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Chapter 7 — Goldenbridge

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The Sisters of Mercy would not accept that the regime was cruel, abusive or neglectful. Whilst they admit that corporal punishment was the accepted means of imposing discipline, they say it was not done in an excessively harsh or extreme manner. They say that the extraordinary dedication and sacrifice of the Sisters, in caring for the poorest and most needy children in Dublin, must be taken into account when assessing the value of the work done in Goldenbridge. In particular, the Congregation does not accept the statements of Sr Venetia or Sr Alida, as quoted by Mr Crowley, as being accurate or fair.


The complainants, on the other hand, state that the regime that they were subjected to was cruel, abusive and neglectful. They say that it left them ill-equipped to deal with life when they left the Institution, and that the damage inflicted on them, either neglectfully or deliberately, has scarred them in every aspect of their lives. Complainants acknowledged the physical provision made for them by the Sisters of Mercy, but it is their evidence that the abuse, degradation and neglect that they suffered far outweighed whatever benefits they might have received by virtue of having been resident in Goldenbridge.

Physical abuse


Most complaints about physical abuse related to the administration of corporal punishment: there were allegations that it was excessive, pervasive, often undeserved, and even capricious, with the result that, in Goldenbridge, corporal punishment became the norm, and the children lived in a climate of fear. The Sisters of Mercy deny these allegations and, while they accept corporal punishment was used, submit that its use was normal by the standards of the day.


The Rules and Regulations for the Certified Industrial Schools in Ireland imposed limits on the use of corporal punishment. These limits were very restrictive for girls under 15 years, and even more so for older girls. The issue of discipline was dealt with in Regulation 12: DISCIPLINE: The Manager or his Deputy shall be authorised to punish the Children detained in the School in case of misconduct. All serious misconduct, and the Punishments inflicted for it, shall be entered in a book to be kept for that purpose, which shall be laid before the Inspector when he visits. The Manager must, however, remember that the more closely the School is modelled on a principle of judicious family government the more salutary will be its discipline, and the fewer occasions will arise for resort to punishment.


Regulation 13 stated that the punishments should consist of: (a)Forfeiture of rewards and privileges, or degradation from rank, previously attained by good conduct. (b)Moderate childish punishment with the hand. (c)Chastisement with the cane, strap, or birch.


The Regulation continued: Referring to (c), personal chastisement may be inflicted by the Manager, or, in his presence, by an Officer specially authorised by him, and in no case may it be inflicted upon girls over 15 years of age. In the case of girls under 15, it shall not be inflicted except in cases of urgent necessity, each of which must be at once fully reported to the Inspector. Caning on the hand is forbidden. No punishment not mentioned above shall be inflicted.


In addition, the Department of Education issued circulars and guidelines to Industrial School Managers, indicating that corporal punishment must always be kept within the bounds set down by the Regulations and must never be used excessively. Circular 11/1946 stated: Corporal punishment should be resorted to only where other forms of punishment have been found unsuccessful as a means of correction. It should be administered only for grave transgressions, and in no circumstances for mere failure at school lessons or industrial training.


The Circular went on to state that punishment should be confined to slapping on the hand with a light cane or strap, and that this should only be administered by the Resident Manager or by a member of staff specifically authorised by him. It added that ‘any form of corporal punishment not in accordance with the terms of this circular is strictly prohibited’.


The Sisters of Mercy say that the general prevalence of corporal punishment in schools during this period is a factor which should be taken into account when determining whether corporal punishment was excessive or abusive. The regulations quoted above were drawn up at a time when corporal punishment was even more prevalent and yet the authorities recognised the need to make rules to protect children in care.

Punishment book


The regulations required that a punishment book be maintained and ‘laid before the inspector when he visits.’


The Investigation Committee has seen no evidence of any punishment book in Goldenbridge. There is no reference to it in any of the documentation furnished to the Investigation Committee, nor is any reference made to it by the Department of Education inspector who visited Goldenbridge on regular occasions.


The evidence heard by the Investigation Committee broadly grouped the complaints about physical punishment under three headings. They were: Formal beatings, where the children who had been singled out for punishment were lined up and beaten with a stick. This usually took place late at night, on a landing outside the nuns’ rooms or cells. Beatings given for specific ‘offences’ such as bed-wetting, or failure to work fast enough at making rosary beads. These also were usually administered on the landing. Informal beatings, where lay staff and nuns administered corporal punishment on the spot for trivial reasons or even for no reason. The formal beatings: the implement used


The formal beatings were administered with an implement that Sr Alida called ‘a slapper’ and the girls called a stick. Several witnesses gave a description of it. One witness, who was in Goldenbridge in the 1950s and early 1960s, told the Committee that it was a stick that a carpenter had made for Sr Alida. She described it as a flat stick, rounded off at the end, and varnished.


Another complainant described the stick used by Sr Alida in some detail: The stick, in my opinion, was about a foot and a half long, about that length (indicating), it had rounding sort of ends, it was about an inch and a half thick and the width of it was about two inches. It was dark brown in colour ... It often reminds me of what I perceived to see as a hurl now with rounding ends but a bit thicker.


Sr Alida also gave a detailed description of it: I used a slapper. I have never used a cane, there was never a cane used in the School in my time, neither was there a leather strap. The slapper I had, there was only one in the house and I don’t think anybody else used it except myself, it was made of polished wood and it was about 15 inches long. It was rolled at the end and was about half an inch thick in the middle, maybe less. I calculated that it never marked or cut anybody but I would agree that it hurt because I got it on the knuckles myself, when if a child pulled her hand away it came down on my hands; so I know what it was like. I wish I’d never had to use it or I wish I was never in that situation with any child, but that’s the situation I was in.

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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.