Other Sisters who worked in the School expressed similar sentiments. Sr Gianna5 said that she had received no training whatsoever, although she thought that her previous work with children in the Girl Guides might have been a factor in her being sent to Goldenbridge. In her evidence at the Phase I hearing in the Newtownforbes investigation, Sr Margaret Casey stated: The Sisters themselves would not, as I said earlier, have had any kind of formal training in childcare, actually such training didn’t exist until the 70s. So most of the Sisters there would have had a background in secondary education before they entered. Subsequently they would have received some training, some of them, obviously the primary school teachers would have qualified as primary school teachers. Some of the Sisters working in the Industrial School did diplomas and certificates to Ceidi and Lough Gill and home economics and housewifery, that area. I know that one of the Sisters in 1953 attended an institutional management course that was run in Carysfort. She subsequently was full-time working in the Industrial School. One Sister also trained as a children’s nurse.
The Investigation Committee heard evidence in three phases. The first phase involved a public hearing at which Sr Margaret Casey, Provincial Leader of the Western Province of the Congregation of Sisters of Mercy, gave evidence on behalf of the Congregation on 10th January 2006. She had no direct involvement with Clifden apart from spending a fortnight there before the School closed down. She drew from the following sources of information in preparing her evidence for the Commission’s inquiry: archival records held by the Congregation; material received from the Commission by way of discovery and complainants statements; documentation arising out of litigation proceedings; and conversations with Sisters who were part of the Community in Clifden.
Finally, in the third phase of the Committee’s inquiry, Sr Margaret Casey again gave evidence at public hearings on 15th and 16th May 2006 and was questioned in relation to the Congregation’s position in light of the evidence that had emerged during the private sessions.
Sr Margaret Casey confirmed that corporal punishment was a feature of life in Clifden, and she stated that it was the norm at the time. The principal form of punishment was slapping, administered by hand, cane, flat stick or ruler, usually by the Sister on duty. She found no evidence of a policy under which children were sent to the Resident Manager or other senior figures for the administration of punishment, and conceded that punishments were carried out in the presence of other children, usually on the spot. She referred to the punishment book mentioned above, and confirmed it was not maintained after 1956 and was general in nature.
Sr Casey acknowledged that the documented case of excessive corporal punishment referred to above was ‘a significant incident’.
In the course of an apology to former residents of Clifden, Sr Casey stated: I suppose we do recognise that the children that were committed to our care...were vulnerable and we do recognise that they were traumatised. The system that prevailed in the Industrial School mitigated against giving them the necessary affection and care that their vulnerability required ... It was necessary dealing with such large numbers to maintain order and strict discipline was required. This obviously had a negative effect on the children and unfortunately we deeply regret that this may have been excessive at times and for this we are truly sorry.
Sr Margaret Casey accepted that the staff-child figures were totally unacceptable by today’s standards.
Referring to the fact that there was a significant pool of Sisters in the convents in Clifden and Carna Sr Casey stated that each of these Sisters was involved in her own ministry, teaching, nursing etc, or retired or engaged in their own professional training, and that there was in fact no surplus supply to direct to the Institution.
Sr Carmella accepted that there were some teething problems when a new Resident Manager was appointed in 1969, and recalled the Gardaí calling to the School in relation to an incident. She was asked about a query, in a Department Inspection Report for this period, regarding the reasons behind the shortage of Sisters in the Industrial School, despite the fact that they formed part of a Community of 40 Sisters. Her rationale for this situation was that nobody wanted to work for the new Resident Manager. She reiterated Sr Casey’s evidence that all of the Sisters in the convent had their own duties, such as working in the hospital or domestic economy school, or they were retired nuns. There were not any nuns available to work in the Industrial School.
Sr Casey and complainant witnesses testified that inspections were notified to the school in advance and that conditions were improved for the visits.
Sr Casey said she had spoken to two Sisters who expressed concern about the adequacy of the food in the School in the mid-1960s. She accepted that, in the 1950s and through to the early 1960s, the food was very basic; at teatime they had bread, butter and jam every day.
Sr Casey stated at the Phase I public hearing: Up to the ‘60’s the level of education was generally that of Primary Cert, but there was industrial training provided as well and the children would have been expected to engage in significant amounts of domestic work depending on their age, such as the laundry, kitchen and bakery and at any given time a child would have helped on the farm. These things all of them together would undoubtedly have made the children feel that in some sense their childhood was thwarted or stunted.
Sr Margaret Casey, the Provincial of the Western Province of the Sisters of Mercy, gave evidence at the Phase I and Phase III public hearings in respect of Newtownforbes. As a child, she and her family lived directly across the road from the Industrial School at Newtownforbes, and they were therefore familiar with the children who attended there. In addition, she attended the same primary school as the industrial school children.
No records exist as to the number of lay staff who worked in the Industrial School. The 1966 General Inspection report of the Medical Inspector, Dr Lysaght, who reported to the Department of Education, noted ‘no lay helpers in this school’. At the Phase I public hearing, Sr Margaret Casey acknowledged that they had very little information on the number of lay staff, but said there appeared to have been ‘at least one or two’. She also acknowledged that, at different intervals, some former pupils remained on as lay staff and assisted the nuns in the Industrial School.
This rule meant each Sister was expected to follow unquestioningly the will of the Reverend Mother. In particular, it hindered her ability to question the system or to suggest improvements if she disagreed with certain aspects of the management and administration of the School. At the Phase III public hearing, Sr Casey was questioned on the impact that the vow of obedience had on a Sister’s ability to question her Superior on how a school such as Newtownforbes was being run. Sr Casey conceded that it was not the done thing to question authority at that time. She said: But it would have been true, as well, that out of the obedience that it wouldn’t have been the accepted or the norm for somebody to complain to the person in authority about how the place was being run, because to do so would have been seen not merely as a kind of personal failing but it would also have shown that in some way that their inability to cope with the challenges of religious life.