Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 10 — Newtownforbes

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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.


Another consequence of this two-tier system was that background information on a child, when she was admitted, was not passed down the line to the Sisters working in the School. The theory behind this policy was that all children would be treated equally if personal details were not known, but it meant that children who came from particularly tragic or traumatic backgrounds received no special care or attention. This ‘one size fits all’ approach was not appropriate for meeting the emotional needs of children in care.

Physical abuse


The Sisters of Mercy in their Opening Statement and in evidence at the Investigation Committee Phase I public hearing conceded that ‘corporal punishment was a feature of industrial school life’. They also acknowledged that: Slapping was the principal form of punishment administered with a cane or a stick by the sister in charge or on duty or in more extreme cases by the Resident Manager.


Furthermore, it was accepted that ‘most children would have experienced corporal punishment at some time during their time in the industrial school’. This, they conceded would ‘undoubtedly have had a traumatic effect on the children’. The Provincial of the Western Province of the Sisters of Mercy, Sr Casey, who gave evidence at the Phase I public hearing, also conceded that the regime in Newtownforbes was harsh and did not take into account the individual needs of the children. She said: We also accept that some of the children who experienced this regime, not merely as harsh and impersonal, but that they experienced it as abusive and humiliating. We are deeply sorry that this is the situation and we would like to add our and share in the public apology already made earlier this year by our Congregation leader ... to the children who were in our industrial school and who are now adults if what they experienced was this.


Punishment could be administered by any member of staff and was not confined to the Resident Manager alone. Sr Casey said: Corporal punishment was a feature of the life in the Industrial School, and the primary school, I suppose, as well. Slapping with the cane or a stick was the usual way that this corporal punishment would have been administered. It was usually administered by the person who was in charge, more often than not on the spot. In the primary school, which I can just speak of for myself, it would have been in the presence of other people. If it was a serious offence it was the Resident Manager that punished. I do know from speaking with the Sister who minded the small babies that she said that she couldn’t slap, it was one of two other Sisters that could slap if a punishment was needed. But it is likely that most of the children that went through the school would have experienced corporal punishment at some stage.


Sr Casey also asserted that, from 1956 onwards, the Resident Manager forbade the novices to slap any of the children in the Industrial School.


Corporal punishment was inflicted by means of a stick or a cane. Sr Casey said that, in her experience from the primary school, the cane was not carried about by the Sisters: The stick or the ruler would have been there on the teacher’s desk so then if the Sister needed to administer it for whatever reason it was there at her hand.

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