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Chapter 3 — Ferryhouse

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Physical abuse


Fr Antonio, who was in Ferryhouse in the late 1940s and 1950s, told the Committee, ‘The advice I was given when I went over there first, make sure they know who is boss and your job was to keep control. There was very little support, I might add’.


Once ‘shoved into’ the role of Prefect, he went on: You just have to go in and pretend that you are the big boy, which I did at the time ... I roared and shouted and put a fella away and said that will stop that messing now. I don’t remember hitting anybody that particular night, many a time I did. You would kind of take on the acting role ... Then, looking back now, while I was acting I’m sure the children didn’t think I was acting at all, so that would have frightened them as well ... You would think I was going to kill them. It was using fear really to get control.


Fr Antonio told the Committee that he had requested that he be removed from the Prefect’s position. He said: I was glad to get away from the prefecting ... it was too boring and walking around just like that all day, nothing to do. I would prefer to be working, doing something.


He took up another position in the School, and became happier in his work. Indeed, one of the complainants singled him out as a kind and helpful Brother, whereas, when Prefect, he did rule by fear, and was named by many complainants as unfeeling, cruel and severe.


The official instrument used to punish was the leather strap as discussed in the chapter on Upton. There were two kinds: one was a shaped single piece of leather; and the other was known as ‘a doubler’.


It is likely that different straps were in use from time to time, and it is not certain that all of them contained metal or coins within them.


The heavier strap was kept in the Prefect’s office on the ground floor, a room that served also as the sweet shop, and boys who had committed more serious offences were sent there for punishment. Another strap, also a ‘doubler’, was sometimes kept in the Prefect’s room adjacent to the dormitory. It appears that some Prefects carried a strap in their cassock or up a sleeve, to act as both a deterrent and to punish as they felt appropriate.


Both boys and Brothers agreed that, to receive the strap, the boy faced the Prefect or Brother, and blows from the strap were along the length of the hand and forearm. The Brothers spoke of giving a boy a few slaps, but when the witnesses described their pain and distress the full pathos of corporal punishment emerged. Many graphic descriptions are given below. As one witness put it, ‘The doublers ... when you were getting hit it used to go up your arm ... You got it right up the arm’. Many said the most painful was the blow upon the wrist.


Being beaten on the hands was known as getting ‘handers’, and being struck on the buttocks or back was known as a ‘flamming’. In theory, ‘flammings’ were reserved for very serious offences such as absconding and, as a rule, only the Prefects administered them.


The Rules and Regulations governing Industrial and Reformatory Schools, issued to all certified schools in 1933,6 allowed ‘Chastisement with the cane, strap or birch’, but made no attempt to describe the implements. The Department of Education Inspector, Mr Mícheál Ó Síochfhrada, issued more precise guidelines in a circular of 1946, in which he stated that corporal punishment should in future be confined to the form usually used in schools, that is, slapping on the open hand with a light cane or strap. Any form of punishment that was not in accordance with the circular was ‘strictly prohibited’.


The heavy double straps in use until 1993 in Ferryhouse, often weighted with coins, could not be described as a light strap. Nor could a blow along the arm be described as ‘slapping on the open hand’. Therefore, neither the implement nor the manner of delivering the blow were in accordance with the rules and regulations governing corporal punishment.


There is no documentary evidence on the use of corporal punishment and the issue of physical abuse. There is no punishment book for Ferryhouse. This is all the more surprising, given the fact that the Prefect who had introduced the punishment book in Upton in 1952 also served as Prefect in Ferryhouse from 1960. Since the punishment books were intended to control the use of corporal punishment and curb its excesses, its absence makes it more difficult to establish the extent and severity of such abuse.


The Investigation Committee heard evidence from 29 individuals who spent time in Ferryhouse as children. Nearly all of them described being physically punished. Many expressed an acceptance of corporal punishment if it was proportionate and deserved. For example, one witness, in Ferryhouse in the late 1960s and early 1970s, told the Committee: You just have to be, kind of, street wise down there, you know ... I was never really punished much ... if there was a group of you you would always get one or two on the hands and that was it. You would just take it and leave it, you know ... sometimes they were deserved, yes.


He went on to describe the kinds of offences that incurred different levels of physical punishment: Sometimes would be two, sometimes it would be four. Six if it was something bad, you know what I mean, smoking, say, for instance ... or cursing, you know, if you called somebody something you would probably only get two or three ... but really really trouble you would get six.


A predictable tariff for offences would have allowed boys to work out what was fair or deserved punishment, and also taught the ‘street wise’ boy what to do to avoid being beaten. If applied properly, it would have made the punishment regime predictable. This particular witness accepted being physically punished if he had done wrong and if he got what he deserved. He reserved his criticism for unfair punishment, or excessive violence. He told the Investigation Committee: It was strict ... like, when you look back over it, it is for stupid things; wet the beds or you soiled your pants or something like that.

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  6. Set out in full in Volume I.
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  11. Br Valerio did not give evidence to the Committee; he lives abroad.
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  19. This is believed to be a reference to the Upton punishment book.
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  37. Latin for surprise and wonder.
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  50. Bríd Fahey Bates, The Institute of Charity: Rosminians. Their Irish Story 1860–2003 (Dublin: Ashfield Press Publishing Services, 2003), pp 399–405.
  51. Brid Fahey Bates, p 401.
  52. Cussen Report; p 53.
  53. Cussen Report, p 54
  54. Cussen Report, p 55
  55. Cussen Report, p 52.
  56. Cussen Report, p 49.
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  58. Kennedy Report, Chapter 7.