in the words of one newspaper columnist, ‘illegitimate, half caste, abandoned and female’. On the other hand she was also smart and tough and those qualities helped her survive. She was among the ‘fortunate few’ in Goldenbridge who completed secondary education. Afterwards she qualified as a nurse and worked with sick children at Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin. She married and had three children. She managed to create a new life for herself and her family but she could never forget those who had not coped so well.
Christine Buckley became an articulate advocate on behalf of victims of institutional abuse in Ireland. She helped set up the Aislinn Centre to provide practical help and psychological support to survivors of industrial schools and orphanages. She harried the powerful in her pursuit of truth and justice and she was generous to those who responded. When Bertie Ahern resigned in 2008 following financial scandals and economic meltdown, she paid a warm public tribute to the former Taoiseach’s ‘compassion and courage in standing with us’.
On March 11th 2014, Christine Buckley finally succumbed to the cancer that had dogged her for many years. Her body was laid to rest in Shanganagh Cemetery.
The Stanford experiment showed us that people anywhere can behave badly when given unchecked control over others. Christine Buckley demonstrated that victims need not be crushed by such treatment and can even inspire others to stand up for what is right.