Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 7 — Goldenbridge

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Emotional abuse


Ms Kearney worked as a teacher in Goldenbridge for over 30 years. When she was asked about the atmosphere in Goldenbridge. She responded: Not a happy place, I was glad to get out of it. When you have the children sulking, shouting at each other across the room and shouting at you and calling you all kinds of names it’s very hard to put up with it. It wasn’t a happy atmosphere, no. There were some lovely children in it, that never gave you a bit of trouble, you felt like hugging them but you didn’t, you couldn’t, because the bold ones would take it out of them, "teacher’s pet".


The Sisters of Mercy accept that institutional life in Goldenbridge had many negative features, which they listed as follows: The large size of the institution and the number of children who lived there gave little prospect of a replication of a family’s love and nurture. The low ratio of staff to children, which for most of the period under review was approximately 1 staff member for every 30 children. The absence of childcare training for Sisters and lay staff. The capitation system of funding, together with the level of funding, led to difficult financial constraints and choices. The regimental nature of institutional life where restriction on freedom of movement operated well beyond school hours and a lack of privacy, particularly in the early years. The emphasis on conformity rather than on creativity and choice. The very limited opportunities for forming personal one to one adult/child relationships. A reliance on corporal punishment as a feature in the maintenance of discipline and good order. A failure to properly understand the level of trauma suffered by each child as a result of being separated from family, sometimes in circumstances where their placement in the institution followed the death of a parent. A failure to properly respond to the individual emotional needs of the children, including how lonely and frightened they must have been in being taken from family and placed in a large institution with children of all ages. A failure to recognise the special emotional and educational needs of children who had come from troubled backgrounds. A failure to keep children informed about their family and family events, such as births marriages and deaths. A failure to assess the individual needs of each child, either on admission or on an ongoing basis. A failure to meet the comprehensive educational needs of children and the very inadequacy of the educational process itself relative to their needs.


In its written Submissions, the Congregation seemed to distance itself somewhat from culpability for the emotional deprivation experienced by so many complainants, and stated: Allegations of emotional abuse are difficult to evaluate. Whether there was a general tendency to verbally denigrate and discourage the children is something almost as intangible to assess as the atmosphere in the school ... the complainants undoubtedly had very real feelings of emotional neglect. One can see how a large institution failed to supply the emotional needs of the child, even if the carers did not go further and actually insult and denigrate them. The absence of personal love and encouragement would undoubtedly have left the children with a lack of self-regard and feelings of worthlessness ... The failure to provide for the emotional well-being of the children in the institution is a major failing on the part of the industrial school. It is perhaps the one that most impacted on the long-term psychological development of the child. A child could probably cope much better with obstacles and handicaps in the institution and, later, out of the institution, provided she felt loved and valued as an individual ... But where does the blame for emotional neglect lie? The form of childcare provided by St Vincent’s industrial school, Goldenbridge was not a personal whim or caprice of Sister Alida or Sister Venetia. It was a large institution embedded in an institutional structure of child-care approved of by the State authorities ... The role of the Sisters actually running the schools needs to be put in its proper context without denying the emotional reality of the children.


1.Goldenbridge could have operated a kinder regime, where children were safe and secure, in keeping with the aspirations of the Sisters of Mercy, but it failed to do so. 2.Witnesses described how the conditions in Goldenbridge left them with low self-esteem for the rest of their lives. 3.Children were routinely humiliated and belittled by the nuns and carers who looked after them. 4.Children with parents or relatives who kept in touch received more favourable treatment than those children who did not. 5.Girls left Goldenbridge ill-equipped to deal with the outside world.


An extreme example of the culture of humiliation that permeated Goldenbridge can be seen in the practice of underwear inspections. Several allegations were made by complainants to the effect that, when their underwear was changed weekly, their underwear was inspected and they were beaten if there was any mark on it. Two complainants said the soiled underwear was paraded on a pole for everyone to see before they received their fresh laundry.


