Lota did not come within the scope of the Inspector for Reformatories and Industrial Schools either. Dr Anna McCabe, who inspected these schools, did not visit Lota, and no Department of Education inspection of the residential facilities took place either. The industrial schools were inspected and the Medical Inspector’s reports left contemporary evidence about diet, and living conditions. No such documentation exists for Lota.
In contrast, the Sisters of Charity, who were also engaged in the institutional care of children, recognised the need for change, and attended childcare courses in England in the late 1940s. These courses changed the way the Sisters looked at institutional childcare in Ireland. They recognised that the existing nature of institutional care could not provide for the psychological or emotional needs of vulnerable children. They introduced the group home system to St Joseph’s, Kilkenny between 1951 and 1954. The success of this innovation was recognised almost immediately by Dr Anna McCabe, who saw that the children were happier in the new system.
The Department of Education Medical Inspector, Dr Anna McCabe, inspected the premises and from time to time made suggestions regarding the care of the children. Her first two inspections were significant, because they coincided with the appalling conditions described by Sr Alida. The first was in 1939 and the second was in 1941. Nothing in these reports would indicate the level of neglect encountered by Sr Alida.
On 7th May 1943, the Resident Manager wrote to the Department, seeking an increase in the accommodation limit from 150 to 160 children, which was acceded to. However, on 22nd July 1943, Dr Anna McCabe wrote to the Department Inspector, following a visit to the School, expressing her disapproval of this increase. She stated that the School was ‘absolutely crammed to capacity’ and that the infirmary had been converted into a dormitory without any alternative put in place. Accordingly, on 14th August the Department wrote to the Resident Manager and stated that the accommodation limit would revert to 150 children. The certified limit was changed to 140 on 1st April 1943.
The documents available to the Committee included: The reports of the General and Medical Inspections conducted by the Department’s Medical Inspector, Dr Anna McCabe,1 following her appointment in 1938; Memoranda and correspondence between the Department’s Inspectorate and the Resident Manager and Superior for St Michael’s Industrial School following the Inspections; Memoranda and correspondence between St Michael’s School and the Department in relation to the financial viability of the School, the reduction in pupil numbers, capitation grants and such like, and the plans to move from an institutional model to that of group homes.
The first surviving record of a General Inspection of St Michael’s is dated 1939. The School received a clean bill of health from Dr Anna McCabe, who described the children as well kept and well fed.
Dr McCabe found on this occasion the following: The School was overcrowded (91 children); The infirmary had been taken over as a dormitory; The food and diet was unsatisfactory, with a lack of butter, meat, bread and sugar. She carefully examined the amounts given to the children and considered they were all underfed and she gave the example of 7lbs of mince per day and 7lbs of butter per week being divided amongst 91 children.
Dr McCabe stated in her Inspection Report of 1943 that she had drawn the Resident Manager’s attention to the size of the children on several occasions, and the response she received was that the children were very active. She was sceptical about this explanation, and she reported the situation to her superiors in the Department and advised them to write to the Resident Manager.
Dr McCabe did not accept the response of the Superior, and advised her Department that she could only go by her own observations – the children had not gained weight over a period, and the only conclusion that could be drawn was that they were not getting sufficient food.
Dr McCabe disagreed with the opinion of the School Medical Officer, and suggested that properly fed children did not need to supplement their diet with cod liver oil. The Minister for Education was informed of the response of the Superior, and a decision was taken on 14th March 1944 to send a strong letter to the School. The terms of the letter sent two weeks later were that the Department did not accept any of the reasons given by the Superior or the Medical Officer, and directed the Superior to inform the Department of what action she intended to take as soon as possible.
Clearly frustrated, Dr McCabe informed the Department that she felt the children needed to be properly fed, and wondered what the ‘collation’ would contain. On 13th April 1944, the Department once again, wrote formally to the Superior, telling her the children were simply not getting enough food: ... The position is, however, that the dietary seems, in any case, to have been inadequate all along as evidenced by the failure of the children to put on weight in the normal way. What is required is an all-round increase in the amount of food given to the children and the Minister will be glad to learn that you have made arrangements to have this done ... It is noted that you have arranged for the issue of a collation before bed-time and I am to enquire of what it consists.
