Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 9 — Clifden

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Emotional abuse


Among the points emerging from these witnesses are: Both spoke of the inadequacy of the diet in terms of quality and quantity and both spoke of being hungry. Although one witness said that there was no bullying at meal times, the other was quite clear that this did occur and it meant that smaller, weaker children went without. Both described a different member of the religious staff as being cruel, as well as a lay worker, and one of these witnesses identified the regime as harsh and cruel. In particular, the positive witness’s description of the Resident Manager was indicative of a person unsuited to caring for children. One of the witnesses said that the Sisters were prohibited from any display of physical affection, which she identified as a hardship for the nuns themselves. Moreover, she learnt from the nuns to keep a distance and not cuddle the younger children placed in her care. There can be no doubt that the constant rejection of very vulnerable children instinctively seeking this kind of reassurance and affection would have had an extremely damaging effect on them. It seems extraordinary that a Congregation of nuns who had been engaged in childcare for over 100 years would have continued this attitude towards the children in their care when they must have seen the damage it was doing. It would seem that the observance of the discipline of the Congregation was given priority over the interests of the children. The banishment of the expression of affection may have made the Sisters appear to be acting fairly, by making them treat all children in the same way, but it also made them detached and distant, and at worst cold and cruel. Both witnesses confirmed what a number of complainants have said about this and other institutions, that the authorities were warned when an Inspector from the Department of Education was coming, and clothes, bedding and food were improved for the occasion. These two witnesses differed as to the amount of preparation that was made, but it is clear that the preparations ensured that the inspectors did not get an accurate picture of the Institution during these inspections. The positive witness, Mary in particular spoke of there being ‘elite’ groups, as well as marginalised children such as Travellers. She recalled that the Resident Manager had pets. Religious and lay staff members denigrated the children’s background. These facts indicate that, whilst, for some, Clifden may not have been a bad place to be, for others it was harsh and abusive. The positive witness was detained for 18 months after her discharge date, to go on working in the Institution. She said that she did not want to stay and asked to be let out, but she was clearly a reliable and responsible young person and was detained at the will of the Resident Manager. Although this witness does not make a complaint about being kept on, it was clear exploitation and a failure to consider the best interests of the child. One of these witnesses was introduced by the Congregation as a positive witness. She balanced her criticisms of the regime by testifying that the good the Sisters did outweighed their shortcomings, but her evidence nevertheless contained quite severe criticisms and acquires increased importance because she was advanced by the Congregation as a positive witness.

General conclusions


General conclusions 1. Clifden was isolated and inaccessible for an industrial school. Contact with families was nearly impossible because of its location. Many children came from distant parts of the country, contrary to an important Cussen Report recommendation that children be sent to schools near their families. 2. Sr Roberta was Resident Manager for 27 years and established a strict, authoritarian and cold regime unsuitable for caring for children. During her administration, the School was also very understaffed. 3. Corporal punishment was over-used as a first option for enforcing discipline and was not restricted to cases of serious misbehaviour. 4. Children were institutionalised by the time they left, particularly those who were committed from a young age. They had no concept of normal family life. They were not shown love or affection by the nuns, and only had contact with the Sisters who worked in the convent (and Scoil Mhuire after 1969). The Sisters in the convent madean appearance once a year at the Christmas concert, but they were discouraged from having any other contact with the children who lived only yards away. 5. Mr Graham Granville noted as late as the 1970s that the children had very few visible reminders of home such as family photographs, which added to the isolation and lack of identity that they felt after leaving the Institution. 6. The Congregation accepts that the nuns’ vows dictated that they led a regimented lifestyle, which was reflected in the strictly controlled manner in which the children were brought up and in the absence of any demonstration of affection by the nuns. 7. The standard of education was low and there was little emphasis on academic achievement, which reflected the low aspirations the Sisters had for the children as regards future careers. 8. The children were poorly prepared for leaving the Institution and there were no aspirations for them beyond careers in domestic service. There was no preparation for departure. Many of the children had no idea what lay ahead when they were sent off to jobs in towns and cities.

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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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