Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 9 — Clifden

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Emotional abuse


Mary was committed to Clifden when she was two years old, in the late 1940s, and remained there until the mid-1960s.


She was part of a group of children known as the ‘specials’. These were children who were considered delicate and they were given a special supplementary diet. Every day at 11am, they were taken out of school and given an egg-flip and cod liver oil. As she got older, she was chosen to run errands down in the village.


She accepted that at times some children were hungry. For breakfast, they had two slices of buttered bread with tea. At lunchtime, they had potatoes and vegetables. During school term, they had porridge every day at 3pm in the back yard. They had bread with butter and jam for supper. On Sunday, they had bacon and cabbage. They had dessert three times a week. They always used delph and cutlery and never ate with their hands, as was alleged by one complainant.


The witness did not accept that children ate food from the pigs’ buckets as a regular occurrence. Once or twice a year, when nuns were finally professed, the children were given food left over from the visitors: you know, they would bring the food that was left over from all their visitors, we would have to – there would be a few people who would have to carry it out, so they would bring it down the walk and they would put it down and we would all go into it. But that was not something that was daily or weekly or thing, absolutely, that’s not true.


She said that they occasionally stole bread from the bakery, but this was more out of devilment than hunger. Sr Gina16 supervised meals, and there was no bullying over food at mealtimes: Clifden was very regimented and everything had to be done in order, because don’t forget there was so many of us.


The building was kept immaculately and fires burned throughout the day. It was very cold at night, however, after the fires went out.


The Resident Manager always ensured that they were well dressed from head to toe. None of the children went barefoot. They were always made to feel that they were as good as anybody else. The witness described her as harsh, strict and dedicated: Oh, yeah. Roberta had a very authoritarian voice and if she walked up to you she would say, "Hi, how are you." Her voice would cut you. We feared her to a certain extent but yet in our own way if Roberta was sick, we always lined up to go to visit her and she loved the attention that she got from us. She was very strict, don’t get me wrong, and she could have been very hard at times but I think anything that she did for the children she did – in other words, if she bought stuff, she had to buy the best because she would make sure that anyone in the town couldn’t be talking about, "oh, look at how badly they are dressed" or something like that. She always examined things, everything with her was very ritual, the way she did things.


She said that she did not like a lay worker, Ms Aherne,17 whom a number of other witnesses have described as harsh. She said this worker was so eager to please the Resident Manager that she was unreasonably hard on the children.


Mary said she was punished by the nuns, but only when she had done something wrong and never excessively. She was slapped on both hands, ‘if you did wrong it was written down and before you went into your lunch she would call out the names that those were to be lined up for a beating’. The beating consisted of being slapped on the hands with a ruler or stick. Only one particular Sister used a cane to hit children.


She later elaborated on this theme: Sr Gina was the only one that used the cane. We hated the cane because the cane was much sharper. The sticks weren’t bad but the cane was fierce. She would have been the only nun that would walk around with the cane.


The witness was asked why Sr Gina would be walking round with a cane when she was not a teacher, and she replied: she was supposed to be in charge of the children ... She left in [the early 1960s] ... we rejoiced over that, that was the best thing that happened.


Clothes were examined every Monday and if you had a hole in a garment, you were given a week to mend it. If it was not mended, you would be punished.


Sr Roberta was feared by the children, and this witness remembered her screaming voice. She said, ‘Her voice would cut you ... when Sr Roberta screamed she kind of like screamed in general, everything she said was a scream’.


One of the reasons for Sr Roberta’s habit of screaming was that she was partly deaf. This witness said: In one sense you kind of feared Roberta, there is no doubt about it if someone is screaming at you all the time. But the way we would refer to Mother Roberta was, “oh, she was cracked. She’s daft”. But she was by no means cracked or daft ... She was like a sergeant major.


She added later: [Roberta] never liked any of the nuns to have any pets. But she had her own, don’t get me wrong, she had her own.

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  4. See the chapter on St Joseph’s and St Patrick’s Kilkenny for further details in relation to this course.
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  7. Dr Anna McCabe was the Department of Education Inspector for most of the relevant period.
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