Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 10 — Newtownforbes

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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’.


A different attitude was expressed by another witness, Rachel, who had no complaints about the quality of the education and who obtained the Primary Certificate. In fact, she said she ‘loved school because it was an escape from work’.


At Phase I, Sr Casey acknowledged that the children were engaged in ‘significant amounts of domestic work, as well as other work in the laundry, in the farm, in the bakery, depending on their age’. She acknowledged the effect that this would have had on them: So this undoubtedly would have impacted on the children. In fact, the children could easily have felt that their lives were thwarted and stunted by this type of regime.


The chores which the children were required to do were, according to the Sisters of Mercy, ‘perceived as being part of their industrial training’. The main complaint of the witnesses was the vast amount of physical work that they had to do. The argument put forward by the Sisters of Mercy was that such work formed part of the Domestic Economy Course, which each girl from 14 years of age was required to undertake. The course included subjects such as needlework, cookery, laundry, housewifery and dressmaking. The Reports of School Activities which cover the years 1938 to 1958, which were submitted to the Department of Education annually by the Resident Manager, make reference to these subjects. The 1948 report said: These girls take their turns in assisting in their own school kitchen and dining hall, prepare trays up for their friends. Assist under the direct supervision of a nun in the bathing and toilet of young children. Also in sweeping, dusting of convent parlour and halls, washing tiles, answering hall doors to prepare them for their future employment.

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