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Chapter 8 — Everyday life experiences (female witnesses)

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This chapter summarises the information provided by the 378 female witnesses about their experience of education, work, health, recreation and other aspects of everyday life in Schools over a period of 74 years between 1914 and 1988. All the Schools referred to by female witnesses were managed by religious Sisters.


There were many consistencies in the reports heard by the Committee from female witnesses in relation to all the Schools. Witnesses reported living in large unheated buildings with communal dormitories and poor hygiene facilities, as part of a strictly controlled regime that allowed little time for recreation and was largely isolated from the outside world, including their family. Witnesses reported their time was occupied between work, school and recreation with varying emphasis on each in different Schools and over different periods of time.


In relation to admissions prior to the 1970s, the most common features reported by witnesses were descriptions of the daily routine, including an early morning call by bell for Mass followed by breakfast in a communal refectory. Meals were routinely provided in large refectories at fixed times, the main meal being in the middle of the day and a light meal provided at approximately 5.30 pm. Witnesses went to bed at various times between 6pm and 9pm, with more flexibility in recent years.


Clothing and footwear was reported by many witnesses to have been of inferior quality and generally distributed from a stock of donated second-hand items that were kept in a central clothing store. Reports regarding clothing and personal care varied between Schools over different periods of time. A number of Schools employed someone to make and mend clothing. In other Schools older residents and lay staff were reported to have made the clothes and taught the younger residents how to do so. Many witnesses reported knitting jumpers and socks for themselves and co-residents. Many witnesses reported that they never owned a new pair of shoes. There were a few reports of winter coats being provided on an individual basis but more commonly that they were shared for use as needed. Witnesses discharged during the 1970s and 1980s reported being more often allowed to select their own clothes and no longer having to share clothing and footwear.


Personal hygiene was attended to using shared facilities with little or no toiletries or sanitary protection said to be provided in the majority of Schools in the period before the1970s. Witnesses reported increased provision and availability of hot water, soap, towels, toothbrushes, sanitary towels, toilet paper, combs and hairbrushes in later years. Since the mid-1970s, accommodation was reported to have improved with residents moving to smaller units, either adapted or purpose built, with modern facilities. These units catered for smaller groups of children with trained care staff in some Schools in the late 1970s and 1980s. Other changes reported included attending primary and second-level school and other activities outside the institution.


A consistent feature reported in most Schools prior to the 1970s was the code of silence that was enforced during many activities, particularly while working, in the dormitories and during mealtimes.


The Committee heard evidence from 337 female witnesses of being involved in work and physical labour during their time as residents in the Schools. Work was described as graded according to age and it was reported that residents from some Schools were expected to work from the age of seven years. A small number of witnesses reported that they started working at five years of age. Most witnesses spoke about the lack of staff available to do domestic work and of the priority given to the completion of allocated work to the exclusion of education or play, as one witness said: ‘We cared for them, they did not care for us’. The work described by witnesses included domestic tasks in the Schools, kitchens, convents, local presbyteries, the homes of local families, and on adjoining farmyards. Work of a commercial nature including laundry, Rosary bead and rug making, embroidery, and knitting were also described. Many witnesses reported that residents received no payment for this work.


Work in some Schools was described as beginning before breakfast and continuing until class commenced, to be resumed after school. General cleaning chores such as sweeping, scrubbing and polishing were reported as work tasks by 337 witnesses. Residents were responsible for their own bed making and dormitory cleaning, in addition to cleaning and polishing corridors, staircases, chapels, classrooms and associated convents, and other buildings. Witnesses reported being made to clean or polish the same area a number of times until the desired standard was reached. Witnesses reported that in nine Schools the residents were also required to clean or work in the kitchen of an affiliated boarding school, hospital or nursing home.


One hundred and forty seven (147) witnesses reported working in laundries both for the institutions and convents, and on a commercial basis for external institutions including hospitals, hotels, boarding schools and people from the local town. Many gave accounts of receiving no payment for the work. Witnesses reported having to wash, starch and iron nuns’ habits, clerical vestments and altar linen, sheets, shirts and table linen. The work in the washrooms and laundries was described as laborious, without the aid of washing machines or other equipment in the period prior to the 1960s. Witnesses recalled standing on boxes as small children to reach into laundry troughs and washing nun’s sanitary cloths in cold water with bare hands.


It was the practice in most of the girls Industrial Schools to accept admissions of female infants, and a number of Schools also admitted male infants. The work of providing care for these children was reported to be mainly undertaken by the residents. The ongoing care of babies and very young children, including siblings, was reported by 123 witnesses. This work included feeding, dressing, washing and toileting the children who were often referred to by witnesses as their ‘charges’. Witnesses reported that in a number of Schools they shared their beds with their young ‘charges’. Other witnesses were required to get up at night to feed babies who slept in cots beside their beds. Many witnesses described the overwhelming nature of the childcare task, including eight witnesses who described having to assist toddlers with rectal prolapse. I distinctly remember the babies would be on potties for a long time and sometimes the older children would lift them up and with a cloth push this thing ...(rectal prolapse).... I didn’t know what was going on at the time.


Witnesses reported that there was little or no adult supervision as they performed their childcare tasks. A number of witnesses described the difficulty they experienced caring for young children without the benefit of being well cared for themselves. As a consequence some witnesses acknowledged that at times they treated their young ‘charges’ harshly. A small number of witnesses stated that they were so hungry that they helped themselves to food provided for the babies, replacing milk with water in the babies’ bottles.


Most Schools and convents had residents assigned to answer the doorbell and do other jobs similar to those of a parlour maid. Twenty four (24) witnesses reported being sent as housekeepers to local clergy and families, 13 witnesses reported receiving payment for this work and others reported that they believed payment went directly to the religious congregation.


Kitchen duties and work in the attached bakeries were reported by 121 witnesses. Descriptions of this work in 14 Schools included: washing dishes and pots, scrubbing floors, foraging for firewood, lighting and stoking fires, lifting large pots of boiling water and peeling large quantities of potatoes and other vegetables. Many of the witnesses reported that this work provided access to extra food and warmth, it also involved long hours and was arduous. Work in staff kitchens was seen as particularly advantageous as there was access to better quality food. Some Schools had both commercial and domestic bakeries where residents worked, and in some instances continued on a full-time basis on completion of their education.


Commercial contract work was described as a significant activity in four Schools by 84 witnesses and included piece work in the form of making Rosary beads, scapulars and other religious items. In one School it was reported that young residents made novenas for which it was believed financial donations were received by the School. The majority of witnesses stated that no payment was received for this work.


Working in the farmyard, fields, gardens and on the bogs were described as routine activities in both urban and rural Schools. While it was reported that the female religious congregations generally employed lay male ancillary staff to work on their farms, 97 witnesses reported being involved in farm work including haymaking, saving turf, churning butter, sowing and picking potatoes, milking cows and feeding animals. Weeding gravel driveways, convent graveyards and plucking the convent lawns by hand were other outdoor tasks reported by witnesses from several Schools.

  1. Freedom of Information Acts, 1997 and 2003.