Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 10 — Newtownforbes

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Physical abuse


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.


This evidence confirmed Sr Casey’s impression from her own recollection of national school that industrial school children were treated more harshly.


Thirteen witness statements were furnished to the Investigation Committee on behalf of the Sisters of Mercy. These 13 statements were from nuns who had taught in the primary school. Each of them stated that corporal punishment was used in the School but it was not ‘in any way constant or excessive’. All of their statements repeated the words: corporal punishment was used only as correction for misbehaviour. It was not administered for trivial reasons or for no reason at all.


Four of the 13 Sisters who submitted witness statements were in Newtownforbes serving as postulants in the early 1940s, the time when Dr Anna McCabe was highly critical of the Institution. Yet, each of these nuns claimed that the children were well cared for. It is impossible to reconcile these Sisters’ memories of Newtownforbes with the documented material. The repetition of the words ‘corporal punishment was used only as correction for misbehaviour’ was formulaic and defensive and tended to undermine the independence of the statements.


The witnesses who appeared before the Committee complained of severe physical abuse, including beatings. They claimed that such beatings were administered for bed-wetting, not knowing schoolwork, talking, and other behaviours. Bed-wetting


One witness, Sarah,5 resident in Newtownforbes in the late 1940s to the early 1950s, vividly recalled being hit by a nun around the head for wetting the bed. She said that anyone who wet the bed was punished by a beating with a stick or a slap around the head. The punishment was administered there and then. They were told that they were ‘stupid’ or were called ‘an amadán’ or ‘an eejit’, anything to make them feel ‘degraded’.


One witness, Hannah,6 resident in Newtownforbes from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, also recalled getting ‘unmerciful beatings for wetting the bed’. The residents would have to display their wet sheets to the nuns and then they would be beaten.


Sarah recalled being beaten with the side of a ruler on her knuckles for attempting to write with her left hand: I went to pick up a pencil with my left hand and I got the ruler, not the flat of the ruler, the side of the ruler on the back of the hand, on the knuckles to make sure that, you know, you didn’t do that again.


Another witness, Rachel,7 resident in Newtownforbes from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, also alleged that she was beaten for not learning passages from the Bible in school. On this occasion, the nun who was teaching her, Sr Carla8, kept her back after class and swung her around by the hair until she had lumps in her hair. As a result of being kept behind after class, this witness was late for her dinner and so she was hit on her back with a cane by the nun in charge of the dining hall, Sr Paola9.


Hannah recalled that she was beaten for not knowing her lessons, or not getting them right in school, or not being able to read. She alleged that a cane or a strap was used to beat them with. She alleged that they were beaten on the hands with the cane, a ruler or the leather strap.


Rachel recalled being beaten with a belt by a nun, Sr Paola, as she and two other girls had fallen asleep in the same bed together. The next morning, they got another beating with a cane by a different nun, Sr Francesca. They were then aged about 10 or 11 years. This witness also took issue with the documents from the Sisters of Mercy stating that the children received a ‘light slap’. She said they got a beating and not a light slap.


1 .In the absence of documentary evidence, it is not possible to reach conclusions as to whether the corporal punishment used in Newtownforbes was so excessive or pervasive as to amount to abuse. Documentation would have provided contemporary evidence about the extent to which corporal punishment was used, and the policy of the authorities as to its use. Without it, the evidence presents two conflicting accounts. Ex-residents who gave evidence indicated that it was widespread and severe, and was administered for trivial offences, not just serious breaches of discipline. The Sisters of Mercy, on the other hand, did not dispute that corporal punishment was a feature of life in the School, and that children were slapped with a cane, a ruler or a leather strap, however they believed it was not excessive or abusive, but appropriate for the time. 2.Older children were physically punished for bed-wetting. Ignorance was no excuse for the mismanagement of nocturnal enuresis in this way. Whilst blame must attach to the Department of Education’s Medical Inspector for failing to address the issue, the Sisters should have informed themselves of current thinking about how to deal with the problem. 3.Other forms of punishment besides corporal punishment could be abusive when they caused humiliation, rejection or fear. 4.The letter of Dr McCabe in February 1940 referring to bruising on children’s bodies is disturbing. Sisters who were in Newtownforbes at the time gave evidence that the children were well cared for. None of them appeared to have been aware that children had been mistreated in the School. 5.In the national school, the Industrial School children were treated more harshly than the town children. One of the Sisters who taught in the School claimed that she had to be more severe on these children and appeared to defend this severity as being necessary. 6.Despite the Department’s regulations forbidding the use of corporal punishment for failure at lessons, it was used for that purpose. Neglect



The picture of the School that emerges from the Department’s records is one of serious neglect in the early years under review. A letter dated 12th February 1940 to the Resident Manager of the School from the Department’s Medical Inspector, Dr Anna McCabe, reveals the appalling neglect of the children. In this letter, Dr McCabe expressed her disappointment at the ‘lack of supervision’ in the School and, more importantly, her dismay at the filthy dirty condition of the children: I cannot find any excuse which would exonerate you and your staff from the verminous condition of several of the children’s heads.


Dr McCabe was highly critical ‘in finding so many of the girls in the Infirmary suffering from bruises on their bodies’, stating, ‘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’.


Further neglect was noted in this letter by the ‘untreated abscess I discovered in the child in the Infirmary’. She attributed the cause of the serious neglected state of the children to the lack of adequate and appropriate supervision by the nuns. She prevailed upon the Resident Manager to take immediate action to remedy these problems, particularly by increasing staff numbers to ensure stricter supervision. No further action was taken by Dr McCabe except for the threat of taking the ‘matter further’ if the situation did not improve by her next visit.

  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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