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Chapter 10 — Newtownforbes

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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.


From the age of 14 years onwards, Sr Casey said the girls worked in different areas of the School, including the farm, the laundry and the bakery. She recalled hearing the girls singing while they were scrubbing the cloisters. However, the evidence given was that the girls were carrying out this type of work long before they were 14 years of age. The Sisters of Mercy stated that ‘children of all ages carried out domestic chores according to what was considered suitable to their age’.


Many of the witnesses complained of the hard physical work known as chores which they had to do in the School as children.


Rachel recounted that they ‘had to work very, very hard’. She gave evidence of the type of work that was part of the daily routine of the Industrial School. From the age of seven or eight years, she said she was on her knees scrubbing and polishing floors, cloisters and big dormitories. When she was 10 or 11 years, her main chore was looking after the babies, which entailed getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning to wash and dress them and to wash their sheets if they had been soiled, as there were no nappies. She had to look after approximately nine or 10 babies in one dormitory. She slept in the dormitory with them.


Rachel said that there were three girls looking after the babies and toddlers, one for each of the three dormitories. In the mornings, she had to wash and dress the babies, and give them their breakfast of porridge, all before she went to school. No adult, lay staff or nun slept in the dormitory with the babies. When she went to school, two nuns, one of whom was very old, would look after the babies. Once school was finished for the day, she had to go back to look after these young children and take them out to the yard to play. At 5 o’clock, she had to get the children washed and ready for bed before she had her own tea. From 7 to 9 o’clock in the evening, the witness described that she had her study time and then, at 9 o’clock, she went back to the children. At midnight, a nun rang the bell and she got the babies up to put them on their potties. The routine was the same at weekends. Rachel commented that a doctor had told her that she was a mother before she was a child, ‘I find I am living my childhood through my little three year old granddaughter’.

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