16 Days 2017 (Nov 25 - Dec 10)
"Niamh" and her partner were together for over 15 years. Looking back now, still shaken, she says the majority of those years were spent living in fear.
The abuse began gradually, with violent or aggressive outbursts every now and then - so gradual, in fact, that before Niamh realised how deeply embroiled she was, she had six children, no income, and was firmly under the control of her partner. “It started out with criticisms about small things, like brushing my teeth. But over the years, the criticisms grew until it was almost all of the time. If he was away, he had a list of chores I had to do. I wasn't allowed to sit and relax; I always had to be working.
Soon after they met, the couple moved to South West England, and started a family. It was during these early years that Niamh lost touch with all her friends. Any conversations with her family were monitored by him listening in on the phone calls. The children were not allowed to make friends, and apart from their time spent in school, where they were discouraged from speaking to anyone, and were kept behind closed doors at all times.
It was while pregnant with her first child that the physical abuse began, and it gradually increased over the years. “When I’d speak, or dare to give my opinion on something, I’d end up getting beaten into a corner with him shouting at me. Then it would progress into a constant flow of words for hours on end. I was left physically and emotionally drained; I couldn't think straight. After the abuse, he would say that the argument had happened because I was hormonal and emotional.”
There were “normal” times though, says Niamh, which was probably why she stayed for as long as she did, hoping the “crazy” times would become less and the “normal” times more frequent. But they never did.
As time went on, the abuse reached every member of the family, with the children being forced to clean the house constantly and suffering regular beatings for the smallest perceived infraction. Then began the death threats, threats that the Social Services would take their children should she contact the police. The children were also threatened that they’d be taken away, or killed, should they attempt to tell anyone about what was happening.
With the abuse becoming more intense, and the children, who were all under ten, beginning to suffer directly at the hands of their father, Niamh, who says she was in the midst of a physical and mental breakdown, finally cracked in 2012.
“We were all in the kitchen this one night in July when he began his usual tirade of abuse at me, but this time, I just went crazy; it was like I just lost my mind. I was screaming at him to get out, pushing him further and further out the door. He was so shocked; he had never seen that side of me, and he went.”
With help from a local woman and the police, Niamh managed to get all the children on a bus and back to Galway on the boat within a matter of days. Arriving back in Ireland, Niamh and her family, scared, scarred and very fragile, stayed on friends’ floors each night. Her relief was short lived, however, with her ex attempting to get them back to England through the court system. “It was really stressful - the thought that we might have to return to England was more than I could bear; it was horrifying. I thought the legal system would protect us, but we still weren’t safe.”
It was around this time that Niamh was introduced to COPE Galway by a friend of the family, and at COPE Galway’s Domestic Violence Refuge for Women, she found the peace and security she and her family had so desperately needed. “That room, that was our space and when I was in there, I did feel safe. I used to have nightmares that he was going to break in and get me, but it was so secure and I was always assured of my safety. Even just having the opportunity to talk with women who were in similar situations, and talk to the women who worked there who were so supportive - that really helped. When it came to the day that I had to go to court to fight for my right to stay in Ireland with the children, they were with me”.
Staying at the refuge in Waterside House for almost six weeks, Niamh managed to find a house for the family to rent - not an easy task due to soaring rent rates and a reluctance of landlords to accept rent receipts. With the children in school, and finally settled in their house, Niamh says she started to breathe again, to enjoy her freedom. “I could wake up in the morning and I knew I could get up and I didn't have someone telling me something I was doing was wrong. There was so much freedom - it was amazing. We had been imprisoned for so many years that we’d spend every waking minute out and about. We’d go to the college grounds where the kids would run around, and play in trees, or we'd go to the park, the beach - just living! It was amazing that we could just walk out a door and we could go where we wanted to go. We were really loving it.”
While Niamh says the whole family’s doing really well, she still feels like she has to look over her shoulder; the fear hasn’t completely disappeared. She’s had counselling, and the children have had play therapy, both of which have been organised through COPE Galway. This has helped them all immensely, she says. The help that she got from COPE Galway, from the accommodation through to the emotional and practical support, meant that she was able to create a new life for her and her children in Galway. “Even to get legal support, I had to battle, so I really needed their help. Without them, and in the most vulnerable part of my life, I don't know where I would have been.”
The new chapter of Niamh’s life has brought with it peace and a wonderful sense of freedom, she says. “The kids are doing really well, but there are still scars there. We still have issues - sometimes you don't know whether it's normal kids’ behaviour or because of what happened. It's hard to tell. Me? I think I'm doing really well; I just try not to think about it. It's the past, and I put the past behind me. I’m quite easily pleased. I get up in the morning and the sun is shining and I just love it. I look out and can see the Burren, the sun rising and all the beautiful colours. I love that I can cycle and go whichever way I want. I can talk to people, I can talk to other mothers and there's nothing stopping me.”
If you or someone you know in Galway is experiencing domestic abuse or is affected by any of the issues mentioned above phone COPE Galway Domestic Violence Refuge Service at Waterside House - 091 565 985 (24h).