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 respondent witness, Sr Francesca, who worked in the Industrial School for nearly 20 years, gave evidence. The picture that emerged was that the large numbers in the School meant that discipline and control were important issues in the management of the School: Well, you had to be formal with them and strict. You had to be, not harsh with them, no, but I’d say formal with them.
Sr Francesca attributed much of the blame to the Department and the medical profession, for not providing the nuns with better advice on how to deal with the problem of bed-wetting.
Rachel recalled being beaten with a belt by a nun, Sr Paola, as she and two other girls had fallen asleep in the same bed together. The next morning, they got another beating with a cane by a different nun, Sr Francesca. They were then aged about 10 or 11 years. This witness also took issue with the documents from the Sisters of Mercy stating that the children received a ‘light slap’. She said they got a beating and not a light slap.
One of the Sisters, Sr Francesca, who gave evidence commented on this issue. She stressed that the Resident Manager was very insistent that the children should be supervised at all times, but she was unaware of the reason for it. This would indicate that Dr McCabe’s criticisms had been communicated to the management of Newtownforbes at the time, notwithstanding the lack of any documentary evidence of such communication. It was consistent with the hierarchical structure of the Sisters that the nuns working on the ground were not informed of the Departmental criticisms.
One of the nuns, Sr Francesca, who worked in the School from 1946 to 1963, gave evidence that the children received a hot breakfast in the winter time, which consisted of fried bread with either cocoa or tea and they also got porridge. In the evening, they received tea and bread and butter for their supper. She thought that the children received eggs twice a week as they had a farm with chickens and hens. She said that the children and the nuns received the food from the same source. She explained: we got the milk from the farm and they got milk from the farm, we got the bread from the bakery and they got the bread from the bakery. Meat was ordered from the one butcher, we got it in the convent and they got it. From my knowledge of the Sister in charge of the food in the dining room, she was very exact that they would have good food.
One of the Sisters, Sr Francesca, who was responsible for the clothing of the children, and who worked in the Industrial School from 1946 to 1963, gave evidence that every Christmas she tried to have something new for the children to wear, as her own mother always had new clothes for her when she was growing up. She strove for individuality: my ambition was to get them out of uniform. Now they all wouldn’t be the same, there would be as many colours as the rainbow, and I was very proud of the fact that I was able to do something like that for them.
Food and clothing improved over the years. In particular, Sr Francesca made considerable efforts to clothe the children properly. Problems with these basic elements of care that emerged in the 1940s appear to have been caused by a lack of proper supervision on the part of the Sisters. As there were almost no lay staff employed, it must be concluded that the Institution was run largely by the older girls. Once supervision was improved, the standard of care improved.
Sr Francesca noted that the children in Newtownforbes did not get many visits from their families. It was rare that a child would get a visit. They did not get letters from their families on a regular basis, and some of the children did not hear from them at all. She said that, when she was working in the School, she was not aware of this need to belong to a family. She only realised with hindsight the yearning the children had to belong to a family: in hindsight again, we tried to give them everything, we’ll say, materially, spiritually, physically, but we couldn’t give them what they were longing for and that was family.