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Chapter 11 — Dundalk

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Physical abuse


In her evidence during Phase III, Sr McQuaid described an instance that occurred in the 1950s, when a member of staff beat the children with a hairbrush. She was reported by one of the senior girls to the Resident Manager who subsequently dismissed her. The evidence of Elaine was that one abusive lay worker who beat the children with a hairbrush remained for the duration of her placement and would not have been due to be retained in any event.


Sr McQuaid apologised to ‘anybody who suffered either because of unmerited or excessive punishment, either from a Sister or from ones that we didn’t even notice’. With hindsight, they said they deeply regretted the use of corporal punishment. They realised that even when it was not excessive, it must have had a greater impact upon a child living in an institution.


The rules governing corporal punishment were strict. In no circumstances was it permitted to be inflicted on a girl over 15 years and, for those under that age, it was reserved to the Manager or authorised person. From 1946, the Department of Education’s policy was that corporal punishment was a course of last resort and only for grave transgressions.


The Congregation stated that there was an emphasis on occupation and regimentation as a means of management and control of the children, ‘particularly in the 1940s and 1950s when the numbers of children were large’. It accepted that the impact on the children would have been restrictive and frustrating, but said that the atmosphere became more relaxed when numbers decreased in the period 1960 to 1983. It is interesting to note, nevertheless, that the staff-child ratio in the period 1940 to 1983 was 1:9, which was much better than the norm for the time: There were usually three Sisters and employed staff and that wasn’t counting the staff who came in, Sisters who came in in the morning and the evening, so it was amazing that it was that. Sisters of Mercy Records: Annual Reports 1934–1958


Records provided by the Sisters of Mercy include yearly reports written by the Resident Manager, giving a brief account of the activities of the School and running from 1934 to 1958, after which the practice appears to have ceased. The reports gave an overview of life in the School for each year under different headings: education/literary instruction, industrial training, fire drill, recreation, home leave, conduct of pupils, buildings and equipment, and aftercare.


Under the heading ‘conduct of pupils’, details of the punishment of pupils was described in general terms. There was rarely mention of physical punishment: the most usual punishment was deprivation of certain activities or treats, such as an after-dinner sweet or the weekly walk, depending on the seriousness of the misdemeanour.


The information was of a very general nature with some statistical material. These reports were the only contemporary record of life in the School, and the information recorded is unfortunately of limited value and varies little from year to year.


The punishment book covered the period from 1888 to 1950. At the opening public hearing (Phase I), Sr McQuaid said that the punishment book was still in existence but that it had not been filled in after 1950. She explained: Yes, we did have the book, which we gave to the Commission, but it was blank. And I must say I would have had the question that is probably in your mind, why it was blank. I don’t have an answer, except that I am conscious that in the couple of other institutions that I am aware of that had Punishment Books theirs seem to have ended in the 1950s as well.


The entries in the book were recorded under headings such as the date, the name of the pupil, the offence committed by the pupil, who reported the offence, the punishment, and remarks on the case.


Offences warranting punishment included the following: being insubordinate and disrespectful to teacher. taking fruit from the pantry. showing disregard to directions. going out to visit relations without permission. Giving unnecessary trouble and showing insubordination. taking money from past pupil without leave. wasting time during literary work and showing insubordination to teacher. leaving school and going up town without permission. taking pocket money from another child and spending it without permission. showing disregard for directions and taking correction badly. tampering with keys. disobeying school rules and defying teacher. being insolent on different occasions – disregarding orders given by the sisters and being disrespectful to teachers. refusing to go to recreation.


The book in many cases recorded that no punishment was imposed and, where punishment was decided upon, the forms of reprimand included being: kept from Sunday walk, deprived of Sunday outing, deprived of Pictures Matinee, Placed at the Junior Table in Dining Hall, deprived of day at the Sea.


Physical punishment was recorded as slapping by the Sister in charge or the Resident Manager. Six entries of slapping as a form of punishment were recorded in the book. For the most part, punishment was deprivation of some kind. In this regard, the book’s authenticity as a record is not consistent with the witnesses who spoke of corporal punishment as being much more pervasive.


There is no evidence that Inspectors systematically inspected the punishment book.


The question is whether the book is an accurate and complete record of discipline in the Institution up to 1950. If it is, it demonstrates the benefits of an ordered system, in which the Resident Manager exercised independent judgment and a flexible approach to punishment. It is clear, however, that it does not contain any record of informal or casual chastisement by nuns or lay staff, and the existence of such other modes of punishment undermined the justice of the formal system.


Emmett,4 who was in St Joseph’s as a boy from the early 1970s, described a frightening ordeal to which he was subjected in a very cruel punishment, when he was put into a small cupboard known as ‘the black hole’: The black hole is an area which is situated in the basement of the convent, right beside the kitchen area. It is about three, maybe four by four square, and in height also. It is totally black. One was thrown into there kicking and screaming, not wanting to go there, terrified and wanting to get out because it is not a nice thing to go into and just being left there all night. Myself and my brother were put in there. Why I can’t recall. I was terrified being put in there, kicking and screaming, wanting to be let out ... whatever I have done wrong sorry, just let me out, let me out. My brother also tried to calm me down but I almost turned my anger out onto him ... all I knew was that this is totally wrong and bad to be done and there is nothing one could do about it. One kicked at the door to be let out and only to be told that if you keep kicking on the door you are going to stay in there much longer. It could be five minutes and at the time it was all night. An incident which happened in which I was in there all night on my own, Sr Sienna5 put me in there ... In the early hours, it must have been six around o’clock ... I heard a noise outside and I thought it was Sr Sienna and I said, “please let me out. I will be good, I am sorry for whatever I have done”, only for one of the kitchen staff to open the door and say to me, “what are you doing in there?” Naturally I would be so scared to say it to her, because I wouldn’t want to get her into trouble because God knows what the nuns would do to her. She says, “well okay I’ll let you out but don’t tell the nuns that I have let you out.” I would have clambered out of it and creeped and went straight upstairs to my bed. That would be one of the worst times that it happened. Another time ... I did kick and push the door to get out but Sr Sienna opened the door and gave me a slap, and of course gave (my brother) a slap just as bad ...

  1. This is a pseudonym.
  2. Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Third Interim Report, December 2003.
  3. This is a pseudonym.
  4. This is a pseudonym.
  5. This is a pseudonym.
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  8. This is a pseudonym.