St Joseph’s, Dundalk was first certified as an industrial school in 1881 and continued in existence until 1983. The Rules and Regulations for Certified Industrial Schools in Saorstát Eireann, which governed all industrial schools, were signed by the Resident Manager of Dundalk on 13th January 1933 and approved by the Minister for Education. The rules gave the name of the school as ‘The Dundalk Industrial School, Co. Louth for Roman Catholic Girls’.
It remained a school for girls until 1965, when boys were first admitted. The School received formal recognition in 1971 for the reception of young boys up to the age of 10 years.
The original school was established at the height of the Famine in 1847 by invitation of the parish priest and a number of concerned residents in Dundalk. The Sisters of Mercy came to Dundalk to work for the poor and sick, and five Sisters from Dublin formed the original group. A house, which was formerly the offices of the Excise Commissioners, was provided for them in Seatown Place, and it became known as St Malachy’s Convent. From 1855 onwards, the Sisters began to care and provide accommodation for orphans. In 1877, two three-storey houses adjacent to the convent were purchased for use as an orphanage. The funding came from Archbishop Kieran, who was a former parish priest of Dundalk, from a number of donations, and from the proceeds of a bazaar. The school numbers increased, and to accommodate the children an additional wing was built. By 1900, the School had become one long building made up of four adjoining three-storey houses.
In 1933, the School was certified for 100 children. The average number of pupils in the decades that followed was as follows: 1940s 56 1950s 42 1960s 22 1970s
The location of the School on the main street gave it the advantage of being close to the local community, unlike other industrial schools. The Provincial leader of the Sisters of Mercy of the Northern Province, Ireland, Sr Ann Marie McQuaid, summarised these advantages in the first public hearing: they were out regularly, both on walks and whatever activities were on in the town. Way back even, I saw it in the Punishment Book of the 1930s, they were getting out to the pictures which were being held in the town hall. The older girls got permission to go out to do messages, to bring the little ones on walks. Also, the people of Dundalk ... seemed to have embraced the children because there was tremendous interaction, there was a lot of support and care from the people of Dundalk for the children right through the 100 years including a god-parenting programme where people god-parented each child within the Institution.
One witness, Elaine,1 who was there in the 1940s and 1950s, confirmed that the local people befriended them. She said: The local people were quite good, they would send in treats like boxes of sweets, my job would be to answer the letters thanking them.
The location of the School had many disadvantages too. The site was restricted, and offered little space for development. As Sr McQuaid explained: They had a small yard at the back with a shelter for the children with a roof and three sides and a hot pipe that ran through it and connected to the laundry ... On wet days, they were in the School.
At the earlier public hearing, she described the atmosphere of the School in more detail: It was a cold building. Even when the heating was put in in ’51 it was still cold and they supplemented it in the 70s and they still had to put in heaters. It has long narrow corridors and it is more long than it is broad. It has a basement and three floors and an attic so it was a very formidable building for little children who were already traumatised to suddenly arrive in.
The limitations of the physical accommodation became a recurring theme in the Department of Education General Inspection reports for the period under review. The biggest drawback was that the School lacked adequate recreational facilities for the children. An outdoor concrete yard was all that was available, until an adjoining field, owned by the adjacent primary school, was used from 1952. This was of great concern to the Department of Education over the years and, in particular, the Medical Inspector, Dr McCabe. Another Inspector from the Department of Education, Mr Sugrue, visited the School in 1958, with the principal intention of providing additional recreational facilities for the School.
It was not until the late 1960s that steps were eventually taken to bring about improved recreational facilities. It would seem that the School lurched along for many years with very little improvement or modernisation of the resources, undertaken either by the school management or by the Department of Education.
The School officially closed in 1983. In a letter dated 24th March 1983, the Sisters of Mercy applied to the Department of Education to resign the certificate for St Joseph’s. The Minister for Education withdrew the certificate under the 1908 Act with effect from 24th September 1983.
Three reasons brought about the closure of the School. First, the Kennedy Report (1970) had recommended the introduction of a group home system, but the physical structure and layout of the School in Dundalk made such a system difficult. The Sisters of Mercy tried to introduce it by establishing smaller groups, with children divided by age. However, the group home structure could only be achieved on a different site and in purpose-built accommodation. The Department Inspector in his General Inspection Report dated May 1973 stated: This is one Home, almost certainly, where we will be spared the concern of providing a Group Home – at least for the present – for lack of suitable site(s).
Moreover, the Department of Education’s architect, on an inspection of the School in 1976, stated unequivocally that ‘This building is a death trap’. He also stated that, ‘There is only one Architectural solution to this case and that is vacate the present buildings’. He was also strongly of the view that under no circumstances should State monies be spent on the building except for first aid repairs.
The second reason for the closure of the School was that Health Boards in the 1970s were focusing more on fostering as a means of caring for children rather than residential care in institutions.
The third factor that contributed to the closure of the School was staffing: the Resident Manager was elderly and in poor health in the 1970s; and it was difficult to recruit staff.