Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 8 — Cappoquin

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Physical abuse


A witness, who was admitted to Cappoquin at four years of age in the late 1950s, described a severe beating he received from the Resident Manager.22 He had been called into her office and handed a letter sent to him by his mother. Sr Carina asked him to read it, but he could not read: I remember then I got a beating over that. I remember she beat me so much I ended up down at the wall, at the end of the wall, she had beat me that much. Then at the end of it all she just got the letter and she said "seen as you can’t read the letter it is no good to you" and she tore it up.


He recalled another nun, Sr Mariella, giving him a severe beating because he did not hear a bell ringing. He had just come out of hospital after an operation on his ears and had bandages on, which affected his hearing: ... but I couldn’t hear nothing and all I could see was everybody running. So, I didn’t run. Next thing Sr Mariella started belting me with the cane, all over and she hit me in the ear and I ended up back in there again, back in the hospital.


The witness remembered one nun in Cappoquin with particular fondness: The reason I have always loved Sr Adriana is one particular incident involving again Sr Carina, the time when we went to the toilet, you went to the toilet at certain times, right ... So you were lined up and you were told when to go into the toilet, when it was your turn, in you go, the nun would tell you. It came to me anyway and I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to, you know what I mean. So with that I was brought back into the office. I must have been about eight, nine at the time, eight at the time. I was brought back into the office. Again I got beaten. I was stripped and put on the, what do you call it, the office desk, she used have a big desk she used have all her things on it. I got put on that, and I was beaten. But when I woke up on that I didn’t wake up on the desk, I woke up in the bed. The first thing I see when I woke up was Sr Adriana. She had one hand on my forehead and she was holding her beads with the other hand. That’s a picture I never forgot and I never will. Because that brought home to me, in later years as I got older, the difference. That there was good and bad. And that’s why I have never blamed the nuns or anyone else for what happened to me. I have never even blamed the Christian Brothers, because that particular incident always stayed in my mind.


Another complainant spoke about a particular incident with Sr Carina: I remember Sr Carina bringing me in between – down on the nun’s side of the School, like, and when I looked at this woman I could see fire in her eyes, like, and I knew what I was expecting from her and I couldn’t prevent it and she caught me and she put me over her knee and she literally whipped the backside off me with her whole hand. She said to me, "I am going to leather you ... until I put blisters on your backside", and she meant it what she said, like. I remember after that I couldn’t sit down. I looked at her hand and her hand was sore red from swinging it. The ring that she was wearing you could see the white of the band, that will just tell you how red her hand was from lashing me, like. She was a good woman herself with the cane, like, you know ... Once or twice that happened to me. Bed-wetting


Given the ages of the children in Cappoquin, it was inevitable that bed-wetting was a major problem. The Sisters of Mercy accepted that there may have been occasions when children ‘were punished and consequently humiliated for bedwetting, and, recognising the deep hurt and trauma this must have caused to the children, apologise sincerely for this’.


One complainant said fear was the cause of bed-wetting, as far as he was concerned: Normally if I destroyed the bed it was because of the person present, I would be afraid to go to the toilet, and if I didn’t go to the toilet and I got to bed I would be afraid afterwards that I would be chastised.


He said that the consequence of wetting the bed depended on who was on duty. Some of the staff just cleaned it up, others would slap the child.


Another complainant, who had a problem with wetting the bed, said that the nuns would hit children for this: The boys that wet the bed, they’d have to take off the sheet, their face could be dipped in it first, their face could be shoved down into it and they would get a few clouts and clatters.


The punishment appeared to get more severe when one lay person, Ms Lambert,23 was employed to supervise the dormitories.


A witness recalled the fear he felt at night, knowing that he would be beaten by this staff member the next day if he wet himself: ... I had a habit of wetting the bed and she Ms Lambert would come in in the morning and ask anyone that wet the bed to stay in your bed, which I did stay in the bed ... If you went back to your bed, you had to go back into it and sit there and wait for your turn ... She came around, hit all the other young kids, you are sitting there and you are waiting and you are watching her, waiting for my turn, to lie over the bed and a big cane before you went to school, before you had breakfast ... That went on all the time I wet the bed and I wet the bed for a long time, for years. That was my torture for that. Sometimes I used to stay awake, try and stay awake, I couldn’t, I was young. Try to keep my friend awake beside me. I used to have nightmares ... Yeah, I know that’s what I was frightened of, going to sleep. If you wet it a second time you get more, you know what I mean. It might be five of the best and then ten of the best.


Another witness had a similar experience of this staff member: Ms Lambert would come up in the mornings and if we wet our bed we had to lie in our own bed. Often the case I ended up lying in my own urine and excretion at times and she would hit us over the legs, the buttocks and on the back. She was quite cruel, Ms Lambert ... It went on for a long period of time ... there was a little red dimmer light with Jesus on it in the cross, in the bottom, and I remember I used to look up at it and I used to say to God, "Please, do not let me wet the bed tonight, do not let me excrete." I used to be awake.


Some witnesses described the lay staff as being more abusive than the Sisters. One witness recalled being lined up after returning from a family holiday and being beaten by the staff member identified in the bed-wetting section above, Ms Lambert: I remember when we came back from holiday with my mother and father and that, and we were all lined up and she just started hammering us with the stick, she did ... She done it on many occasions, you know.


Another witness who was there in the 1940s and 1950s recalled that the day-to-day running of the Institution was left to lay staff and that the Sisters had more of a supervisory role. He had no problems with any of the nuns, but he said the lay workers could be cruel. He found bath-time particularly difficult: ... they would hit me and hit my hands if I am holding the bath on the side, you know when you are very small and you are trying to hold the bath and I was fearfully afraid of water, and they would hit your hands away and catch your head like that and push you down underneath and try to get the soap off you. Sometimes they would be laughing while they are doing this and they would take a great bit of fun in doing – ducking you under the water and making you feel like you are going to drown.


Although this witness believed that the Sisters in charge knew that the lay staff were cruel to the children but did not interfere, he still associated whatever happy memories he had of Cappoquin with the Sisters.


Another lay member of staff was mentioned by one complainant, who described her using the handle of a brush to beat him: ... she swung at me, I ducked from her and got under the table, but she used the handle of a brush and beat me wherever she could hit me.

  1. Dr Anna McCabe was the Department of Education Inspector for most of the relevant period.
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  21. This is a pseudonym. Sr Lorenza later worked in St. Joseph’s Industrial School, Kilkenny. See St Joseph’s Industrial School, Kilkenny chapter.
  22. Mother Carina.
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