Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 10 — Positive memories and experiences

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Witnesses response to abuse


In addition to reporting abuse many witnesses wished to emphasise positive aspects of the care they received in Industrial and Reformatory Schools. They commented that memories of kindness remained with them for many years.

Details of good memories


Accounts of care, kindness, attention and support provided by individual religious and lay staff were given in evidence by both male and female witnesses. Such experiences included incidents and encounters both within the School and in the wider community.

Kind staff


Two hundred and eighty four (284) witnesses, 168 male and 116 female, recounted the kindness of individual religious and lay staff. The witness description most often reported was the absence of physical abuse, ‘He did not hit’ and ‘she didn’t hit girls or scream at them’ were typical of remarks by witnesses regarding kind members of the religious staff. Other acts of kindness by religious and lay staff reported to the Committee included being given extra food, spoken to kindly, shown affection, having a blind eye turned to behaviour others would report, creating a positive environment and being called by one’s first name rather than by a number or surname. Another kindness was being allowed to have pets particularly cats and dogs as occasionally reported. Other witnesses commented on the special attention they received from individual staff that continued over a number of years and was of lasting benefit. Br ...X... he seemed to have an understanding of us, he was the best one I met in my life. I felt safe with him, he didn’t wear the strap like a 6 gun, ready to shoot everyone, compared to the others he was kind. He was able to help with my reading and he would put a mark saying “well done!” • One very, very kind person, she was Sr ...X... she was old, a lovely person. I have great memories of her. She would come in to call us, open up the curtains and she would be singing in the morning. She was lovely to us, she wasn’t long there. • The kindest thing that ever happened to me was a nurse, she was called ...Ms X... we were all around saying the Rosary and she put a sweet in my hand, one sweet. I didn’t want to eat the sweet I wanted to hold on to it, somebody gave me something, somebody was kind. It became a regular thing about once a week, one sweet. I began to look forward to it....


Witnesses also reported that kind religious staff offered protection by assigning them chores in areas where they were less likely to be hit and rescuing them from beatings by other staff. Other positive memories described by witnesses were of religious staff interacting with residents in a friendly manner and demonstrating concern about their distress and injuries.


There were several religious Sisters and Brothers mentioned with affection by witnesses from different Schools. One Brother who was named by eight witnesses was reported to have supervised the residents on Sundays and encouraged them to talk to him. He was described as often giving sweets to those who were crying or upset and speaking kindly to them. Six (6) female witnesses from one School recalled a Sister who had been caring and kind throughout their time spent in the institution. It was remarked that acts of kindness were generally demonstrated in private. Words of encouragement and praise were remembered warmly by witnesses as rare experiences and were usually reported to have been associated with particular named staff members. One Brother was kind and used to give me a bit of a boost, when playing football he’d say “you’re good”. • Sr ...X... who worked in the laundry was kind, if I got coal for her she would say “you’re a good girl” and “thank you”, such was the level of deprivation that one word of kindness was remarkable. Sr ...Y... who worked in the kitchen was also kind, she gave bread dipped in gravy. • One nun she was absolutely lovely, I am a nurse today because of her, she was the nun in the infirmary, she would get you something and say “don’t say a word”. • They were not all bad – there was one Brother he was an old man, he was. When he got his food he would take it out of his pocket and give it to us, bread and butter it was lovely it was. He was a lovely old man. • It was kinda safe around him, I used to like going for walks with him; no one else could touch you when you were out with him. • A nun would call girls over and give them food out of her pocket and say “there creatureen, run”.


Sixteen (16) witnesses reported enjoying kind treatment from lay and religious staff when they were ill. Being treated gently and with consideration was noted by witnesses in contrast to the more familiar experience of staff as critical, unfriendly and frequently abusive. Witnesses from a number of Schools recalled the kindness and attention they received from lay female nurses. One nurse was mentioned by several male witnesses as a trusted confidant to whom residents could talk without fear and who, at times, acted as an advocate on their behalf.


