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Chapter 4 — What the schools were required to do

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Instructions in regard to the infliction of corporal punishment in national schools


In December 1946, Circular 15/46, signed by Michael Breathnach, Secretary of the Department of Education, and entitled ‘Circular to Managers and Teachers in regard to the infliction of Corporal Punishment in National Schools’ was sent to all national schools. It appears from this document that two additions were made to section 96(1) and (3) which did not appear when the original 1946 Rules and Regulations were circulated to the schools (these additions are identified by italics): Rule 96(1): Corporal punishment should be administered only for grave transgression. In no circumstances should corporal punishment be administered for mere failure at lessons. (3) Only a light cane or rod may be used for the purpose of corporal punishment which should be inflicted only on the open hand. The boxing of children’s ears, the pulling of their hair or similar ill-treatment is absolutely forbidden and will be visited with severe penalties.


The Circular did not authorise the use of a leather strap as an implement of punishment in national schools.


In 1956, a further Circular from the Department of Education, Circular 17/56 entitled ‘Circular to Managers and Teachers of National Schools in regard to Corporal Punishment’, was issued. This Circular was in response to publicity which had been given to the matter of corporal punishment in national schools, and was issued to re-affirm the Department’s policy with regard to corporal punishment and to give guidance to those ‘who may be disposed to contravene Rule 96 of the Code’. The Circular stated: In re-issuing that rule, set out hereunder, opportunity is being taken to announce an amendment, printed in italics, of Section (3).


The full Rule 96 was then set out, with the amendment to section (3) as follows: (3) Only a light cane, rod or leather strap may be used for the purpose of corporal punishment which should be inflicted only on the open hand. The boxing of children’s ears, the pulling of their hair or similar ill-treatment is absolutely forbidden and will be visited with severe penalties.


This amendment is significant, in that it authorised at an official level the use of the leather strap in national schools after a 10-year gap. The evidence would indicate, however, that the leather strap was used in schools throughout this period.


The status of these Circulars could be debated. They were not statutory provisions, neither were they regulations or statutory instruments made under legislative authority conferred on the Department. The Department was, however, the relevant regulatory body and was clearly in a position to issue guidelines and recommendations and instructions. It appears that a school could not be prosecuted for breach of instructions contained in such Circulars. Neither, it would appear, could the Department enjoin observance by way of court order. The Circulars can be regarded as possessing a certain authority, on the basis that they represented the thinking of the Minister and the Department of what constituted reasonable and moderate punishment in schools at that time. Such views would not be binding on a court, but it would appear that they would have been relevant to the consideration by a judge or jury as to what was moderate or reasonable in the way of punishment in a school.


Abolition of corporal punishment did not occur in Irish schools until 1st February 1982, when Department of Education Circular 9/82 stated that any teacher who used corporal punishment was now to be ‘regarded as guilty of conduct unbefitting a teacher’ and would be subject to ‘severe disciplinary action’.


Although this Circular could have provided grounds for a civil action against a teacher who acted in breach of it, it was not until 19973 that physical punishment by a teacher became a criminal offence.


Submissions made by the Christian Brothers and other Congregations on the subject of corporal punishment and physical abuse emphasised that the historical context is essential to any investigation. In particular, the fact that such punishment was permissible and widespread in schools and homes at the relevant time needed to be taken into consideration. The rules and prohibitions set out what was permissible or recommended in using corporal punishment, but it did not follow that departure from them constituted physical abuse. Neither did it follow that conduct that was occurring in other schools or in families at the time could not be abusive.


The complexities of this question can be exaggerated and are, in fact, more theoretical than real. People who lived during the time when corporal punishment was legally permissible in schools, and was acceptable in family circumstances, have no difficulty in deciding whether punishments that they experienced or witnessed were excessive. Teachers, parents and children knew what was acceptable, and were able to condemn excesses. They also knew what amounted to cruelty and brutality. The documentary, and much of the oral evidence about physical abuse related to instances that were considered at that time to be wrong, judged by contemporary standards, not by those of today. The term ‘physical abuse’ was not used, but the concepts underlying the term were well understood.

Punishment book


Pursuant to regulation 12 of the 1933 Rules and Regulations for Certified Industrial Schools, all industrial schools were required to keep a punishment book, in which all serious punishments were to be recorded. Only two such books, relating to a short period of time,4 were discovered to the Investigation Committee in the course of its inquiries, indicating that there was a complete disregard for this requirement on the part of school Managers. This had serious implications for the work of this Committee. Any investigation into historical abuse depends, amongst other factors, on proper records being maintained; and the information gleaned from one of the punishment books, from St Patrick’s Industrial School, Upton, would indicate that such records would have been a very important reference for the investigation.

  1. Regulation 12 of the Rules and Regulations for the Certified Industrial Schools in Saorstát Éireann, 1933, approved by the Minister of Education under the Children Act, 1908.
  2. The Department submits this wording ‘education provision’ means, in other words, the internal national school.
  3. Section 24 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997 provides:
  4. ‘The rule of law under which teachers are immune from criminal liability in respect of physical chastisement of pupils is hereby abolished’.
  5. With the removal of this immunity, teachers are now subject to section 2(1) of the 1997 Act, which provides that:
  6. ‘A person shall be guilty of the offence of assault, who, without lawful excuse, intentionally or recklessly—
  7. (a) directly or indirectly applies force to or causes an impact on the body of another ...’.
  8. Teachers who physically chastise pupils may now be guilty of an offence and liable to 12 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of £1,500, pursuant to section 3(1) of the 1997 Act.
  9. St Patrick’s Industrial School, Upton, County Cork and St Joseph’s Industrial School, Dundalk, County Louth.