Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 10 — Newtownforbes

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Sr Elena, who worked in the primary school, taught fifth and sixth classes combined, amounting to approximately 35 children. She commented on the difference between the industrial school children and the town children. She noted that the industrial school children lacked the advantage of coming from a home with all its attendant love and care and affection, and said that they were, ‘slower and more indifferent and hadn’t their heart in it all. They just came to school because they had to go to school’.


Furthermore, she felt that they had no ambition, whereas the day pupils from the town were very anxious to ‘get on’ and were progressive, and some of the industrial school children were very weak. She made extra efforts to help them but, with some children who were very bright and some who were weak in the same class, it made teaching difficult. She was sympathetic: I always thought, you see, they hadn’t the advantages of coming from a home. They were in the same environment all the time, surrounded by the same four walls, and I kept that before me to try and have them as good as the others, as possibly as good as the others.


She did not believe in ostracising weaker children and never kept children at the back of the class, or considered them dunces, as alleged by some of the complainants: I never did it because I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe in ostracising some children and saying they were dunces or branding them. I never did it, and that is why, you see, I was rather strict, maybe, and perhaps, I would say, harsh with them to try and bring them on and make them realise that they were as good as the next and that they could do it if they made an effort. That was always at the back of my mind.


Sr Elena disputed the contention made by some complainants that they learnt nothing while in school, and said that she ‘always insisted that they be able to read, write and spell and stand up for themselves’. She insisted: that was my motto, with taking an interest in them and working with them and perhaps pushing them and driving them, a lot of them they didn’t want to do it. That’s what I aimed at all the time. Any industrial school children, I don’t like using that word, but anyway – any of these children that I had in my class, they were treated the very same as every other child and I insisted that they did their homework and I took it and corrected it and showed them their mistakes. There was no exceptions made, and I would be harder on them, I suppose, than on the others because they had less sense. Some of them had no interest in themselves, whether they got on or whether they didn’t, but then as they would get older, they’d say, “I wasn’t taught” or “I wasn’t helped” or whatever the case may be.


Sr Elena said that she had no input into where the children went afterwards. She acknowledged that many of them went into domestic service. Her duty was to teach and she was confined to that, she had no say in anything else: You know, we just taught them and prepared them, and then outside of school there was two other Sisters with them who taught them husbandry and cleaning and all that to prepare them; exactly.


She could not discuss such matters with anyone in authority, not even the headmistress of the primary school, because ‘the headmistress had no interest in the Industrial School’.


When questioned further, she clarified that the headmistress was only interested in the day pupils and not the industrial school pupils. She did not approve of this attitude, but felt that she was in no position to challenge it, as she was a much more junior Sister and had no say: It wasn’t right. To me more time should be given with the children in the Industrial School than those coming from their homes because of the disadvantages that the industrial school children were under and what they were deprived of, of a home and parents and love and care, and all the rest of it.


Sr Elena said she was very much aware of the needs of the industrial school children, but claimed she was helpless to do anything because of the hierarchical system. Each of the Congregational witnesses acknowledged that the needs of the industrial school children were not met, although they differed on the reasons why. At Newtownforbes, the recommendation of the Cussen Commission to integrate industrial school children was implemented but the evidence of the complainants was that they were very aware at that time that the system discriminated against them.


Hannah, who was there from early 1940s to the mid-1950s, stated that she ‘didn’t get much schooling’, adding that she ‘was a very slow child’. Her lack of schooling resulted in her not being able to read and write to the present day. She explained her illiteracy as follows: I wasn’t taught to read and write because, as I said, perhaps I was a slow child and I didn’t get that care like the other children did. The other children got more care than me, I do not know why. Is it because I was abandoned or I didn’t have anybody, I do not know? My education was non-existent.


When she left the School, she got a job as a domestic in England working for a lady who looked after her like a daughter and with whom she spent 10 years.


Her lack of education, she said, had ruined her life: I can’t say I can’t get on with my life, but I could have been anything. I want to be somebody but I can’t. Even the college I go to now, I get great support from them, not from the Irish Government. I don’t get any help at all. It has just blighted my life.


She added: I just want to know why, why I wasn’t educated and why I wasn’t looked after as a normal human being, you know.


She explained further: I was going to go on for nursing but the education stopped me, the reading and writing. The barrier was – I couldn’t cope at all with it. I was failing all the exams and it just was dreadful. And that was something I wanted to do in life and I didn’t get the opportunity.


Sarah, the witness who was beaten with a ruler for using her left hand, said that as a result of this treatment and her consequent fear, she was unable to learn anything in school and was put sitting at the back of the class: Because I was left handed and I really couldn’t learn nothing, I was just living in fear in that place, you know. That is all I remember about school, sitting in the back of the class, not with all the other children in the front.


She said that, when she was taken out of the School at the age of eight years and returned to her mother, she attended the National School on Baggot Street, where she was put into a baby class where ‘children were playing with sand’.

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  4. Dr Anna McCabe was the Department of Education Inspector for most of the relevant period.
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