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Chapter 10 — Newtownforbes

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Physical abuse


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.


The Sisters of Mercy acknowledged that corporal punishment was not confined to the classroom, but Sr Casey did not have any personal experience of what occurred in the Industrial School.


Other forms of punishment were resorted to in Newtownforbes. Such punishments included putting a child sitting alone at a ‘punishment table’ or putting her to the back of the classroom. Witnesses also made reference to children being placed in a small room on their own as a punishment. Sr Casey confirmed that a room known as St Rourke’s did exist in Newtownforbes, although she was not able to identify which of two possible rooms it was. She confirmed that children were confined in this room as a punishment.


Speaking from her own experience in the primary school, Sr Casey said that punishable offences would have included being late for class, attempting to answer back or not knowing lessons. However, she said that she did not really know what was considered a serious enough offence to warrant being referred to the Resident Manager.


Sr Casey recalled seeing the industrial school children being slapped. She stated: One Sister slapped children from the industrial school on the knuckles. This seemed wrong to me then and as I look back now, even more so. I recall another Sister who slapped too much and for what seemed little reason.


During the hearing, she elaborated further by saying: The punishment at times took a level that I would have deemed to be unacceptable and I just wish to repeat what we have already said as Sisters of Mercy, that we really deeply regret and apologise for any hurt and damage that was caused to the children that passed through our schools.


Sr Casey also acknowledged that bed-wetting was a problem and children were slapped for bed-wetting. She emphasised, however, that it was only the older girls who were slapped, and that children under eight years of age were not punished for wetting the bed.


She said that there was very little understanding about the whole problem of bed-wetting, its causes and the shame associated with it. One of the other solutions used at that time was to deprive the children of a drink after a certain hour in the evening.


She was questioned about the rationale for slapping, and the policy of withholding fluids in the evening, as neither approach appeared to have had an effect on resolving the problem. She could not shed any light on whether these practices were even questioned.


Sr Casey had spoken to Sisters about whether head-shaving was used as a punishment. She said: I spoke to Sisters about that and the majority wouldn’t have remembered shaving of hairs being used as a punishment. In the course of conversation though with one she felt that it may have been used but nobody could tell me for certain that it was used. They could say that shaving of the hair was not uncommon when children became infested with lice, or whatever. But the Sisters would have offered me the view that it wasn’t used as a punishment.


No punishment book was kept in Newtownforbes at any time during its history, and this fact was confirmed by Sr Casey. In addition, there were no letters or documents dealing with instances of physical punishment discovered to the Investigation Committee. However, the Department of Education discovery indicated that the Department Inspector was concerned that the children were being mistreated in the early 1940s.


Dr Anna McCabe4 visited the School in 1940 and had noticed in the infirmary that there was bruising on many of the girls’ bodies. In her letter of 12th February 1940 to the Reverend Mother of the School, Sr Lucia, she stated: I was not satisfied in finding so many of the girls in the Infirmary suffering from bruises on their bodies. I wish particularly to draw attention to the latter as under no circumstances can the Department tolerate treatment of this nature and you being responsible for the care of these children will have some difficulty in avoiding censure.


The discovery contained no response to this letter, suggesting no reply was written by the Reverend Mother. The Sisters of Mercy contended that the letter of 12th February 1940 from Dr McCabe had not in fact been sent, as no such letter was found in their archive. The Congregation also said that it had been unaware of these allegations of neglect until these documents were furnished to it by the Commission as part of the discovery process in 2004. It acknowledged, once it had seen these documents, that it was ‘deeply disturbed’ and it accepted the negative reports of the Department.

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