Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 14 — St. Joseph’s Kilkenny

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Positive witnesses


The second positive witness had been in care from the age of four, and was 12 years old when she arrived at St Joseph’s in the mid-1960s. From the start, she thought it was really good and settled in easily. She was placed in the red set with her sister, who was two years older. Mrs Dunphy17 was in charge and personally she found her nice, but thought she could be strict, and some younger children may have found her a bit cross. Discipline was enforced by stopping pocket money or not allowing children to view the film.


She remained in the red set until she was transferred to the green set two years before she left St Joseph’s. She did not ask for the transfer, but was pleased with the move and thought there was a very good atmosphere in the green set. Sr Tilda18 was in charge and she was kind to all the children. She was older by then and was allowed a lot more freedom. The girls were friendly and she was very involved in sports. She won All-Ireland camogie medals. She believed that every opportunity was given to her to develop in St Joseph’s, and she felt she did a lot better than many children from ordinary homes. During summer holidays, she went to a befriending family who were extremely kind to her. She did her Leaving Certificate and said that anyone inclined to do so was encouraged to study and do well. Subsequently, she did a commercial course in Dublin in a private college and eventually got a good job. She thought the driving force for all of this was Sr Astrid.


She believed that St Joseph’s, Kilkenny would have been a role model as a school, had it remained single sex. The introduction of boys was not good for the School. One of the things she missed about the School was not being part of a family and not being shown affection. She found things were sometimes a bit rigid, but felt this was mainly because there were a large number of children to cater for.


Sr Astrid was asked whether she agreed with the suggestion that those who were in the ‘blue set’, which was under her immediate control, fared much better than the children in the other sets. Sr Astrid insisted that she did not treat any of the children differently. The groups were very separate. She did not accept that the blue set got things that the others did not. She said that the Superior gave all the groups the same things, but thought that perhaps sometimes someone from her own family might come and give her group extra sweets and things like that. She agreed that Traveller children could be called names by the others, as they had a lot of children round the place and name-calling was inevitable.


The group care system could not replace a loving family, but it did offer a more child-centred environment where children were encouraged both socially and educationally. Attending the external school worked well for the children, and there is evidence at this time of good integration between the children from St Joseph’s and the local community.

The Group Homes


The system of grouping children into smaller units appeared to work reasonably well throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. In 1966, however, a decision was taken to close St Patrick’s, Kilkenny as an industrial school. It had catered for boys up to the age of eight and had been run by the Sisters of Charity. Many of the residents of St Joseph’s had brothers in St Patrick’s and, indeed, this was one of the reasons the Department of Education gave for recommending the transfer of the boys to St Joseph’s. Accordingly, 28 boys were transferred, to be retained until eight years of age.


The sudden increase in numbers, and the integration of boys into the School, caused problems for the management.


In an undated document entitled ‘Report for The Department of Education’, which would appear to have been written in late 1969, the case was made for the need for St Joseph’s Industrial School to move toward forming group residences in the community. The report stated that, during the year 1968/69, the Sisters experienced much unrest and disturbance amongst the children. It manifested itself in a variety of ways, such as absconding and repeated ‘burning incidents’. According to the report, these problems arose mainly because of lack of proper accommodation, and proper staff and recreational facilities, which were all put down, in turn, to lack of financial assistance.


The report further stated that, in an effort to cope with this problem in May 1969, a small group of the most disturbed children was placed in a house in Kilkenny donated by Bishop Birch, under the care of one of the Sisters, and the children were treated in every respect like an ordinary family. This project, initially an experiment, was a great success, and it became clear that efforts like this would eliminate many of the problems in St Joseph’s.


According to the report, the Sisters consulted with experts in the US and Britain, and set about reorganising the Institution in groups/units as close as possible to the ordinary family. Four groups with 16 children and three groups with 10 in each were formed, with children of both sexes, ranging between the ages of two and 18 years. Children under two years were kept in a separate nursery. Each of the separate groups was staffed by three adults. Alterations were made to the Institution and the old national school to accommodate the groups, and two dwelling houses were purchased. The Sisters asked the Department to assess the situation as soon as possible, as the Congregation could not meet all the costs involved, and needed assistance with reconstruction work, the purchase of recreational facilities and transport for the children.


On 12th September 1969, Bishop Birch followed up this proposal by formally requesting the Department for financial assistance to enable St Joseph’s to carry out the programme of reconstruction which would bring the Institution in line with modern thinking on childcare.


The Sisters went ahead with their plans. They altered the existing buildings and acquired two houses in a nearby housing estate, half a mile away, to set up two ‘family-type’ houses. This was done without sanction from the Department of Education, which was presented with the problem of whether to finance the venture, when it had not sanctioned it in advance. The Department of Finance refused the request for extra funding.


On 11th September 1969, Mr Wade from the Department travelled to Kilkenny with Mr Madden to inspect the ‘unauthorised works’ which were at that time being carried out, and about which Dr Birch and Sr Wilma19 had called to see the Secretary of the Department. Mr Wade set out the situation as far as he saw it: To fully understand how the nuns in charge of the Industrial School came to find themselves in their present plight the following comment may be of assistance. Since the appointment of Dr Birch as Bishop of Ossory there has been a convulsion in the social conscience of the laity and clergy in the Diocese of Ossory resulting in a welter of activity for the underprivileged from child adoption to geriatrics embracing also itinerants. Nuns, priest and students from St Kieran’s Seminary are involved to a greater extent than ever before among the poor and needy. A social centre has been erected on the grounds of the community, a nursery to facilitate adoption work has been approved by the Department of Health and will also be erected on the convent grounds and there are itinerants settlement schemes, meals on wheels, companions for the old etc etc. Add to this a favourable comment from a member of the Committee on the Reformatory and Industrial Schools on the standards of St Joseph’s, advance information from a member of the Committee that the group system of caring for children would be a recommendation and that grants would be available for building to assist in the changeover from the present methods and the stage was set for the nuns to run off in all directions without an Architect (except for on one item, play space and enclosed gymnasium) without authority, without money or the overdraft facilities to pay for the job.


He was sorry for the situation the nuns found themselves in, describing it as quite pathetic. He felt that: the Bishop abetted by a young radical member of the community played a large part in creating this situation and it seems the Department will have to come to the rescue by making a case to the Department of Finance for an ex gratia grant.


He also advised that the new Resident Manager needed to be told that policy making and major decisions in matters that concern the welfare of committed children had to have the approval of the Minister, who alone was the responsible authority in these areas.

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