No reference is made to these allegations in the Opening Statement of the Sisters of Mercy. In their Submissions, however, they say that the ‘practice of having to show dirty underwear on a weekly basis is a puzzling one’. They add that: ... it is difficult to see what rational basis there might be for such a practice, except perhaps to check whether older girls might have started their periods, or checking the number on the underwear, or something of that nature. If so, it might have been done on an occasional basis but it would hardly have been a regular event for every girl.


A witness spoke of the underwear inspection: We would change our pants once a week. I can see the basket on the corridor, it was a Saturday. Friday night, there would be somebody on the toilet door, but we would go into the toilet, one by one let in and we would wash out pants in the toilet. If we didn’t get the chance, we thought we were going to be too long, we would actually spit on them and put them under our sheet and lie on them ... We knew there was an inspection on the Saturday and that we would have to have them clean. If they weren’t clean we would get beaten across the bare bum.


Another witness spoke of having to show her underwear on the day that fresh underwear was distributed to the children. When questioned as to the possible reasons for having to display underwear, she expressed the view that it served to embarrass and humiliate the children. She recalled one particular incident whereby a child’s underwear was paraded for all to see: I do remember one incident in the workroom where there was a pair of panties put on the sweeping brush, the handle of the brush and swung around and everybody have a look at so and so’s pants.


One other witness gave details of the underwear-changing ritual: We had to show our underwear every Thursday. It could be in the washroom that’s where I remember it. You had to show your underpants but normally what we did is we devised methods in how to wash our underwear and we used the toilets in the cisterns to wash our clothes. Sometimes the night before we would put them under the beds to dry.


When asked what would happen if they displayed them soiled on inspection day, she said ‘Oh you would be beaten, severely beaten’.


Another witness spoke of the terrifying ordeal of a nun or a lay teacher or both displaying the children’s underwear on clothes inspection day: There was in the very early days a practice, I don’t know what the correct word, is of a nun or a teacher holding up and making a display of your clothes if they were soiled so we quickly learned that way of overcoming it.


Yet another witness spoke about the weekly practice of displaying underwear: We all went up in a single file to show our underwear and we had to have them turned inside out. In the yard. There was a wicker basket when you come out of the yard to the right hand side and that’s where you dropped your underwear. Sr Alida had a pole, it was similar to what you would light candles with in a church, anything that she didn’t like, your underwear was hoisted on this pole. Often she would say “hands up who thinks this is dirty”. This caused considerable distress and humiliation and we could never ever trust each other because if you were anyway close to somebody you wouldn’t put up your hand. If you didn’t put up your hand she would come after you, whoever that was.


Another witness spoke of the same ritual: We got one change on a Thursday. We had to produce our underpants to see what condition they were in and if they were soiled we were beaten. It was on a Thursday after school that was the way we were treated.


Another witness told about washing her underwear in the toilet cistern in order to avoid the humiliation of displaying soiled underwear on the clothes inspection day: That was because if you woke up in the morning and you had dirty underwear there was nowhere you could get it – you didn’t get clean underwear every day. You got that once a week. What it was if any of them checked to see if it was dirty then they would give you hell ... You would get beaten, smacked and the language would be horrific: “You dirty bitch. You filthy bitch”. You would be called “wet the bed” as well. They used that very regular ... You would wash the underwear and you would leave it ... we had rubber sheets and you would leave it under there but if you did that then the mattress would get marked so what you would do is leave it under the sheet and then the sheet would get – sometimes it might get stained and sometimes it might not. If it got stained you were accused of wetting the bed. So you got two goes at it.


Another witness recalled that the clothes inspection took place in the yard. She felt that the inspection of dirty underwear was like a form of punishment; not every single girl’s underwear was checked: Probably not every single person might have to. I remember I did, I remember when the girls did, but I wouldn’t say she went around every single person; I couldn’t honest to God say that.

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  12. Irish Journal of Medical Science 1939, and 1938 textbooks on the care of young children published in Britain.
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  22. General Inspection Reports 1953, 1954.
  23. General Inspection Reports 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1962, 1963.
  24. General Inspection Reports 1955, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960.