Good Straits

Half Mag / Half Zine

A grandmother recalled the trauma of being abused by her own father for decades, as she revealed how the family feel they have been ‘let down’ by the system because they are travellers.

Helen O’Donoghue, 51, was four years old when her dad James O’Reilly started molesting her. She was eight when he raped her for the first time. But Helen, who suffered abuse at her father’s hands into her late teens, did not realise he was also raping her six sisters.

They were starved, beaten and abused in vans, sheds and bogs while living in severe poverty, despite O’Reilly earning a good income as a successful scrap and horse-dealer, a court heard. Helen said she now has no happy memories of her childhood to share with her grandchildren.

O’Reilly, 75, who fathered a child with one of his daughters when she was 16, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on June 15. He was convicted of 58 counts of rape and nine counts of sexual assault in December, following a five-week trial.

Dublin’s Central Criminal Court heard how O’Reilly, of Killeens, Ballynonty, Thurles, in County Tipperary, abused his younger sister Christina and seven of his daughters over a period of 23 years between 1977 to 2000.

Helen, along with her sisters, are now seeking a public inquiry into why State actors allegedly did not take action to protect the children, according to The Irish Times.

‘I do believe we were let down because we are travellers,’ Helen told the paper. ‘Settled people, mostly they looked down on us travellers, thinking, “That’s the way they live – dirty, smelly”.

‘If we had been from a settled family, people would have noticed the neglect more. They would have cared more.’

Helen said all she did ‘was beg and be beaten and molested and raped for years,’ adding: ‘We never had nothing. And all that time social workers, teachers, nurses, priests, nuns saw how we were living. No one ever came to us.’

She said she dealt with her abuse by ‘keeping silent’, for decades before the women decided to go to authorities four years ago.

A DNA test proving O’Reilly was the father of one of his daughter’s children helped secure his conviction late last year.

Recalling the abuse the women suffered, Helen said the ‘touching and feeling’ started when she was just four, while they were living in a horse-drawn wagon.

Growing up, Helen said her father always called her ‘worthless’ and an ‘ugly creature’ and the children were ‘thrown to the wind, left to live or die’.

They were not sent to school and she was forced, as the eldest of seven, to cook and clean at home, take care of her siblings, look after the horses and tend to O’Reilly’s ‘needs’.

She described how the children fed themselves out of dustbins and would ‘rob the skins’ from leftover potatoes, while their father was ‘always well-fed’.

Helen was just 12 when she attempted to take her own life for the first time and went on to try ‘seven or eight times’.

She said her father always set up in ‘isolated’ places ‘on purpose’ as he moved the family around the country, while at one point they lived in wagons and tents in a field next to a Dublin school for several years.

Helen was educated for a total of three weeks in two different schools in Dublin and said neither questioned why her attendance period was so short.

Despite the children often going without underwear or socks and basic essentials, Helen said authorities never investigated why they were not regularly in school.

Helen alleges that schools, social workers and the then-Southeastern Health Board knew of the neglect but did not intervene.

The family are now demanding answers as to why a social worker’s investigation, carried out in 1997, failed to stop the abuse after Helen’s sister, Kathleen O’Driscoll, reported the rape she suffered as child, according to the Irish Times.

It is understood that at the time, Kathleen’s sisters did not corroborate the reports out of fear of not being believed by police.

They believe systemic racism due to their traveller heritage was at the root of their abandonment.

A spokeswoman for Tusla child and family agency told The Irish Times that it was ‘retrieving any files’ relating to the child protection services of the family along with the former South Eastern Health Board and the Health Service Executive (HSE) before its establishment.