Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 14 — St. Joseph’s Kilkenny

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The period 1933 to 1952


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.


Following the publication of the Curtis Report in 1946, a childcare course was set up in London by the Sisters of the Holy Child. The course was of one year’s duration. Initially, two Sisters of Charity took the course and, subsequently, 10 Sisters completed their training in residential care of children in the 1940s. Thirty more Sisters attended short courses in the early 1950s. Also, in the 1950s, a number of Sisters were sent by Sr Irma to train in the English Child Psychology Course. The annals note that this experience ‘has changed the whole attitude to the treatment of Industrial School children’.


In 1952, the word ‘Institution’ was dropped, and the School was officially known as ‘Girls Industrial School’ and thereafter always referred to as St Joseph’s Girls’ School. The premises were remodelled to provide for groups, and the large group of 130 children was broken into three smaller groups of 30, providing for children between seven and 16. These groups were given Saints’ names, but in fact became known as ‘sets’, distinguished by different colours: red, green and blue. The younger children formed a fourth group, the nursery group.


Each group had its own sitting room and separate dining room which were newly painted and decorated. From 1953, the children from fourth class upwards attended outside schools, and the annals for that year remarked: This gives them the opportunity of mixing with children who have their own homes – in this way they hear something about home life.


By 1954, the School was grouped into four self-sufficient units, and Dr McCabe in her report of that year noted that the residents were mixing with children from outside at recreation and school. She felt they were much happier and lived a more normal existence. The Sisters were also very enthusiastic about the changes brought about in the children as a result of the new system, and this was noted in Dr McCabe’s report dated 14th September 1954.


The group home system was recommended by the Kennedy Report in 1970, and many institutions were thereafter obliged to close or adopt the group home system. By that time, the Sisters of Charity had been operating a group system for almost 20 years, thanks largely to the vision of Sr Irma.


At an early stage the Sisters of Charity identified the fundamental flaws of the system of large-scale institutional care for young children. They also recognised the difficulties that those who took religious vows encountered in meeting the social and emotional needs of children. From the late 1940s the Sisters of Charity sent their members abroad for training in childcare and child psychology. They applied this training to their childcare practices in Ireland, to the great benefit of the children under their care.

Sexual abuse incident of 1954


On 25th October 1954, the new Resident Manager, Sr Tova,3 wrote to the Department of Education asking them to give her immediate permission to transfer two girls. She described both of them as not fit to be with younger children, owing to their immoral conduct and bad influence. She wrote: Already they have taught – them sinful sexual acts, that makes it expedient to dismiss them from this school immediately.


The Department informed Dr McCabe about the application, and she left immediately for Kilkenny to conduct a general inspection.

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