St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls opened in August 1846 in the grounds of the Dominican Convent in Cabra in Dublin. It is managed by the Dominican Sisters under the trusteeship of the Catholic Institute for Deaf People (formerly the Catholic Institute for the Deaf), which is under the patronage of the Archbishop of Dublin.
The School was established at the request of Fr Thomas McNamara, a Vincentian Priest from Phibsborough, Dublin who was one of the founding members of the Catholic Institute for the Deaf. In 1845 when the Institute was founded there were no Catholic schools for the education of deaf children. The Catholic Institute for the Deaf sought to change this and, as a result, St Mary’s school was established for the education of deaf girls and in 1856 a boy’s deaf school was founded, also in Cabra, which was managed by the Christian Brothers.
Early in 1846 two Dominican Sisters went from Ireland to Le Bon Sauveur Institute for the deaf in Caen in Normandy to study the French system of teaching the deaf. Two deaf pupils accompanied them. French sign language was used at the school in Caen and the Sisters on their return adapted this signing method to suit the English language. For a hundred years this sign language system (also known as Manualism), which was modelled on the French sign language was taught in St Mary’s. The boys’ school in Cabra also adopted this teaching method. In 1946, St Mary’s changed from signing to the Oral method, known as Oralism. This consists of lip reading and speech training rather than relying on gestures and signs. Oralism is the preferred teaching method employed in the School to the present day.
When St Mary’s opened in August 1846 it had 15 pupils, which increased to 50 in 1850. In 1952 there were 177 children in the school. In 1985 the school had 350 girls enrolled. It accepts both day pupils and boarders. Girls were admitted to the school from the age of four years through to 17 or 18 years of age.
The School is managed by a Board of Management with a Principal and Vice-Principal in day to day charge. When it was first opened in 1846 the School was directly managed by the Dominican Sisters.
The pupils were divided into three main groups: (a) profoundly deaf; (b) partially deaf; (c) deaf students with other disabilities. Until 1974 boarders were divided into groups of approximately 30 according to age. After 1974 the groups were reduced in size to 16 or less. Each group had a Sister in charge, a housemother and a sewing girl. The babies group had two sewing girls.
The School consists of a primary and post-primary section.
In 1973 a new residential school for the hard of hearing pupils, known as Rosary School, was built. It was situated a quarter of a mile from the main school of St Mary’s. At that time it consisted of 12 classrooms, a general purpose room, a library, a staffroom, offices, a cookery room and store room. A school Inspection report in 1984 carried out by a Department of Education Inspector noted that the school was ‘clean, comfortable and well-maintained’ and ‘located in pleasant grounds’.
In 1987 a new school for deaf multiply disabled children was built on the grounds of St Mary’s. It was known as the Marian School. It consists of four large classrooms, two shared-area classrooms, a staffroom, a library, a large kitchen, an art room and play hall. The pupils were grouped into eight classes according to disability, age and academic ability. By 1990 there were seven full-time teachers employed.
Originally, the School was funded by the Catholic Institute for the Deaf. They received a grant from the local authorities where the children came from. The school made an application to the Catholic Institute for funding based on the number of days each child was resident in the school. The remainder of the funding came from charitable bequests or fundraising. It was not until 1952 when the School was officially recognised by the Department of Education as a special school that it received funding from the Department. The Department of Health later assumed responsibility for the residential aspects of the School.
In 1960 the grant paid by the local authorities for the maintenance of the children amounted to £80.00 per pupil per year. In a letter from the Department of Education to the Department of Finance seeking an increase in the staffing levels dated 1st March 1960, the Department officials pointed out that this figure of £80 was insufficient to maintain a child in the School. They also asserted that ‘no other maintenance grant’ was provided to the nuns. Reference was also made to the high cost of hearing equipment necessary for deaf children. For example, in 1960 a group hearing aid consisting of a large table with plastic top, microphones and wiring for 12 individual hearing aids cost £250.
Twenty one statements of complaint were furnished to the Investigation Committee. Response statements were supplied by both the Dominican Sisters and the Department of Education in respect of these written complaints.
The investigation into the School consisted of a review of the material produced by the Department of Education and Science, the Dominican Sisters, the Catholic Institute for the Deaf, the Garda Síochana, the Archbishop of Dublin and the complainants’ statements. Thirteen complainants attended for interview out of 23 who were invited to attend. These interviews took place at the Commission’s offices and at various other locations around the country and in the United Kingdom.
On 21st April 1952, Sr McEvoy, Prioress of St Mary’s wrote to the Department of Education seeking recognition as a special school. She insisted that due to the nature of deafness small class sizes were necessary and that ‘there can be no mass teaching of deaf children, each child has her own separate problem’. She felt that 10 to a class would be ideal but ‘twelve may be allowed under stress’. Sr McEvoy also emphasised the importance of speaking: Another point of difference is the fact that it is a residential school. The time spent outside class – play, meals, etc. – is as important for the education of these children as the time spent in class; our’s is now an up-to-date oral school and in consequence the children must be kept speaking at all times, and not allowed to use sign language. This work is done by a qualified matron. She would have to be included in the recognised staff, as well as a Principal and a Vice Principal.
A report for the Department of Education in 1952 noted that there were 177 pupils in the school aged between four and 18 years. The staff consisted of six nuns and six lay teachers who were assisted by five deaf adults. Two of the nuns were fully trained as teachers of the deaf and the remaining staff members had experience in teaching the deaf but their qualifications were ‘approximate to the qualification of untrained teachers’. The report commented that the premises and equipment were excellent and ‘that the whole direction shows an enthusiasm, vision and progressiveness which should make the institution a model not alone for this but for other countries’. The Department felt that a staff of 12 teachers would be needed for the recognition of the school together with a new set of minimum qualification requirements for teachers, assistants and Principals. The teacher pupil ratio was to be 14:1. The Department sought the approval of the Department of Finance for these proposals on 1st August 1952.