Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 9 — Clifden

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Emotional abuse


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.


She summed up the general attitude of the girls to Sr Roberta by saying, ‘we would say, “oh, yeah, Roberta was cruel but she was very decent”’. She added, ‘We always refer to her as being very decent and very kind’.


She described Sr Roberta’s deputy, Sr Veronica,18 as ‘more of a nag but she got very excited because Roberta would be always screaming at her, “get this” and “do that” and everything else.’ She was a very nervous individual and always had to have things just right.


The relationship between Sr Roberta and the rest of the staff, particularly Sr Veronica her deputy, was always authoritarian. She said: Sr Veronica had to do everything the way that Roberta wanted it. Roberta would scream at her the same way she screamed at the kids. She screamed at all the nuns the same way.


The witness remembered one or two of the staff with affection. She described one of the Sisters who taught her as kind, but she did not have a lot to do with the children. Another Sister who was in charge of the farm was also very nice. One of the Sisters taught music, and those involved in music travelled to different places playing with the band. A handy-man was employed to help around the School, and she described him as a comedian.


She said that the worst aspect of living in the School was that there were so many children in it, and it was necessarily very regimented. She felt very alone. Certain categories of children were picked upon by their peers. Those who had family and received packages were seen as better than those who did not. Those from Dublin saw themselves as more elite than those from the Midlands. Children from the Midlands were ‘the lowest of the low, because you were one of Maguires’. Mr Maguire19 was the ISPCC Inspector for that area. Travellers were marginalised and she recalled that, when the more impoverished children were brought to the School, they would invariably be filthy and their hair would be crawling with lice.


A lay worker was in charge of ensuring that the children’s heads were free from lice. Sr Roberta examined the children’s heads every week. If lice were discovered, a lotion was put in their hair and it was combed with a fine toothcomb. In extreme cases, their heads were shaved.


She did not recall the nuns referring to the children’s background, apart from one Sister who made derogatory references about where the children came from.


Her recollection was that the nuns were not permitted to show the children any sort of physical affection. ‘No,’ she said, ‘there was absolutely no affection’. She added: If one of nuns put their hands around you and Mother Roberta found that out, forget it, they were in real trouble. There was no such a thing.


She described a particular occasion when one nun, Sr Maria,20 took pity on her: I remember one incident where Sr. Maria had us all lined up and she asked us all what we would really – she was asking something, you know, about ourselves what we really thought. I know I was at the end of the line and she asked me, I said, "I really want to find my mother." She really took that very, very bad. She went out – it really bothered her. At the end, she told me to stay behind and she says, "take anything you want from this press." She says, you know – she kind of did it like this, not a thing. But she did give me a hug and she says, "oh", she says, "one day you will and you are a special child of God", and something like that. But now she would make sure that nobody else saw her and that was it. So, no, they were no way affectionate, no way, no how. If you left and you came back a nun would give you a hug. But not while you were in the school, no.


Similarly, the older girls looking after the younger children would not dare to show their charges affection. She was asked about looking after the babies, if she would have shown affection to a little child of three or four. She replied: Yeah, you might, but it wasn’t something you really kind of got yourself really into, that – you know. I never saw anyone really cuddling, you know. Maybe a baby trying to keep them quiet or something, but other than that you wouldn’t pick a child up ...

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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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