Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 14 — St. Joseph’s Kilkenny

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The period 1933 to 1952


In her inspection report dated 15th March 1945, Dr McCabe described the newly appointed Resident Manager, Sr Irma,1 as excellent. She noted a nurse had been appointed to take charge of the younger children and thought it was a step in the right direction.


For the next 10 years, Dr McCabe visited St Joseph’s, Kilkenny on an annual basis. Her reports about the School indicated an exceptionally high level of satisfaction with all aspects, and she was particularly enthusiastic about the Resident Manager, whom she described as very capable and someone who had added much to the School. A very efficient nursery was established for the very small children and added much to their comfort.


Two witnesses, who were resident in the Industrial School in the mid to late 1940s, gave evidence. The witnesses were siblings who were placed in care after the death of their mother. This was a period during which St Joseph’s was still operating as a traditional industrial school.


Although both witnesses experienced feelings of rejection at being placed in care, they were also aggrieved at what happened to them whilst in St Joseph’s. They described the upset at being separated from their brothers who were placed in another industrial school.


They both described Sr Elvira,2 who was a school teacher, as being particularly nasty and cruel. They said that she punished children for no apparent reason and also locked them in a cupboard without food or drink until late at night. This Sister left in the mid-1940s, and one of the witnesses said that things improved following her departure.


Both witnesses told of lay staff who were former pupils and who were left in charge of the children. One lay staff member was described as particularly nasty and is alleged to have kicked and beaten the children.


They also recalled the daily routine in the School, which involved getting up early in the morning, attending Mass, followed by breakfast and doing chores, which involved a lot of scrubbing and polishing.


It is clear from the annals of the Sisters of Charity that, from the mid-1940s, they were aware of the limitations of industrial school life on the development of the children. They saw that the restrictions placed on nuns by their profession narrowed their social contacts, and this affected the children who left the industrial schools ‘knowing nobody and knowing nothing of the ordinary etiquette of social life’.


Change began with the appointment in 1944 of the new Superior who was praised by Dr McCabe. Sr Irma was trained in child psychology and believed that the children should be encouraged to treat St Joseph’s as their home, given more freedom and trusted to go out alone.


These reflections by the Congregation on their own mission, together with the publication of the Cussen Report in Ireland and the Curtis Report in England, prompted the Sisters to draw up a five-year plan to implement change.


Among the changes were: Children were to be given much more freedom. Regimentation was to be abandoned, and the children were to be trusted and treated as individuals. There was to be more careful and sympathetic supervision by the Sisters, and they were to be encouraged to use their imagination with the children. Children were to be allowed out in small groups of two’s and three’s to replace the ‘dreary crocodile to shop with their pocket money, to go walking and on picnics and holiday excursions’. Efforts were to be made to keep siblings together, and children from the same family were to be given a table to themselves in the refectory. A new nursery unit was to be built.


Following the publication of the Curtis Report in 1946, a childcare course was set up in London by the Sisters of the Holy Child. The course was of one year’s duration. Initially, two Sisters of Charity took the course and, subsequently, 10 Sisters completed their training in residential care of children in the 1940s. Thirty more Sisters attended short courses in the early 1950s. Also, in the 1950s, a number of Sisters were sent by Sr Irma to train in the English Child Psychology Course. The annals note that this experience ‘has changed the whole attitude to the treatment of Industrial School children’.


In 1952, the word ‘Institution’ was dropped, and the School was officially known as ‘Girls Industrial School’ and thereafter always referred to as St Joseph’s Girls’ School. The premises were remodelled to provide for groups, and the large group of 130 children was broken into three smaller groups of 30, providing for children between seven and 16. These groups were given Saints’ names, but in fact became known as ‘sets’, distinguished by different colours: red, green and blue. The younger children formed a fourth group, the nursery group.


Each group had its own sitting room and separate dining room which were newly painted and decorated. From 1953, the children from fourth class upwards attended outside schools, and the annals for that year remarked: This gives them the opportunity of mixing with children who have their own homes – in this way they hear something about home life.


By 1954, the School was grouped into four self-sufficient units, and Dr McCabe in her report of that year noted that the residents were mixing with children from outside at recreation and school. She felt they were much happier and lived a more normal existence. The Sisters were also very enthusiastic about the changes brought about in the children as a result of the new system, and this was noted in Dr McCabe’s report dated 14th September 1954.

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