Three respondent witnesses had been due to give evidence to the Committee, but one was unable to do so because of illness. The two witnesses who did give evidence had spent long periods of time working in Newtownforbes. These witnesses were aged 84 and 85 years respectively at the time of the hearings. One of these witnesses, Sr Francesca2, had worked exclusively in the Industrial School from 1946 to 1963. The other witness, Sr Elena3, had taught in the primary school from 1947 to 1963 and had no direct contact with the Industrial School itself.
A former nun, Sr Elena, who had taught in the primary school for a period of approximately 16 years, provided useful information on the workings of the Community and the interaction between the Reverend Mother and the Sisters: ... We ... had no say in anything in the Community. It was ruled, it was governed from the top, just a select few that’s all.
The upper echelon of the Community, she said, consisted of four nuns: the Reverend Mother, the Mother Assistant, the Bursar and the Novice Mistress. She referred to them as the ‘elite’. These four nuns, it seems, governed the workings of the entire Community of the Sisters of Mercy at Newtownforbes. The remaining Sisters outside this inner circle had no voice or authority regarding the operation of their Community. Sr Elena described the role played by the remaining Sisters as: ‘you followed blindly and dumbly’.
In effect, the organisational structure operating at Newtownforbes was a two-tier system, with the Reverend Mother and three other nuns at the top, and the remaining nuns at the base. As Sr Elena stated, ‘You had the elite and you had the everyday folk’.
The other respondent witness, Sr Elena, said that corporal punishment was necessary at times. Corporal punishment was also a deterrent against bad behaviour: with the threat of punishment, the pupils were more likely to co-operate and behave in class. She admitted that she used corporal punishment in the class by slapping with a cane or ruler. She claimed that she was strict but fair, and worked in the best interests of furthering the education of the children. To this end, she agreed that discipline and corporal punishment were part of the regime and necessary. In evidence, she stated: ... They appreciated discipline in the class very, very much and they worked very favourably with me and we got on. There was a good rapport between us, even though I was strict, but they knew I worked for their good and that was my one aim, to help every child as possibly best I could.
Sr Elena also admitted that she was exacting in her standards in the classroom, particularly with regard to homework, and if children did not have their homework done she would give them ‘a smack now and again’. She acknowledged that she was more exacting with the children from the Industrial School.
Sr Elena, who taught in the primary school, stated the children from the Industrial School were ‘always scrupulously clean and very well groomed’, and she never saw any of them ‘with broken shoes, strapless shoes or whatever could be wrong with them’. She was also of the view that their clothing was no different to the clothing worn by the day pupils from the town.
Sr Elena, who worked in the primary school, taught fifth and sixth classes combined, amounting to approximately 35 children. She commented on the difference between the industrial school children and the town children. She noted that the industrial school children lacked the advantage of coming from a home with all its attendant love and care and affection, and said that they were, ‘slower and more indifferent and hadn’t their heart in it all. They just came to school because they had to go to school’.
Sr Elena disputed the contention made by some complainants that they learnt nothing while in school, and said that she ‘always insisted that they be able to read, write and spell and stand up for themselves’. She insisted: that was my motto, with taking an interest in them and working with them and perhaps pushing them and driving them, a lot of them they didn’t want to do it. That’s what I aimed at all the time. Any industrial school children, I don’t like using that word, but anyway – any of these children that I had in my class, they were treated the very same as every other child and I insisted that they did their homework and I took it and corrected it and showed them their mistakes. There was no exceptions made, and I would be harder on them, I suppose, than on the others because they had less sense. Some of them had no interest in themselves, whether they got on or whether they didn’t, but then as they would get older, they’d say, “I wasn’t taught” or “I wasn’t helped” or whatever the case may be.
Sr Elena said that she had no input into where the children went afterwards. She acknowledged that many of them went into domestic service. Her duty was to teach and she was confined to that, she had no say in anything else: You know, we just taught them and prepared them, and then outside of school there was two other Sisters with them who taught them husbandry and cleaning and all that to prepare them; exactly.
Sr Elena said she was very much aware of the needs of the industrial school children, but claimed she was helpless to do anything because of the hierarchical system. Each of the Congregational witnesses acknowledged that the needs of the industrial school children were not met, although they differed on the reasons why. At Newtownforbes, the recommendation of the Cussen Commission to integrate industrial school children was implemented but the evidence of the complainants was that they were very aware at that time that the system discriminated against them.
Sr Elena commented on the longing for a family and the effect of the break-up of the family unit on the children. The industrial school children ‘longed for affection’: Well, I remember school time, 3:15 or whatever, when we’d close the school, they’d hold on to you and hold your hands and come along with you. To me, that was they were yearning for affection.