Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 14 — St. Joseph’s Kilkenny

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The period 1933 to 1952


On 4th July 1944, Dr McCabe paid another visit to the School and found a generally well conducted school. She did not think the children were getting an adequate supply of milk and butter and insisted that it should be increased. She was still concerned about the lack of fire escapes, and wrote in detail about the dangers for the children in the dormitories, particularly the one situated over the domestic economy kitchen, where a fire could start. Dr McCabe found the children’s health to be good on this visit.


Following this inspection, by letter dated 5th August 1944, the Department Inspector wrote to the Resident Manager and requested that each child should receive a minimum of one pint of milk per day, together with the full amount of butter ration allowed by the Department of Supplies.


Because of the tragedy in Cavan, the Department was very concerned that all children could be safely evacuated in the event of a fire. The Inspector expressed the Minister’s grave concern that there was only one exit from a dormitory accommodating 21 children, which led to another dormitory accommodating 57 children, which in turn had two exits close together leading to the same corridor. It was evident to him that children in all of these dormitories would be trapped in the event of the corridor filling with heavy smoke. He requested that the Resident Manager immediately set about providing an adequate fire escape.


The Resident Manager responded, by letter dated 7th September 1944, that the children’s diet had been adjusted, and she was working in conjunction with the Resident Manager in the nearby St Patrick’s Industrial School, Kilkenny to resolve the fire escape problem and, by March 1945, the Inspector was able to report that the fire escape was in place.


In her inspection report dated 15th March 1945, Dr McCabe described the newly appointed Resident Manager, Sr Irma,1 as excellent. She noted a nurse had been appointed to take charge of the younger children and thought it was a step in the right direction.


For the next 10 years, Dr McCabe visited St Joseph’s, Kilkenny on an annual basis. Her reports about the School indicated an exceptionally high level of satisfaction with all aspects, and she was particularly enthusiastic about the Resident Manager, whom she described as very capable and someone who had added much to the School. A very efficient nursery was established for the very small children and added much to their comfort.


Two witnesses, who were resident in the Industrial School in the mid to late 1940s, gave evidence. The witnesses were siblings who were placed in care after the death of their mother. This was a period during which St Joseph’s was still operating as a traditional industrial school.


Although both witnesses experienced feelings of rejection at being placed in care, they were also aggrieved at what happened to them whilst in St Joseph’s. They described the upset at being separated from their brothers who were placed in another industrial school.


They both described Sr Elvira,2 who was a school teacher, as being particularly nasty and cruel. They said that she punished children for no apparent reason and also locked them in a cupboard without food or drink until late at night. This Sister left in the mid-1940s, and one of the witnesses said that things improved following her departure.


Both witnesses told of lay staff who were former pupils and who were left in charge of the children. One lay staff member was described as particularly nasty and is alleged to have kicked and beaten the children.


They also recalled the daily routine in the School, which involved getting up early in the morning, attending Mass, followed by breakfast and doing chores, which involved a lot of scrubbing and polishing.


It is clear from the annals of the Sisters of Charity that, from the mid-1940s, they were aware of the limitations of industrial school life on the development of the children. They saw that the restrictions placed on nuns by their profession narrowed their social contacts, and this affected the children who left the industrial schools ‘knowing nobody and knowing nothing of the ordinary etiquette of social life’.


Change began with the appointment in 1944 of the new Superior who was praised by Dr McCabe. Sr Irma was trained in child psychology and believed that the children should be encouraged to treat St Joseph’s as their home, given more freedom and trusted to go out alone.


These reflections by the Congregation on their own mission, together with the publication of the Cussen Report in Ireland and the Curtis Report in England, prompted the Sisters to draw up a five-year plan to implement change.


Among the changes were: Children were to be given much more freedom. Regimentation was to be abandoned, and the children were to be trusted and treated as individuals. There was to be more careful and sympathetic supervision by the Sisters, and they were to be encouraged to use their imagination with the children. Children were to be allowed out in small groups of two’s and three’s to replace the ‘dreary crocodile to shop with their pocket money, to go walking and on picnics and holiday excursions’. Efforts were to be made to keep siblings together, and children from the same family were to be given a table to themselves in the refectory. A new nursery unit was to be built.

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