Witnesses identified 98 lay staff as kind, attentive and helpful including teachers, nurses, care staff and ancillary workers. Witnesses particularly commented on the positive influence of those lay care staff and ancillary workers who lived outside the confines of the School. There were numerous reports of these staff members inviting residents to their homes and introducing a lighter atmosphere to the everyday routine and work environment. Witnesses also commented on a sense of safety that existed when these lay staff were around. Four (4) male witnesses said that the spouses of lay staff provided extra food and were kind to residents when the opportunity arose. One female witness stated that contact with these lay staff ‘Let you believe life could be different’.


The encouragement and kindness of some lay classroom teachers was recalled with appreciation by 41 male and 17 female witnesses. These reports referred both to teachers within the Schools and others who taught residents attending local primary, secondary and technical schools in the community. ‘Teachers who treated us without prejudice were a joy’. The lay teachers encouraged you to do homework, they had hope in you, they wanted you to do well.


Particular lay care staff, including some who were former residents of the School, were described by 25 female witnesses as kind and protective: ‘she understood, she would not report you’. However, witnesses also remarked that kind staff did not stay long or that they changed their behaviour and attitude as they were assimilated into the culture of the institution. Witnesses discharged from the mid-1970s increasingly described lay staff as promoting changes in the conditions in the Schools and attempting to offer protection from abuse. Some lay staff were a good team, they used to fight ...(for residents).... I heard them fighting on the phone with Sr ...X (Resident Manager)... for better things for the kids.


Fifteen (15) male and 16 female witnesses from different Schools reported that a change of Resident Manager or other person regarded as being in a position of special authority led to a decrease in abuse and an improvement in the general routine and care. Witnesses remarked on the relief experienced when new Resident Managers changed practices of communal bathing and showering and made provision for residents to have more privacy. Six (6) of those reports related to the period prior to 1960. Improvements reported in the 1970s included increased contact between siblings and family members, less physical punishment, a change from dormitories to small cubicles with more privacy, better hygiene practices, attending schools in the local town and being part of activities in the local area. All of these changes were described as having positive benefit. They took down our names and date of birth. My older sister told them my birth date, she knew as older sisters would. My birth date was written “unknown”. “Anything about this child known?” It was written down “unknown”. I was being treated for a heart problem before I went ... it was written down “unknown”. I was given a number ... and there I was given a name I didn’t know. The head nun changed after a year and a half and she looked through the records and noticed I didn’t have a name or anything and got my birth date and my name, I had had no name for a year.

Community contact


Eighty five (85) witnesses described their involvement in local activities such as attending school in the local town, Feis Cheoil and sporting competitions, Irish dancing, choir practice, music, outings and seaside holidays. The benefit of seeing the world outside the institution and having the opportunity to make friends with peers who were not part of the institutional system was emphasised by many witnesses.


Film shows were reported as a regular and popular pastime in the boys Schools with 109 witness accounts of either watching films in the School or attending local cinemas. Films were described by witnesses as providing a welcome escape from the daily reality of institutional life and respite from being hit, especially in Schools where the film shows were also attended by local townspeople. Both male and female witnesses also commented on the positive experience of holidays and day trips to the beach from the Schools.


Nineteen (19) male witnesses reported positive memories of playing in the School band and/or singing in School choirs. They stated that, in addition to developing valuable skills, this involvement contributed towards a more positive self-image. Witnesses reported opportunities to travel for performances, at times meeting families who treated them kindly and exposed them to different ways of life.


Christmas activities were described by a number of witnesses as memorable. The provision of better food, presents and the experience of a more relaxed atmosphere were all remarked on as good memories of Christmas by both male and female witnesses. Witnesses from a small number of Schools reported that considerable effort was put into arranging festivities and entertainment, usually in conjunction with organisations from the locality. Occasions when there were inspections or special visitors were also mentioned as enjoyable and memorable because of the availability of extra food and a festive atmosphere.


The kindness of local people was remembered by 20 witnesses. Some local shopkeepers were mentioned for giving residents sweets or ice cream. One witness stated that when one of the Sisters sent her to the local shop to get a dozen new canes the shopkeeper broke the canes on his knee in front of her and told her to tell the Sisters he had none left.