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Bernadette Bradley
I never saw the outside world


Bernadette Bradley, who’s now 64, was schooled in Dublin before moving to Derry, where she worked for more than thirty years in a laundry and various factories. Following a serious illness, she became a long-term resident of Stradreagh Hospital, before moving out to sheltered accommodation at Ardavan House.

“I was born in the middle of Ulster on June 27, 1945, and baptised. Then my mother put me into Fahan [orphanage] with the nuns, and I stayed there till I was a year old. My mother was single – she was Bridget Bradley. I don’t know my father’s name.

“I went to Nazareth House [school] in Bishop Street when I was three, then I went to Dublin at five years of age. The reason I went there was because I was slower at picking up than the rest of the children. I coped better in Dublin I learned a lot, and I was on a history book when I left school. I got a lot of help in Dublin and liked the school. It was called the Sisters of Charity. The nuns were kind to me.”

Bernadette had lots of friends at her new school – and even after she moved back home, she would swap letters with them.

“I was very, very close to them. I had three friends, and we used to go out in the fields, climbing up the trees for apples or gathering potatoes. I used to throw the potatoes at the horses, and they would run around the field. I was never caught but I enjoyed it.

“We used to play mammies and daddies down the field and make rag dolls for bed. We used make our own fun because we were never loved, you know. I never knew my mother at all.”

At the age of 15, Bernadette left school to return to Nazareth House in Derry, to work in the priest’s parlour. It was shortly after this that her health began to decline.

“I worked in the parlour first, then I went into the sewing room to learn how to machine. Then after that I went to the kitchen. I didn’t eat for a while and my health got bad, and I went into a clinic. It was the nuns that made me go, because I was too far down. I was happy to do that because I wanted to get well.

“When I went to Stradreagh, I learned I had a disability. In Stradreagh we were treated the same, but we never knew what the outside world was like because we were inside all the time. When I went out I wanted to go back again because I wasn’t used to the outside world.”


Bernadette was sent to work in the Good Shepherd laundry in the Waterside, a facility run by nuns. She found the labour hard. And she says the treatment of the workers there sometimes verged on abuse.

“I had to work hard on the presser in the laundry. We didn’t get paid, but we got our keep, nothing more. We didn’t get money at all. They just bought us things like soaps, toothpaste, brushes and combs. But we never got money.

“Some of the nuns were hard. Some of them used to hit the children, though there were also some good ones. No one took any heed of us. They didn’t listen to us when we did tell.

“I used to tell people outside. They said it’s all behind us now. I don’t know; it’s all coming out now. The nuns used to wear belts on their waists and hit the children with them. I wasn’t hit because I was a bit older.”

Bernadette went on to get work in the shirt factories, and later at the Essex plant in Creggan, which made car parts.

“When I was working I got paid a full wage. I was happy with that, and I was well treated. I think I was the only one at Stradreagh that worked in the factory at that time. I used to go out at quarter past seven in the bus, and sometimes I slept in. I would go out the door with a boiled egg and toast to the bus with me. The factories started very early.

“Most of them were very good to me at the factory. I was one of the number ones; I did the front of the shirts and hem pockets.

“Essex was mad. We used to bang the machines and all when the holidays were coming up; we were all excited. When someone was getting married, we used to put them in a go-cart right around the yard, down and up, down and up. We didn’t take the clothes off them like they do to fellas. I don’t think the women are involved in that.”

There was one incident when Bernadette was picked on by one of her co-workers, because of her disability. But the factory acted promptly and the offender, a supervisor, was moved. Bernadette made a lot of good friends in the factories, and is still in touch with Teresa, who would always keep a particular eye out for her.

“She is married now with two children but she always keeps in touch with me. She’s very good to me. She would come in to visit me and look after me.”

In 1978, Bernadette moved out of Stradreagh and into Ardavan House, which she really likes.

“The carers are good. I get on with them all. I have had no problems.”

At one stage, she did have a serious boyfriend, but she is now very content with the single life.

“I am happy with the way my life went. I have no husband; I used to go with boys, but it didn’t work out. I went with a fella from Limavady and got engaged to him in Faller’s Jewellers. But I gave him back the ring. He was a bit older than me. He got furniture but he didn’t get a house. I said, ‘What is furniture if you haven’t got a house?’”


In her spare time, Bernadette makes her own cards, arranges flowers, and studies art. She also enjoys reading history and watching the soaps.

Bernadette is convinced that the support for people with learning disabilities has improved greatly over her lifetime. And she is a particular advocate of Destined.

“I mind I never went out until I went to Destined. It’s really brilliant. I really enjoy it, and Dermot is a great manager. I love it because it takes me out, and you meet people that you never met.

“When I was in Stradreagh, I never saw the outside world. I was indoors all the time. I was hidden away; then when I did go out I wasn’t used to it. I wanted to go back again.

“Now, we go a lot of places with Destined - up to the Old Library Trust to learn First Aid and to the gym. I was in the gym today and it was very, very good. There is something different all the time. It’s really great.”