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Chapter 11 — Dundalk

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Physical abuse


Date Offence By Whom Reported Punishment Remarks on the Case
August 1947 Disobedient, sulky and muttering when corrected. Troublesome to the Sisters in P. School. Principal Teacher and also Miss A.6 Kept from going to see Procession and celebration of St Patrick’s Centenary. These 5 girls seem to be leagued together to give trouble.
September 1947 Refused to do her charge. Impertinent to teacher. Miss B.7 Just insisted on its being done.
September 1947 Attacked each other quarrelling over something In the presence of all the children in Dining Hall. [Pupil] slapped by Sister Sienna. Not much improvement.
October 1947 Separated from teacher when out walking, went a different road. Teacher who was in charge. Not allowed out following Sunday.
October 1947 Left school without permission in early morning. Went out to the country. Missed by everyone. Had to be followed by teachers in a motor. No punishment given.
October 1947 Hid all day in the attic. Only missed when the children came to dinner. Missed from dining, then reported to Guards. No punishment given.

Neglect and emotional abuse


The Congregation does not dispute the evidence that there was neglect for a period in the 1940s at St Joseph’s. It acknowledges with regret the criticisms contained in the 1944 and 1946 Reports by the Department of Education Inspector. It points out, however, that after 1946 conditions improved and the neglect of the earlier years never re-emerged in St Joseph’s. In making this assertion, it relies on the Inspection Reports after 1946.


The Sisters of Mercy also acknowledged the failure to meet the educational needs of the children and conceded that, ‘it is undoubtedly the case that the method of education provided was inadequate for the needs of many of the children’. They accepted the fact that many of the girls left the School with only a basic level of primary education. The Congregation also recognised the resentment of many former pupils that they had been given narrow employment opportunities. They further conceded ‘the full potential of many of the children in the school ‘was not realised, and that this has caused great suffering’.


The witness complained about being belittled: I always remember (the teacher) would say you are the lowest of the low, you are the worst of the worst. We would often go out to the grass and try to see what the lowest low was, how low could you put your hands ... That was constant. We were never encouraged to think beyond the four walls that we were in.


The staff did not do what the children needed in order to feel secure and loved: it was the psychological abuse that was generally meted out because people didn’t see children as children. We weren’t people, we were kind of fodder and nobody thought enough to give us a hug or love us, or do anything that would have made our lives better. ... I am not saying they were psychologically abusive. What I am saying is that they didn’t know how to look after children, they took on a job they were incapable of doing.


Elaine summed up how she felt on leaving St Joseph’s with the simple phrase, ‘we were there for the duration and turfed out on the streets then’.


She could forgive the poor food and conditions, but found it hard to forgive the emotional abuse and lack of love shown to the children: But the food was bad. Although I don’t blame the nuns on the food, I don’t blame them in that. In my own reading in history we did have the war and there was the rations, I don’t blame them for that. What I always get annoyed with and I find no forgiveness was the psychological abuse and the lack of love. That would have cost them nothing. A kind word. But there was that constant – we were psychologically abused, like, whatever it was about poor unmarried mothers. I am glad it doesn’t happen today.


Issues of identity and family featured prominently in the evidence of all three complainants.


Elaine was born in a home for unmarried mothers and transferred at the age of three years to St Joseph’s, where she remained until she reached 16. When her first child was born, she began to search for information about her own mother, a quest which continued on and off for 30 years, with the help of her children. At the end of her search, in the mid-1990s, an elderly nun in St Joseph’s produced from her papers a letter written by the witness’s mother 50 years earlier, and this letter was sent to her along with other papers released on threat of court proceedings. This letter was a source of comfort and reassurance, and eased the sense of abandonment experienced by the witness down through the years. She explained: Well, my belief is that I was transferred to St Joseph’s Orphanage in Dundalk and my mother was never told. The only reason I know she was never told was because later on in 1946 she writes to the convent and she is looking to know where her daughter is. She is wanting to know would they mind if [she] sent me a little something ... I just believe that she should have been told ... It is the only letter. But she is quite upset about it, she‘s heartbroken in that letter. There is one line in it that says “next thing I know the baby is gone”. That jumps out any time I read it.


Elaine was resentful that society had enforced the separation of mother and child because of its intolerance of illegitimacy. She was also told erroneously that her mother was dead. In fact, she died much later and could have seen her grandchildren. She recalled being told that her mother was dead and experiencing no reaction. She said, ‘What do you do? I mean I’d never had a mother up to that. I didn’t cry or I don’t remember crying. They were just words’.


Sr Sienna who had been Resident Manager had meticulously retained papers relating to the witness, including this letter. Elaine was grateful that the Sister had preserved them but was frustrated when she would not hand them over. Only the threat of court proceedings forced their production. There was no understanding that children needed and were entitled to information about their families. She said: Originally when my first baby was born, and that would have been in the mid 1960s, I had gone back to the orphanage because the orphanage was still open and I was literally told to get on with my life. I wasn’t told who I was or anything like that. I did want to know because I had a child then and motherly instincts must have told me I had a mother and she must have had some feelings too.


She greatly treasured the letter which recorded her mother’s concern: ... I was absolutely thrilled to get it. Even though it hurts it is a letter that – I will always treasure it, it is heartbreaking. She couldn’t tell anyone, she was like myself she was alone. I did better than her I ended up with a family I could have. I do treasure the letter it says a lot. It says little but it says an awful lot. As I say, there is one line in it "the next thing I know the baby is gone". She doesn’t know and it is heartbreaking that somebody could take her child and not tell her.


Jane was originally detained with her sister and a cousin in an industrial school in the West of Ireland. She was transferred first to the Midlands, and then to St Joseph’s, without her other family members. The reason for this separation was not apparent. The result was a complete loss of contact with her sister and cousin. When asked about them she replied, ‘I really don’t know now, they probably just made their own way on over to England or Australia, whatever’.


Emmett was one of a large family, all but one of whom were sent to industrial schools. He was in St Joseph’s for five years, and was less than four years of age on admission. He went on to another institution, about which he was positive in his recollections, but described how he had become institutionalised, with consequent difficulties in maintaining relationships, including those with his brothers and sisters.


He described his need to form attachments, and he expressed this in a letter he wrote in 1986 to the Resident Manager: I was just thinking to myself, as I have always thought, of that I can never say that I never had a mother and father because I have had that, and that’s you and Fr Burke.8 Just like all mums and dads, you fed me, clothed me, taught me to read and write, brought me on holidays. I will never forget and loads more and I love you both and always will.

  1. This is a pseudonym.
  2. Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Third Interim Report, December 2003.
  3. This is a pseudonym.
  4. This is a pseudonym.
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  8. This is a pseudonym.