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Chapter 10 — Newtownforbes

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Three respondent witnesses had been due to give evidence to the Committee, but one was unable to do so because of illness. The two witnesses who did give evidence had spent long periods of time working in Newtownforbes. These witnesses were aged 84 and 85 years respectively at the time of the hearings. One of these witnesses, Sr Francesca2, had worked exclusively in the Industrial School from 1946 to 1963. The other witness, Sr Elena3, had taught in the primary school from 1947 to 1963 and had no direct contact with the Industrial School itself.


Sr Margaret Casey, the Provincial of the Western Province of the Sisters of Mercy, gave evidence at the Phase I and Phase III public hearings in respect of Newtownforbes. As a child, she and her family lived directly across the road from the Industrial School at Newtownforbes, and they were therefore familiar with the children who attended there. In addition, she attended the same primary school as the industrial school children.


The convent in Newtownforbes was an autonomous unit from 1871 to 1979. The nuns who worked in Newtownforbes were entirely responsible for the management, financing and administration of the School. In particular, the Resident Manager and the Sisters who worked in the School were appointed from the Newtownforbes convent, and no other source of staffing was available.


In 1979, there were six such independent Sisters of Mercy convents in operation in the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise. These six convents were subsumed into a single diocesan unit with a revised governance structure in 1979. This occurred with all the Sisters of Mercy convents that were in operation in all the dioceses throughout the country. In 1994, the 26 independent diocesan units in the country merged to become a single Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, which is in existence to the present day. Within this organisation structure, there is one Congregational Leadership and a Provincial Leadership Team for each of the four Provinces in the State.


The Superior of the convent at Newtownforbes was also the Resident Manager of the Industrial School. One Resident Manager’s period in office spanned 22 consecutive years, from 1947 until the closure of the School in 1969. All of the Resident Managers for the time period under review are deceased.


A total of 30 nuns were in the convent but, at any given time, approximately five or six of them were of retirement age and unavailable for work.


The number of nuns who worked in the Industrial School ranged from five, in 1935, to nine in the period from 1945 to 1955. The remaining nuns were involved in teaching in the primary and the secondary schools and working in the bakery, the public laundry and on the farm. Each nun who worked in the Industrial School had a designated role, such as looking after the babies, working in the kitchen and other duties. Only two Sisters worked full-time in the Industrial School from the mid-1940s to the 1960s, and they were responsible for the day-to-day care of the children. One of them was involved in the general running of the Industrial School, and the other was primarily concerned with the provision of clothing. These two nuns slept in the Industrial School itself.


No records exist as to the number of lay staff who worked in the Industrial School. The 1966 General Inspection report of the Medical Inspector, Dr Lysaght, who reported to the Department of Education, noted ‘no lay helpers in this school’. At the Phase I public hearing, Sr Margaret Casey acknowledged that they had very little information on the number of lay staff, but said there appeared to have been ‘at least one or two’. She also acknowledged that, at different intervals, some former pupils remained on as lay staff and assisted the nuns in the Industrial School.


A former nun, Sr Elena, who had taught in the primary school for a period of approximately 16 years, provided useful information on the workings of the Community and the interaction between the Reverend Mother and the Sisters: ... We ... had no say in anything in the Community. It was ruled, it was governed from the top, just a select few that’s all.


The upper echelon of the Community, she said, consisted of four nuns: the Reverend Mother, the Mother Assistant, the Bursar and the Novice Mistress. She referred to them as the ‘elite’. These four nuns, it seems, governed the workings of the entire Community of the Sisters of Mercy at Newtownforbes. The remaining Sisters outside this inner circle had no voice or authority regarding the operation of their Community. Sr Elena described the role played by the remaining Sisters as: ‘you followed blindly and dumbly’.


In effect, the organisational structure operating at Newtownforbes was a two-tier system, with the Reverend Mother and three other nuns at the top, and the remaining nuns at the base. As Sr Elena stated, ‘You had the elite and you had the everyday folk’.


She became disillusioned with this system and eventually left the Sisters of Mercy in 1973.


The ethos of the Sisters of Mercy lent itself to the creation of this two-tier system. One of the essential rules of the Sisters of Mercy was the vow of obedience. In particular, Rule 28 of the 1926 Constitution, which is replicated in Chapter 7 of the 1954 Constitution, states: The Sisters are always to bear in mind that by the vow of obedience they have forever renounced their own will and resigned it to the direction of their Superiors. They are to obey the Mother Superior as holding her authority from God rather through love than from servile fear. They shall love and respect her as their mother, without her permission they shall not perform public penances.


Rule 29 of the 1926 Constitution takes this a step further and states: They are to execute without hesitation all the directions of the Mother Superior, whether in matters of great or little moment agreeable or disagreeable. They shall never murmur but with humility and spiritual joy carry the sweet yoke of Jesus Christ.


This rule meant each Sister was expected to follow unquestioningly the will of the Reverend Mother. In particular, it hindered her ability to question the system or to suggest improvements if she disagreed with certain aspects of the management and administration of the School. At the Phase III public hearing, Sr Casey was questioned on the impact that the vow of obedience had on a Sister’s ability to question her Superior on how a school such as Newtownforbes was being run. Sr Casey conceded that it was not the done thing to question authority at that time. She said: But it would have been true, as well, that out of the obedience that it wouldn’t have been the accepted or the norm for somebody to complain to the person in authority about how the place was being run, because to do so would have been seen not merely as a kind of personal failing but it would also have shown that in some way that their inability to cope with the challenges of religious life.

  1. This is a pseudonym.
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  4. Dr Anna McCabe was the Department of Education Inspector for most of the relevant period.
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