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Chapter 11 — Dundalk

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Physical abuse


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 ...


The ‘black hole’ may have been an alternative to corporal punishment, but this boy was so terrified by being locked in that dark recess that the experience was akin to psychological torture for him, as the nun must have known and intended.


He also recalled a humiliating incident when he was put into a girl’s dress by the Resident Manager, who paraded him throughout the School in front of all the other children and staff. He was about five years old at the time when this incident happened.


There was no evidence of dependence on corporal punishment to control children. There was an effort to make it a punishment of last resort, and the fact that the School maintained a punishment book for a considerable period of time indicates an intention to regulate corporal punishment. It also provides evidence that other forms of correction, such as losing privileges or being demoted, were used. Unfortunately, an informal system also operated, sometimes cruel, that undermined the value of the formal policy.


Date Offence By Whom Reported Punishment Remarks on the Case
August 1947 Disobedient, sulky and muttering when corrected. Troublesome to the Sisters in P. School. Principal Teacher and also Miss A.6 Kept from going to see Procession and celebration of St Patrick’s Centenary. These 5 girls seem to be leagued together to give trouble.
September 1947 Refused to do her charge. Impertinent to teacher. Miss B.7 Just insisted on its being done.
September 1947 Attacked each other quarrelling over something In the presence of all the children in Dining Hall. [Pupil] slapped by Sister Sienna. Not much improvement.
October 1947 Separated from teacher when out walking, went a different road. Teacher who was in charge. Not allowed out following Sunday.
October 1947 Left school without permission in early morning. Went out to the country. Missed by everyone. Had to be followed by teachers in a motor. No punishment given.
October 1947 Hid all day in the attic. Only missed when the children came to dinner. Missed from dining, then reported to Guards. No punishment given.

Neglect and emotional abuse


The Congregation does not dispute the evidence that there was neglect for a period in the 1940s at St Joseph’s. It acknowledges with regret the criticisms contained in the 1944 and 1946 Reports by the Department of Education Inspector. It points out, however, that after 1946 conditions improved and the neglect of the earlier years never re-emerged in St Joseph’s. In making this assertion, it relies on the Inspection Reports after 1946.


The Sisters of Mercy also acknowledged the failure to meet the educational needs of the children and conceded that, ‘it is undoubtedly the case that the method of education provided was inadequate for the needs of many of the children’. They accepted the fact that many of the girls left the School with only a basic level of primary education. The Congregation also recognised the resentment of many former pupils that they had been given narrow employment opportunities. They further conceded ‘the full potential of many of the children in the school ‘was not realised, and that this has caused great suffering’.


The witness complained about being belittled: I always remember (the teacher) would say you are the lowest of the low, you are the worst of the worst. We would often go out to the grass and try to see what the lowest low was, how low could you put your hands ... That was constant. We were never encouraged to think beyond the four walls that we were in.

  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.
  6. This is a pseudonym.
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  8. This is a pseudonym.