Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 11 — Dundalk

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Following Dr McCabe’s departure from her post in 1965, Dr Lysaght carried out a full inspection on 24th March 1966. In his lengthy report he remarked that: There is a kindly & intimate atmosphere in this comparatively small school which makes up for its old fashioned & rough furniture and equipment. The fact that the numbers are low and the buildings not fully occupied tend to make it feel bland by comparison with more compact building or one in which all the rooms are occupied. Much could be done to bring it up to date by way of say modern beds.


The next inspection, by Dr Lysaght, did not take place until November 1971. The state of affairs existing in the School at that time are outlined with some acerbity as follows: Two elderly nuns are mainly responsible for the running of this school, both spent practically all their religious life in this one school on this same work ... It seems as if the school staggered on for years with little interest or encouragement from the Department. It was left to the Sisters themselves to make a break-through when, in 1967, they embarked on major works of alterations and improvements. I understand that was primarily sparked off by the election, in 1966, of a new Reverend Mother, who has given this work her whole-hearted interest, sympathy and practical support. Until her arrival, (two sisters) admitted to me that they felt this school was virtually a barracks!


In April 1973, the Inspector noted the change in the type of child who was resident there, remarking in his report on the fact that ‘Dundalk seems to have more than its quota of slow learners and retarded pupils’.


The report of March 1976 is very complimentary of the work of the Resident Manager, in achieving a high degree of stability for the children and in creating a warm and friendly environment for them. Interestingly, the Department Inspector noted: This establishment is a text book example of the people playing the more important role than the building. The children were all very happy and relaxed with their staff both Lay and Religious – they were able to talk and play freely without any inhibitions.


Contrasting views were expressed by Department Inspectors. Dr Lysaght amended his 1976 report in complimentary remarks: This was a worthwhile and valid visit where one could state objectively that the present Child Care practices are geared towards the interest of the children, there is a healthy happy atmosphere ...


However, when the School was next inspected by Mr Graham Granville in February 1977 he was very critical: the Resident Manager ... has endeavoured to operate a residential children’s home for a very long time now under extremely exacting and formidable conditions within her own community ... is now showing signs of being a sick person and tired. The children are not suffering unduly at present, nevertheless, the future is very uncertain, and I would see a grave risk to the children’s safety if there were to be fire, and combine this lack of enthusiasm towards the children’s social and academic development and one has certain crucial problems, that cannot be over looked.


The Department’s view of the School in an internal memorandum dated February 1977 considered the School to be inadequate on a number of fronts. It listed the concerns of the Department, namely the condition of the outside of the building; the need for decorating the inside; the inadequate maintenance of health records; contact with local schools; assessment procedures; co-operation with social workers; contact with parents; and the very inadequate fire precautions. The list of requirements was considered formidable, and the Department saw it as a matter of urgency to decide what had to be done with the School. Because of these factors and the falling numbers, the eventual decision taken was to close the School, which came about in 1983.


Elaine, a witness who spent her entire childhood from aged three to 16 years in the Institution in the 1940s and 1950s, was able to recall the living conditions. She was born in a home for unmarried mothers in Dublin and, at the age of three, transferred to St Joseph’s as a voluntary admission. Her earliest memories of the School were from age seven. She described life in the School as being ‘dull ... grey. Nobody cared ... The food was awful’. She said there was very little meat and the dinners consisted mainly of soup and potatoes.


She criticised the clothing. She was given a set of summer clothes in April that had to last right through until September and October, with the result that she was often frozen. Her dress was made of calico. All the children suffered from chilblains. The jumpers and stockings which the children knitted themselves did not keep them warm in the outside yard where they spent a lot of time. They wore their winter coats only when they went for walks on Sundays.


She described the daily chores that the children were required to do. She explained that every child was given a chore that was her special responsibility: There was two lasses looked after the kitchen ... Other girls would ... look after the convent ... There was one lassie that had the laundry ...We all had chores. Some had the kitchen duties, some was cleaning up the pantries and things like that. Mine was the youngsters, there wouldn’t have been many, not in today’s terms. It seemed an awful lot then and it seemed a big chore. You had to look after them. You combed their hair, you fine combed their hair and make sure there was no nits and things like that. We didn’t have any toothbrushes so we didn’t have to look after our teeth ...


She began this ‘child minding children’ from the age of about 10 or 11. She went on to explain the system: We would have lived on landings. Well there was the first landing, second and third landing. Mine would have been the charges on the third landing, they were the younger people ... They would have been maybe two to seven.


Elaine recollected that, when Dr McCabe would visit, everything would be lovely and clean. The beds would be dressed to perfection and the children would receive eggs twice a week for a few weeks prior to the visit by the Medical Inspector.


She spoke positively of the ‘Fairy Godmother’ system, introduced in the early 1950s, which was a programme for people from the area to take the children in the Institution out for an afternoon and take them to tea. They would also visit them at Christmas and Easter. She spoke with fondness of the godmother to whom she was sent. She also spoke favourably of the summer holidays spent at the nuns’ house in Carlingford. She recalled that, at the holiday home in Carlingford, there were some lovely nuns who did not work in the Institution.

Physical abuse


The position of the Congregation was that the first time they became aware of complaints about St Joseph’s was in October 1999, with the publication of Suffer the Little Children by Eoin O’Sullivan and Mary Raftery. In their Opening Statement the Congregation submitted: Allegations of abuse from former residents of St Joseph’s came as a source of deep shock to us, and particularly to the Sisters of the Dundalk Community, a number of whom had worked in the industrial school over the years, and were in regular contact with many former residents.


They went on to say: Former residents differ in their memory of the use of corporal punishment during their time in St Joseph’s. Some have painful memories of it and say they experienced it as excessive, others say it was not. While it is denied that excessive punishment was used in St Joseph’s, given the number of years covered by the period under review, together with the number of children in residence, it is unlikely that corporal punishment was not sometimes administered unfairly or harshly.

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  2. Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Third Interim Report, December 2003.
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