Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 11 — Dundalk

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Physical abuse


Emmett,4 who was in St Joseph’s as a boy from the early 1970s, described a frightening ordeal to which he was subjected in a very cruel punishment, when he was put into a small cupboard known as ‘the black hole’: The black hole is an area which is situated in the basement of the convent, right beside the kitchen area. It is about three, maybe four by four square, and in height also. It is totally black. One was thrown into there kicking and screaming, not wanting to go there, terrified and wanting to get out because it is not a nice thing to go into and just being left there all night. Myself and my brother were put in there. Why I can’t recall. I was terrified being put in there, kicking and screaming, wanting to be let out ... whatever I have done wrong sorry, just let me out, let me out. My brother also tried to calm me down but I almost turned my anger out onto him ... all I knew was that this is totally wrong and bad to be done and there is nothing one could do about it. One kicked at the door to be let out and only to be told that if you keep kicking on the door you are going to stay in there much longer. It could be five minutes and at the time it was all night. An incident which happened in which I was in there all night on my own, Sr Sienna5 put me in there ... In the early hours, it must have been six around o’clock ... I heard a noise outside and I thought it was Sr Sienna and I said, “please let me out. I will be good, I am sorry for whatever I have done”, only for one of the kitchen staff to open the door and say to me, “what are you doing in there?” Naturally I would be so scared to say it to her, because I wouldn’t want to get her into trouble because God knows what the nuns would do to her. She says, “well okay I’ll let you out but don’t tell the nuns that I have let you out.” I would have clambered out of it and creeped and went straight upstairs to my bed. That would be one of the worst times that it happened. Another time ... I did kick and push the door to get out but Sr Sienna opened the door and gave me a slap, and of course gave (my brother) a slap just as bad ...


The ‘black hole’ may have been an alternative to corporal punishment, but this boy was so terrified by being locked in that dark recess that the experience was akin to psychological torture for him, as the nun must have known and intended.


He also recalled a humiliating incident when he was put into a girl’s dress by the Resident Manager, who paraded him throughout the School in front of all the other children and staff. He was about five years old at the time when this incident happened.


There was no evidence of dependence on corporal punishment to control children. There was an effort to make it a punishment of last resort, and the fact that the School maintained a punishment book for a considerable period of time indicates an intention to regulate corporal punishment. It also provides evidence that other forms of correction, such as losing privileges or being demoted, were used. Unfortunately, an informal system also operated, sometimes cruel, that undermined the value of the formal policy.


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.

  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.
  5. This is a pseudonym.
  6. This is a pseudonym.
  7. This is a pseudonym.
  8. This is a pseudonym.