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Chapter 9 — Clifden

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Emotional abuse


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 ...


She was often chosen to run errands in the village. She stated that Sr Roberta tried to take this job away from her several times, but she had struck up a good relationship with the town’s people and, at her request, they would write to the Resident Manager asking her to make sure that she would be the one coming for the messages. She believed that the Resident Manager had to keep in with the town’s people and so would do what they said. She added: she kind of resented me for that, she would say, “you old pet, get out of my sight, you old pet”.


The witness described the education she received as standard. Everyone could read and write by the time they left the Institution. Those with learning difficulties went to one particular nun for extra tuition. She taught everything by rote. They did not receive any formal sex education and learned about the changes during puberty from each other.


Birthdays were always celebrated and the children received gifts of sweets, fruit and a comb and ribbons for their hair. They also had toast the morning of their birthday. Christmas was also celebrated.


She recalled regular visits from the local doctor and the Department Inspectors. When the inspector was en route from Lenaboy, the School would receive a message alerting them to the fact that she was on the way. She did not accept that bed linen and clothes were changed for the purpose of these visits. The children had to make sure that they were clean but, otherwise, very little had to be done in preparation for the visit, as the School was always in good order.


She did not have any contact with her family while in the Institution. She stated that the nuns did not know anything about the children’s background. Before allowing children home to their families on holidays, Sr Roberta would conduct inquiries to ensure that the home environment was in no way irregular. If children wished to trace their relatives after leaving the Institution, Sr Roberta supplied the address at which a copy of your birth certificate could be obtained.


This witness was kept on in the Institution for a year and a half after her 16th birthday. It was not her choice and she had wanted to leave, but it was Sr Roberta who decided when each child could go. She was on night duty for three years before she was permitted to leave. She never received any payment for the work done in the Institution after her official discharge date.


Her first job after leaving the Institution was as a cleaning lady in a Dublin hospital. Sr Roberta organised this job. She said the Resident Manager would try to assist any former resident who ran into difficulty after they left Clifden. In the late 1960s, the witness moved abroad to where her mother lived.


She has always kept in contact with the nuns and feels more of a familial bond with them than with the family she discovered outside the country. She is married with children and has never gone into detail with her children about her upbringing.


The witness has kept in contact with a number of former residents, some of whom have made efforts to induce her to submit a claim to the Redress Board alleging abuse. She did not believe, however, that her experience of Clifden was abusive. She made contact with her mother after she left Clifden and felt that her mother considered her an intrusion into her life. That was, for her, a much greater hurt and betrayal than anything that had happened to her in Clifden.

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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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