Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 10 — Newtownforbes

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Physical abuse


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.


The Sisters of Mercy submitted annual reports to the Department of Education on the School’s activities spanning the period 1938 to 1958. These reports do not reflect the views expressed by the Inspector in February 1940 which raised the issue of bruising on the bodies of girls in the infirmary. In these reports, the Sisters were eager to satisfy the Department that the most cordial and friendly of relations existed between staff and pupils. The 1941 report stated ‘Nothing but the most cordial and friendly relations exist’. In 1948, it was noted that ‘A very happy homely spirit prevails between nuns and pupils’.


In some years, the annual reports refer to punishments, including the ‘Deprivation of Treats’, which was considered ‘seldom necessary’, or being placed at a separate table in the dining hall, or being given a ‘small charge instead of Recreation, or, Transcribing some papers of Literature’. The 1944 report noted that: the greatest punishment of all is to be brought under the notice of the Superior, on her making visits to the school, their faults made known to her. And thus their good name gone.


In 1947, the report noted that ‘Junior Children receive a “Motherly slap” on their arm’. The 1948 report commented that ‘junior children receive a light slap or a caution’ or they could be ‘Brought before Superior and their good name gone’.


These reports indicate that the Sisters of Mercy were aware of proper standards of punishment. The wording of these reports is very similar and repetitive so their value is questionable.


A respondent witness, Sr Francesca, who worked in the Industrial School for nearly 20 years, gave evidence. The picture that emerged was that the large numbers in the School meant that discipline and control were important issues in the management of the School: Well, you had to be formal with them and strict. You had to be, not harsh with them, no, but I’d say formal with them.


She added that another way of being formal was to impose a rule of silence at night in the dormitories. She said slapping was always a last resort and that she would avoid slapping the children if she could. Treats were used as an enticement for the children to behave. When children had to be slapped, she conceded that she did slap them with a stick or a cane or a ruler on the hands. She also acknowledged that they would be placed in a small room, for a period of half an hour to an hour as punishment. One such room was known as St Rourke’s.


She said some children went through the School and were never slapped, and she disputed allegations that beatings were constant: ... if you take a 100 children, invariably somebody is going to be punished, but I wouldn’t say it was constant beating.


Sr Francesca attributed much of the blame to the Department and the medical profession, for not providing the nuns with better advice on how to deal with the problem of bed-wetting.


She added: ... in hindsight and from experience I really feel that slapping children was not the solution or the answer, and I am sorry I ever did it. I don’t think I would do it now or I wouldn’t do it now.


The other respondent witness, Sr Elena, said that corporal punishment was necessary at times. Corporal punishment was also a deterrent against bad behaviour: with the threat of punishment, the pupils were more likely to co-operate and behave in class. She admitted that she used corporal punishment in the class by slapping with a cane or ruler. She claimed that she was strict but fair, and worked in the best interests of furthering the education of the children. To this end, she agreed that discipline and corporal punishment were part of the regime and necessary. In evidence, she stated: ... They appreciated discipline in the class very, very much and they worked very favourably with me and we got on. There was a good rapport between us, even though I was strict, but they knew I worked for their good and that was my one aim, to help every child as possibly best I could.


However, she disputed that corporal punishment was something that was used on a daily basis. She said she had noticed a cane one day: and I said I will bring in this today, and if they see it in my hand it might keep them a bit quiet, they will sit down. They will know that I am on high today.


Further, she acknowledged that she treated the industrial school children differently: I know you would have to be strict, very strict with them because learning and school and books wasn’t their forte.


Sr Elena also admitted that she was exacting in her standards in the classroom, particularly with regard to homework, and if children did not have their homework done she would give them ‘a smack now and again’. She acknowledged that she was more exacting with the children from the Industrial School.

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