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Chapter 3 — Ferryhouse

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Physical abuse


Staff members were not merely authorised to use corporal punishment, they were given the freedom to use it at will. This freedom allowed for even greater scope for abuse. One complainant, a resident in the early 1970s, told the Investigation Committee: Not only me, we all got hidings for nothing, it all depends which way Br Valerio woke up in the morning. If we didn’t make our beds right, if it wasn’t inch perfect we got the slap. If our shoes weren’t properly done or if our collars weren’t properly inside our jumpers we got the slap for it. More or less for anything.


A witness who was in Ferryhouse in the late 1950s described a physical punishment favoured by Br Maximo: A few times, I don’t know what for, I can’t remember what it was for but I remember a few times where he told me, he used to do this a lot with a lot of people, hold the head steady by holding the ear to make sure that you didn’t move your head when he was going to give you a clatter on the other side of the head. He would give you several clatters maybe on the other side ... with the open hand.


The Rosminians conceded that most of the physical punishment would have happened in a spontaneous way. If there were an incident in the yard, a Prefect would hit a boy a slap as opposed to going through the whole process of administering corporal punishment at a designated time. Fr O’Reilly called these ‘spontaneous responses’. He explained, ‘it wasn’t corporal punishment in terms of receiving the cane. Like, I would acknowledge that it is quite possible that a Prefect just immediately slapped the boy’.


These ‘spontaneous responses’ allowed some Brothers and priests to use physical chastisement as a first resort for correcting a child, and it was not always confined to one or two slaps. Depending on the mood of the Prefect, it could be a few slaps or a severe beating. A witness from the late 1960s told the Committee that even good boys would be beaten. He explained: I was very quiet. I kept myself to myself and stayed out of trouble ... we were beaten on regular occasions for talking in the refectory, or whatever. Stuff like that ... Every one of the boys got beaten on some occasion. No matter how good you were you were always beaten at least at some certain occasion.


He gave an example of such on-the-spot chastisement: [Fr Paolo] said, “Lights out” and we weren’t allowed to speak after lights out and one of the boys might say something and he would be called out in front of Fr Paolo and he would hit him with his back handed slap ... the boy would be looking up to him, he would be only tiny, he would be only seven or eight years old, and he would put a full slap on with the back of his hand and he would put him actually spinning.


The clatter was often the main means of correction, so boys lived in an environment where they expected to be hit regularly and often.


Perhaps the worst effect of gratuitous and capricious punishment was its unpredictability. No matter what the boys did, a punishment was still a possibility. The result was a climate of fear. A witness who was in Ferryhouse in the late 1960s vividly described the kind of fear he experienced every day. He told the Investigation Committee: I cried most days in that school. I was so scared when the next beating was going to come, whether it would be me. I mean I cried for my friends, my friends cried for me. We didn’t deserve this stuff, we really didn’t deserve this ... It was the beatings that was given and dished out in there was savage, man, savage ... I was a child you know, a child. I’ve walked landings with hard men in the Joy [prison], in Cork, wherever. I was never afraid. I would stand eye to eye with people that killed people. I wasn’t afraid. But I was afraid when I was in that school, every day of my fecking life. That is what I want you to understand. Punishment for bed-wetting


Fr O’Reilly, in his evidence to the Investigation Committee given on 7th September 2004 at Phase I, said that nocturnal enuresis had always been a problem at their schools: If we are taking bed-wetting or enuresis as a problem, it seems to me that you are talking somewhere between 20 and 30% of the boys with a problem in that area.


When asked how bed-wetters were dealt with, he replied: Well, we have no records to say how boys were dealt with who wet the bed. Were boys punished for wetting the bed? We don’t have records of that and when I spoke with members of the Congregation who would have worked there, they would not recall that boys were punished for wetting the bed.


He conceded, however, that boys who wet were kept in a separate area known as ‘the sailor’s dorm’, and that boys were also given the term ‘sailors’. The Rosminians explained, ‘It is generally felt that these beds were kept together so that the smell of urine did not pervade the whole dormitory and thus the boys who did not wet the bed did not have to suffer the smell’.


The Rosminians now accept that it would have been humiliating for a boy to be known as a ‘sailor’ or ‘bed-wetter’. They also state that ‘it is quite possible that certain Prefects used this as a way of asserting their authority’.


The Rosminians also concede that other practices were used to try to stop bed-wetting. The boys were required to wash their own sheets each morning. They would have to take their wet sheets down from the dormitory to the laundry, wash them and then hang them up to dry. In the evening, they would have to collect their own sheets and return them to the dormitory. This practice continued until a new Prefect arranged for the sheets to be washed by a housekeeper. The boys still had to bring down their wet sheets to the laundry room, and that continued to mark them out and humiliate them.


Two further humiliating practices existed for boys who wet the bed. The Rosminians admitted that ‘a very demeaning practice developed for a short time of making boys with enuresis wear a short skirt for a period of a day or two’.


Another practice also developed, whereby bed-wetters would be required to walk around the schoolyard with a mattress above their heads.


It was put to Fr O’Reilly that bed-wetting seemed to have been treated as a problem of discipline, even though it was probably the least subject to discipline. He replied: I would have to agree with you. You know, if a child has a difficulty in that area and is upset, obviously you are going to increase the problem by drawing even more and more attention to it and certainly by punishing the child or by causing the child to be even more afraid than he was.

  1. This is a pseudonym.
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  6. Set out in full in Volume I.
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  11. Br Valerio did not give evidence to the Committee; he lives abroad.
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  19. This is believed to be a reference to the Upton punishment book.
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  37. Latin for surprise and wonder.
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  50. Bríd Fahey Bates, The Institute of Charity: Rosminians. Their Irish Story 1860–2003 (Dublin: Ashfield Press Publishing Services, 2003), pp 399–405.
  51. Brid Fahey Bates, p 401.
  52. Cussen Report; p 53.
  53. Cussen Report, p 54
  54. Cussen Report, p 55
  55. Cussen Report, p 52.
  56. Cussen Report, p 49.
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  58. Kennedy Report, Chapter 7.