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Chapter 11 — Dundalk

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In carrying out its inquiry into St Joseph’s, there were three sources of information available to the Committee: (1)The evidence given by three former residents of the School. Originally 21 written statements of complaint were received by the Investigation Committee in respect of St Joseph’s Industrial School, Dundalk. As a result of these numbers, Dundalk was listed within the ‘top 20 institutions’ to be heard [third interim report Dec 2003].2 These 20 institutions were ranked according to the number of complaints made against them. By the time the hearings were scheduled, however, only three elected to give evidence before the Committee. The implications of this reduction in the number of complaints are discussed later. (2)The evidence given by Sr McQuaid, Provincial Leader of the Sisters of Mercy of the Northern Province. She gave evidence in public at Phase I and again in public during Phase III hearings. (3)The documentary evidence from the records of the Department of Education, Sisters of Mercy and the Archbishop of Armagh.


There were three complainant witnesses, spanning the period from 1946 to 1974.


Children in St Joseph’s attended an internal primary school that followed the same curriculum as the local primary school, which was for children of the parish and which was located behind the Industrial School. The internal school closed in 1942, and the St Joseph’s children were enrolled in the convent primary school with the children from outside. The School re-located in 1954 to new premises a short distance away. Attendance at external national schools was recommended by the Cussen Commission in its 1936 Report, and the 1942 development was beneficial, especially when the combined school moved away from the industrial school complex in 1954.


In its Opening Statement the Congregation offered explanations for the educational difficulties experienced by children in the Industrial School: It seems likely that many of the children had particular educational difficulties because of their disadvantaged backgrounds and the traumatic upheaval they had experienced in their lives by being separated from family and sent into an industrial school.


Most of the children who went there were very young on entry, aged two years and upwards. Whatever the cause of the under-achievement, the nuns concede that ‘it is undoubtedly the case that the method of education provided was inadequate for the needs of many of the children’.


The Congregation acknowledged the fact that many of the girls left the School with only a basic level of primary education, but submitted that in Ireland generally, few girls attended secondary schools at that time. Two of the former residents complained about the limited education they were given.


At the Phase III public hearing, the representative of the Sisters of Mercy expressed her regret that many of the children did not get a better education and that many of them did not develop their full potential. She added, however, that some children performed better than others at school. Indeed, some went on to secondary school, and to do nursing or secretarial work. At the public hearing Sr McQuaid conceded that, in general, there was a lack of awareness of the educational needs of the children in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, there were no special needs teachers or classes to cater for children who had been displaced or traumatised. The majority of girls got no more than the basic level of education and most ended up in domestic service, irrespective of their abilities.


There were specific regulations from the Department of Education governing the curriculum to be offered in industrial schools. The object was to provide the children with skills and training so that they could become self-reliant in later life. For girls, according to the Sisters of Mercy, this training involved a compulsory programme in childcare, cookery, dairying, housekeeping and crafts. They acknowledged that a number of children have felt aggrieved at having to do housework and chores, because they saw it as doing menial work for the sake of the convent rather than practical training in preparation for employment. The Sisters of Mercy added that, from the 1970s onwards, this practice of working in the convent ceased.


Some older girls in the early years were trained to work in the public laundry but they were not allowed to use the machinery, which limited the value of this work as industrial training. The Congregation said it recognised the resentment of many former pupils at the narrow employment opportunities provided for them. They also recognised that the full potential of many of the children in the School was not realised and that, as a result, great suffering had been caused.


The General and Medical Inspection Reports dating from 1939 until the closure of the School give a contemporary account of conditions in St Joseph’s. From 1939, when she was appointed, until 1965, these inspections were carried out by the Department’s Medical Inspector, Dr Anna McCabe. The School was inspected under various headings, such as accommodation, condition of premises, equipment, sanitation, health, food and diet, clothing, recreation facilities and precautions against fire.


The Department’s records reveal the pivotal role of the Resident Managers in the running and policy-making of the School. The Department seldom got involved in management issues.


With the exception of two years in the 1940s, the Inspector reported that the children were well cared for from a physical point of view.


The earliest report by Dr McCabe is one dated 1st May 1939. She found that the buildings and equipment were in good order, the children appeared well looked after, and the food was of good quantity and quality. Her only criticism was the lack of playing fields for the children, as they had only a large paved courtyard for recreation.


The next Inspection Report is dated 9th February 1944. On this occasion, Dr McCabe found the School clean and well kept, with the children well cared for. Her only criticism was that the blankets for the children were worn and needed replacing. A letter from the Department Inspector to the Resident Manager requested her to implement the recommendations of the Medical Inspector. The Resident Manager took great exception to the comment that the blankets were worn, and wrote to Dr McCabe informing her that there was indeed a large supply of blankets in the School, which she had not noticed. Dr McCabe replied by expressing her surprise at the upset caused to the Resident Manager, and stating that it was not a personal reflection on her part but that it was her duty as the Medical Inspector to ensure that the children had warm bedclothes, and where she saw blankets beginning to wear thin she had to inform the appropriate Resident Manager to replace them so as to ensure a continuing supply of blankets for the children.


Dr McCabe inspected the School again on 22nd September 1944. Her report was even more critical of the conditions in the School on that occasion. The premises were described as not well kept, with a general air of untidiness around the place. Food was considered to be fairly satisfactory, but she suggested increasing the amount of milk and providing chips several times a week during the winter months. The clothes of the children were described as fairly good but rather patched. Again, Dr McCabe remarked on the absence of recreational facilities and suggested acquiring the loan of a field from the convent. On this occasion, she was highly critical of the management of the School saying: There is a general air of laissez-faire all over the place. I was most disappointed to find very many of the children with verminous and nitty heads – necks not washed or ears.

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  2. Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Third Interim Report, December 2003.
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