Dr McCabe held her ground, and told the Department that she was quite satisfied that the diet was inadequate, and added that, in her opinion, the Resident Manager was a domineering woman who resented criticism and challenged advice. The Department decided to let matters rest for a period, as some changes had been made to the diet. They could then monitor to see if the children gained weight. They instructed Dr McCabe to go to the School in September 1944 and weigh every child.
Dr McCabe visited the School on 21st August 1944 and, on the day in question, she reported receiving an excellent meal, and she stated: The day I visited the school there was certainly an excellent meal given and I intend to re-visit this school within the next few months to check up again – however I feel if the children were always as well-fed as the day I was there that they should put on weight.
In an internal Departmental report dated 9th September 1944, the opening sentence set the tone, and went on to describe the appalling state of affairs that continued to exist: This is another school run by the Sisters of Mercy which has a long record of semi-starvation. Dr. McCabe’s report following her inspection last November disclosed such an appalling state of affairs that we went over the head of the resident manager and issued an ultimatum to the Manager. Dr. McCabe’s latest report shows how far we have got. Out of 75 boys, 61 are under the normal weight for their age-height groups by from 3 lbs. to 21 lbs. The butter ration is exactly the same as it was in November, 1943 – 7 lbs. (At 6 ozs. per head it should be 28 lbs.) The boys continue to look pinched, wizened and wretched and look lamentably different from normal children. It is abundantly clear that the only hope of the required improvement lies in drastic action. The first and most obvious step is the removal of the present resident manager. Dr. McCabe informs me that she is a ruthless domineering person who resents any criticism and challenges advice. Her explanation of the children’s failure to gain weight – their "activity" – rivals Marie Antoinette’s "why don’t they eat cake?". She has bedded down long since into a groove out of which she cannot be shifted by some annual criticism, and it seems clear that she holds the manager in the hollow of her hand. I see no hope of improvement while she continues in office. The state of affairs existing in this school is so deplorable and indefensible that I think further strong action is required. I suggest that payment of the state grant be suspended for three months and, that the manager be informed that there will be a special inspection say, early next December. If that inspection shows that the underfeeding has ceased and that the weights generally are on the increase and tending towards normality, payment will be resumed. If not, consideration must be given to the withdrawal of the certificate. I might mention that Dr. McCabe’s account of the nuns’ schools generally is most alarming. Underfeeding is widespread. In fact, she tells me that in only one school Kinsale – is she completely satisfied with the diet. The general rule is what she describes as a bare "maintenance diet" – sufficient to keep children from losing weight but not enough to enable them to put on weight at anything approaching the normal rate. A third junior boys’ school run by the Sisters of Mercy – Passage West – is in the same category as Rathdrum and Cappoquin, and she proposes to visit it again shortly. She is strongly of opinion that we must hit the schools in their purses by threatening to stop grants – and stopping them if necessary in one or two of the worst cases – if we are to effect an improvement. This was followed by a series of notes between [the] (Inspector of Reformatories and Industrial Schools) and Dr McCabe. [The Inspector] was reluctant to take such drastic action as recommended by the Chief Inspector especially as he felt stopping the funds might make it worse for the children. Dr McCabe felt the only way to bring about improvement was to hit the school through the purse strings as similar action in other schools had brought about change. A decision was taken to insist on the removal of the Resident Manager with a follow up special inspection in three months. If conditions had not improved by then the grant was to be suspended. A further suggestion was mooted, to approach the Bishop of the Diocese, if things did not improve under the new Resident Manager.
The Department then wrote to the Superior on 15th November 1944 and asked for the appropriate form to be completed with regard to the new Resident Manager. This elicited the following response from the Superior: Immediately on receiving a negative reply (22/10/44) to my request, that the then Resident Manager of St Michael’s School, be allowed to hold the position provisionally, I appointed Sr. [Adriana]2 to fill the post. I thought it well to defer notifying this waiting the Inspector’s visit. The strong censure contained in your Communication came as no small surprise, as apart from the failure of the children to put on weight we had no reason to think that Dr. McCabe was not satisfied with the general status of the School.