Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 10 — Newtownforbes

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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.


In 1942, the internal primary school at Newtownforbes merged with the town national school, which was situated on the same grounds as the Industrial School, and from then on the industrial school pupils attended the same school as children from the town. This change was in accordance with one of the recommendations of the Cussen Report in 1936. Literary instruction for juniors (children under 14 years) was to be not less than four and a half hours daily, and for seniors not less than three hours.


Children over 14 years followed the Domestic Economy Course for industrial school training in subjects including needlework, laundry, housewifery, dressmaking and cookery. The Children Act, 1941, provided for an extension of the period of detention of industrial school children to enable them to attend second level education. Sr Casey at the Phase I public hearing stated that the records of the Sisters of Mercy showed that, in 1950, three pupils got such extensions. She added that, in 1950 or 1951: there is a reference in our archives to seven attending secondary school, five getting honours in Caffrey’s exam, I think that was a business examination or book keeping or something of that nature.


The school register, she said, also showed that, between 1952 and 1962, at least eight children were attending the secondary school. She drew on her own experience as a pupil and recollected that, in the 1960s, there were ‘at least 12 to 16 from the industrial school’ attending the secondary school, but they did not actually proceed to Leaving Certificate class, and she only remembered one going as far as fourth year. However, she pointed out that this was at a time before the introduction of free education, which came about in 1967, and most children left school at 14 years of age. In her own class, 30 sat the Intermediate Certificate, but only 13 went on to do the Leaving Certificate.


She was of the view that children who showed an academic interest were encouraged by the nuns to remain on in secondary education.


One of the biggest grievances of the complainant witnesses was the lack of education and career opportunities available to them: the industrial school children were prepared for domestic service rather than any other career. Sr Casey at the Phase III public hearing conceded this point, but sought to put it in the context of the time: Certainly the training was for domestic service, but if one puts that in the context, that at the time and the years that we are talking about domestic service would have been what most of the people in the country would have went into. Because if you even look at the Central Statistics Office, figures from there would have indicated that, for example, of people gainfully occupied by occupation in 1946 that in personal service there were 102,000. 83% were women and of that 79,000 of them were employed as domestic servants, so it wasn’t unusual in the wider context.


She also pointed out that some of the girls from the Industrial School went into nursing and into retail. She acknowledged that not all the children from the Industrial School sat for the Primary Certificate, but added that ‘every effort was made to give the children a basic primary education’.


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’.


Furthermore, she felt that they had no ambition, whereas the day pupils from the town were very anxious to ‘get on’ and were progressive, and some of the industrial school children were very weak. She made extra efforts to help them but, with some children who were very bright and some who were weak in the same class, it made teaching difficult. She was sympathetic: I always thought, you see, they hadn’t the advantages of coming from a home. They were in the same environment all the time, surrounded by the same four walls, and I kept that before me to try and have them as good as the others, as possibly as good as the others.


She did not believe in ostracising weaker children and never kept children at the back of the class, or considered them dunces, as alleged by some of the complainants: I never did it because I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe in ostracising some children and saying they were dunces or branding them. I never did it, and that is why, you see, I was rather strict, maybe, and perhaps, I would say, harsh with them to try and bring them on and make them realise that they were as good as the next and that they could do it if they made an effort. That was always at the back of my mind.


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.


She could not discuss such matters with anyone in authority, not even the headmistress of the primary school, because ‘the headmistress had no interest in the Industrial School’.


When questioned further, she clarified that the headmistress was only interested in the day pupils and not the industrial school pupils. She did not approve of this attitude, but felt that she was in no position to challenge it, as she was a much more junior Sister and had no say: It wasn’t right. To me more time should be given with the children in the Industrial School than those coming from their homes because of the disadvantages that the industrial school children were under and what they were deprived of, of a home and parents and love and care, and all the rest of it.


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.

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  4. Dr Anna McCabe was the Department of Education Inspector for most of the relevant period.
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