By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — About 10,000 government files that will reveal for the first time details about the lost childhood of people who were taken into care by the state have been unearthed by the Department of Health.
They disclose information about children who were hired out as servants in people’s homes or who were sent to work with farmers, businesses, small industries and fisherman. They also contain previously unknown lists of names with ages and details about when they were placed in institutions and where they were held.
The records have been uncovered in files in the Department’s Hawkins Street headquarters, storage depots and the National Archives office in Bishop Street. Some date back to the foundation of the State.
The department’s freedom of information and child care law units are now indexing the details in a project called AIRR (Access to Institutional and Related Records).
Converting the paper files into an electronic format will take several months.
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“Once indexed this material can be used to respond fully to requests for access to personal information,” a spokesman said. “A lot of these are personal and institutional files we didn’t realize we had before.”
Campaigner Christine Buckley, who was in care as a child in Goldenbridge Orphanage in Dublin and now runs the Aislinn Center for abuse victims, said it would be “excellent” if the files shed new light on people’s childhood in institutions.
“We get requests for this sort of information non-stop. It is absolutely dreadful. It will be interesting to see if the files record the injuries that happened to children in these hell holes,” she said.
John Kelly, coordinator of the Irish Survivors of Child Abuse, also welcomed the move and said he hoped it heralded a new policy of openness and transparency.
“The department has been under a lot of pressure to give out this sort of information but people applying have been finding there are various restrictions,” Kelly said.
“They have not been handing over the records of people who are alive. They have been hiding behind the sensitivities involved and have been afraid of liability. Hopefully this is a new approach.
“A lot illegitimate children were dumped in the past because of the stigma involved and often rich families took the ‘orphans’ in as servants.
“Nobody asked questions at the time about ordinary children and certainly not about what the rich, the gentry and the powerful did. The religious orders were praised for taking in what were regarded as waifs and strays.
“In many cases children were farmed out. The pretext was you were fostered or adopted and taken into a family home. But essentially you became cheap labor on farms or for people with small industries. The Magdalen laundries were an example. They were literally slaves.”
The department said the type and extent of the records have yet to fully defined.
After examining a sample of the files, they have been found to include lists of children who were nursed or fostered, lists of children boarded or hired out and some correspondence relating to individual children.
“This information was compiled from inspection visits to the children and includes names and ages of dates of birth.
“The lists sometimes show where the child came from and sometimes they include information on the health and behavior of the child,” according to the department.
“Some files which have general titles referring to counties, geographical districts or specific institutions include records relating to individual children.
“While some lists are in standard form, there is a variety of correspondence and it is difficult to predict the extent of personal information which may emerge from a detailed examination.”
Applications for details of personal information held should be addressed to the Freedom of Information Unit, Floor 2, Hawkins House, Dublin 2.
To process requests, the Department needs as many relevant details as possible relating to the period in care together with full name and date of birth.
Proof of identity — such as copy of a birth certificate, driver