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Chapter 6 — Everyday life experiences (male witnesses)

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Everyday life experiences of male witnesses in Schools


This chapter of the Report refers to the information provided by the 413 male witnesses in relation to their everyday life experiences in Schools over a period of 67 years between 1922 and 1989. Witnesses reported improvements in the physical structure and the facilities in the majority of Schools during the relevant period.


There were many consistencies in the reports heard from male witnesses in relation to all the Schools over almost seven decades. Witnesses reported that staff in junior boys’ Schools were almost exclusively female, both religious and lay, with the exception of workmen in the gardens and farms attached to some Schools and convents. Senior boys’ Schools employed few female staff in the period prior to the 1970s with the exception of a small number of Schools where lay nurses and ancillary staff worked in the infirmaries, laundries, kitchens and religious staff houses.


The daily routine was described as commencing with an early morning call by bell for Mass, followed by breakfast in a communal refectory. Witnesses referred to a regimented day where activities were controlled by bell ringing and whistle blowing. The main meal was in the middle of the day with evening meal provided at approximately 5:30pm. Witnesses reported going to bed at various times between 7:30pm and 9pm. Bedtimes changed with other aspects of care provision in the post-1960s period. Witnesses from different Schools gave varying accounts of how their day was structured and what they did in the afternoons, early evenings and at weekends. A mixture of work and recreation was uniformly reported with different emphasis on each in different Schools and over different decades.


Clothing was made on site in many boys’ Schools prior to the 1960s, and in some instances including the 1960s. Witnesses described being allocated a set of clothes when they were admitted: knee-length tweed trousers and jacket, woollen jumper and knee socks, nightshirt and boots. The clothes were identified as theirs by number. Underwear was confined to underpants and was not provided in all Schools. Most Schools provided ‘Sunday suits’ for Sundays and special occasions. Winter coats and wet weather clothing were rarely reported as were caps, gloves or scarves. Witnesses reported that the material used for the trousers and jackets was rough tweed, made in the weaving shops, and was uncomfortable, especially when wet. Boots were described as heavy, with steel caps or hob nails to minimise wear and tear. The Committee heard evidence of improvements in the standard of clothing provided and of more appropriate clothing for winter being provided from the mid-1970s. Some witnesses from that period had new clothes bought for them which were for their own use and not shared with other residents.


Personal hygiene was reported as attended to in a regimented manner using shared facilities with little or no toiletries provided before 1970. Increased provision of soap, toothbrushes, towels, toilet paper, combs and hot water were reported during the 1970s and 1980s. Witnesses consistently described sleeping in large dormitories without any privacy or space for personal possessions until individual cubicles and smaller shared bedrooms were introduced from the late 1960s in many Schools.


Silence was commonly enforced in the dormitories, during mealtimes and while working. As described, silence was expected among the residents throughout most of the working day, including at times during recreation periods.



Work was presented by the majority of witnesses as a central feature of daily life in the Schools from a young age. Witnesses from junior Schools reported having daily domestic chores, while those from senior Schools described manual work as an integral part of their day, particularly from early adolescence. The types of work described included both indoor and outdoor work in the weaving, shoemaking, tailoring, and carpentry workshops, kitchens, staff residences, farmyards, fields and bogs, as well as day labouring for local farmers and businesses. The Committee heard reports from most witnesses about their experience of being engaged in often heavy, manual work as children for or on behalf of the Schools.


There were 245 reports of farm work that involved herding and milking cows, cleaning sheds, tending cattle, pigs and poultry, saving hay, picking potatoes, collecting and spreading seaweed as fertiliser, felling trees, cutting wood, cutting and saving turf on the bog and picking stones. Use of machinery on the farms was minimal and long hours were worked in all weather. From arrival at 12 I was assigned to the farm, I was afraid of animals. It was a big farm, only one lay worker and an elderly Brother. Boys did everything, milked morning and evening, herded animals, dropped potatoes, sowed sugar beet, turnips, hay making and harvesting. On a rote basis, we had to stay up all night with pigs who were due a litter, it was hard work, particularly in winter when no extra clothing was provided.


The trade workshops were a feature of the School system in the period prior to the 1970s. There were 206 specific accounts of time spent in one or more different trade areas, referred to as ‘shops’. The most commonly reported trades were tailoring and shoemaking. The work in these settings was believed to be predominantly related to meeting the institutions’ needs for clothing, boots and leather straps. In the shoe shop you started off as a polisher, you polished the boots for everyone. Then you became a repairer, there was top, a piece of a tyre cut to save it ...(the boot)... when you were playing football. There was ...number... lads doing them. Then there was the “generals” who made the shoes and then there was the head shoe boy. • Everyone worked from day one. I was assigned to tailoring at 13 ...(years of age)... instead of school. I was not able to read and write. The tailoring was initially confined to making and mending boys’ clothing.


Associated trade activities were darning, mending, knitting and weaving, although accounts of these tasks were less often heard. While 27 witnesses reported developing skills in a trade that subsequently led to gainful employment most reported that the skills they learned were redundant when they were discharged as the weaving, tailoring and shoemaking trades had been largely mechanised. Other witnesses reported being so badly affected by the abuse they experienced in the context of work in the trade shops that they avoided similar work when they were discharged.


The kitchens were another area where residents worked, both within the School and in the adjacent religious congregation houses. There were 78 separate reports of working in the kitchens. This work was more generally favoured as it provided access to extra food and warmth. The work described included washing and peeling potatoes, carrying heavy pots, scrubbing pots, pans and floors. Kitchen work was described as undertaken by one or two residents at a time and as more isolated than other work areas. The less attractive component of kitchen work for male witnesses was that the kitchens were frequently the domain of a single Brother, several of whom were reported as particularly harsh and abusive.


Witnesses generally reported that they had little choice about the type of work they were appointed to do: Eventually I got a job in the shoe repair shop where I was not welcomed as I was left handed, I hated working there. • I was told after 2 months “it is time to start earning your keep”. I was put to work in the Brothers’ kitchen where I remained during my stay in School. This meant I missed Mass as I had to prepare for breakfast for the Brothers and missed school as I was needed in their kitchen.


There were 21 witness reports relating to discharges prior to 1970 of being directly involved in commercial enterprises for the School, e.g. making Rosary beads for sale, chopping and selling firewood, tailoring, making furniture and working for local farmers and businesses.


Changes were reported to have been introduced in the 1970s and 1980s that facilitated more choice, including paid work outside the institution, e.g. the local creamery, factory or hotel during the summer holidays and less work on farms attached to the Schools.


There were few accounts of domestic staff being employed in the institutions; witnesses reported that the residents generally did all the housekeeping work, with the exception of the laundry. Local women were reported to be employed by some institutions, mainly in this area, but had little contact with the residents. Witnesses discharged in the late 1970s and 1980s reported the main type of work undertaken to be routine household chores that some Schools used as an opportunity for residents to earn points that could be exchanged for privileges such as home leave and outings.