Nora Wall's family and community stuck by her when newspapers branded her 'sick', 'evil' and 'wicked'. Most remarkably, the former nun said she never blamed those who made allegations against her. Profile by John Byrne.
It was the formal end of a hellish nine years for the 56-year-old former nun, but she sat there, no hint of emotion, as the ruling was read out. There were no dramatics, no shouts of joy, no turning, triumphant, to a cheering crowd. Nora Wall sat with her family in the Court of Criminal Appeal as judge Nicholas Kearns declared a miscarriage of justice for her wrongful conviction for the rape of a young girl. In the end, it was an anti-climax.
After the judge had made his ruling, Nora Wall turned and stretched her hand towards Patricia Phelan, whose false evidence had seen Wall become the first woman convicted of rape in the history of the State. Patricia Phelan burst into tears, and threw her arms around Nora Wall. All was forgiven.
After all that has happened to Nora Wall, it was a remarkable moment. In June 1999, she was convicted, along with a homeless man, Paul 'Pablo' McCabe, of raping a young girl in St Michael's Child Care home in Waterford, on a date between January 1988 and December 1989, when the girl would have been aged between nine and 11 years. Pablo McCabe was jailed for 12 years, and Nora Wall was jailed for life. She was the first woman to be convicted of rape in the history of the State.
Patricia Phelan's evidence was key. In court she said had seen Nora Wall hold down the young girl's legs while Pablo McCabe raped her. This corroborative evidence was crucial in securing the convictions – but it was all made up. Patricia Phelan fabricated it to "get back" at Nora Wall, whom she claimed had treated her badly in St Michael's Child Care centre where she grew up.
On foot of the conviction, Nora Wall became one of the most high-profile female hate-figures in Irish history.
"Was Nora Wall's soul hardened, coarsened and desensitised by the Catholicism that passed itself off as spirituality in the Ireland of yesterday?" asked Pat Buckley in the News of the World on 20 June, 1999. "Surely some dreadful spiritual cancer has taken possession of the soul of this woman. Or maybe she is just mentally deranged. We read of such things happening in the mediaeval Vatican when the Borgias were popes. But not in Ireland and surely not in the 1980s."
The revulsion was widespread. "There is only one way to tackle the evil legacy which Nora Wall has left to this country. Even as she serves out her sentence, we must reach out to every person whose life had been damaged by her beastly ways," said one tabloid editorial.
Other allegations were made. "The evil nun jailed for life for raping a ten-year-old girl wrecked the lives of two young boys by having them locked up in a mental home, the News of the World can reveal. Sick Nora Wall branded the 12-year-olds 'insane'. But their only crime was daring to stand up to her wicked ways at the children's home she ran."
"Sick Nora Wall" was born into a large, farming family in Knockanaffrin in the Nire valley in county Waterford. She had a traditional, rural upbringing and joined the Sisters of Mercy while still in her teens. She took the name Sister Dominic.
She joined St Michael's residential childcare centre in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, in 1978, firstly as a care worker, before rising to become the head administrator of the centre. St Michael's took in children from troubled backgrounds, such as Regina Walsh, who was brought up there virtually from birth and who made the rape allegations against Nora Wall and Pablo McCabe.
Those who went through St Michael's remember a kind woman, who was nonetheless tough when the occasion required, and was a strict, and occasionally harsh, disciplinarian. Although some of them do not have fond memories of Nora Wall, none of them feel she was capable of child rape.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, she left St Michael's, and the Sisters of Mercy, in 1990, but received an excellent reference. "Applicant is of an extremely warm and caring personality with a natural flair for challenges. She is exceptionally kind and considerate with an outstanding character ... Ms Wall is a professional child careworker whose abilities I have always found to be of the highest calibre," wrote an Eastern Health Board official.
Shortly after her departure, she was appointed co-ordinator/supervisor on a North/ South project at the Negru Voda orphanage in Romania. "She has the experience, maturity, interpersonal skills and presentation to relate to a wide range of age groups and abilities ... I would have no hesitation whatsoever should the occasion present itself in the future to have Nora as part of any of our programmes. She was quietly dedicated to the tasks in hand," was one summation. "She was quiet, solid, and got the work done, but apart from that was unremarkable. You wouldn't really notice her much," was another.
She continued working throughout the 1990s, often doing voluntary shifts in places such as the Back Lane hostel for men run by the Society of St Vincent de Paul at Christchurch in Dublin, until the rape allegations were made. Those who encountered her during those times remember an articulate, quiet woman, who seemed confident that the truth would emerge, and placed a huge amount of faith in religion. She always said she never blamed those who made the allegations against her. After all, she had brought them up.
Her social circle is small, outside of her family, but this did not stop the local community rallying around the family during the toughest times. "She held her head up while she was going into the court, she wasn't covering herself with newspapers like the criminals that go into court on those kinds of charges," said her cousin, Paddy Joe Ryan, the former head of the Waterford County Board of the GAA, in an interview with Billy McCarthy on Waterford local station WLR fm recently. "The support of the community was unbelievable – nobody believed that any of it was true."