Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 3 — Ferryhouse

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Physical abuse


For all these reasons, absconders were dealt with severely. When they were returned, they were usually punished with the strap, often in view of other boys, and in the earlier years their heads were shaved. At one stage, Fr Antonio informed the Committee: They used to put them in pyjamas and coats over the top to stop them running away ... Again it was Dickensian ... And there were other occasions where they were put in short pants as well.


The major deterrent remained corporal punishment, and, as the Rosminians have conceded, corporal punishment for running away was at times excessive.


A witness who was resident in Ferryhouse in the late 1940s, when he was aged approximately 14 years, told the Investigation Committee of a particularly severe beating he received for absconding. He ran away four or five days after his arrival and was found by the Gardaí and brought back. He was not punished on this occasion. A week later, he ran away again, and was picked up a few days later, early in the morning, by the Gardaí at his home. He was put in a police cell, ‘a dirty stinking hole of a dungeon’ and was forgotten about until there was a change of shift. He received no food at all, and was collected late that evening by a Brother, and driven back to Ferryhouse. He described what ensued: Went to bed because it was very late at night. Within about 15 minutes, I was hauled out of bed by Br Gian.7 In those days we had no nightclothes, we slept in our shirt, he grabbed hold of my shirt and pulled it up over my head and my arms were held up like that and I was flogged unmercifully for a long period of time ... across the back, small of the back, the buttocks, the backs of my thighs and he left marks nearly an inch wide and they were there for months. When my mother come to see me they wouldn’t let her see me because she could clearly see the back of my legs, they were all bruised.


He did not try to run away again. ‘Neither’ he added, ‘did anybody else. We lived in fear, I never looked up from the ground after that’. Following that beating when he finally left the Institution and went home, he never left the house for a period of two years.


A witness who was in Ferryhouse in the 1950s described seeing a boy who had absconded receive a severe beating in the dormitory on his return. He was visibly distressed as he told his story: He was 14, I think, 14 years of age, a big lad. A nice person. I used to refer to him as a gentle giant ... he was given an example beating in the dormitory ... He ran away with another two lads or something like that ... he was protesting, he had been in the school because he was 14 and the Committal Order was until he was 14 ... He should have been out. I think that was his general thing so he ran away. He was caught, brought back and up in the lower dormitory, at night time, when we were all up in the dormitory ... He was again brought out in the dormitory ... and he was approached by this Br Maximo8 ... Br Maximo would be the main physical man. [There were three other staff there] ... I don’t know. Did they want him to tip over so they could strap him on the backside? ... He wouldn’t anyway. He grabbed the bed and he wouldn’t let go of the bed so Br Maximo then proceeded to come down on his fists, on the boy’s fists on the bed ... then Br Maximo went to physically attack him anyway on the body ... He gave him a couple of whacks of the strap as well to see would that loosen the grip. It didn’t. We were all kind of getting closer and closer to what was happening ... In the end I think .... did, out of pure weakness, let go of the bed. Br Maximo started strapping him with the strap ... From fisting, and from clattering and from the strap ... it was quite a bad beating he got. Bear in mind he was only a young boy and you have a full physical adult using fists and what have you on him.


A witness who was there in the late 1960s absconded twice, the first time with his brother and another boy, and the second time with two other boys. He told the Investigation Committee, ‘I think the first time they let us go because we were only young and they realised we wanted just to go home’. The second time, however: We were brought back and we were made to shower again in our swimming trunks, and they would dip them in salt and they would slap us again and give us a much more severe beating this time, maybe 12 times.


Many former residents described severe beatings they called ‘flammings’, a term apparently peculiar to Ferryhouse. One resident, who was in Ferryhouse in the 1940s, defined a ‘flamming’ as follows: They were administered mostly in the dormitory in front of everyone. They consisted of you being called. Then you took off your shirt because you wore your shirt at night ... and you were put across the bed ... The strap that I was talking about was laid into your body and they didn’t care where they hit you ... You were completely naked ... Most of the time you were made put your hands across over the bed, sometimes they were held ... You see, you were in constant fear ... of being punished for the least thing, for the simplest of reasons or maybe for no reason at all.


He went on to draw a distinction between punishment and abuse: If you asked me before to ban corporal punishment, I would have said corporal punishment is a necessity ... The corporal punishment we got, if we got it properly, it was right, it is the corporal punishment that was not right that I did not agree with. The corporal punishment that became abuse is what I’m talking about. Putting out your two hands ... we all got it in school, but flammings you didn’t get in school ... in schools you got the hand, you may even have got the pulling of the hair or the ear when you done something wrong. I wouldn’t be here today complaining about that.


A former resident who was in Ferryhouse in the late 1960s and early 1970s described a beating that went from being a deserved punishment, given because he was seen doing a two-finger gesture behind a Brother saying Grace, to being a vicious assault. He told the Investigation Committee: I was called into the office ... I knew I was caught ... Fr Paolo9 had [the leather] in his hand. He said put out your hand, so I put out me hand and I took one ... and he asked me for the other one and I said my thumb was sore, I was after bending it back playing football and I didn’t want it on that hand because it would have been worse then, because if you take two or three on one hand you don’t feel them. If you are getting six you won’t feel the other three or four anyway and I wouldn’t and he insisted and I kept moving. I wanted him to catch me this side [indicating], rather than this side of me thumb ... He kept missing me because I kept moving it ... One time he skinned it, and the next time he went and I pulled it, and he missed completely ... I could see in his face he was going to batter me ... I seen it and he went for me and I just went down in a huddle ... As I was going down I seen him drawing back to hit me and he caught me with the width of the thing ... It wasn’t the flat part. He caught me with the thickness of it on the back there, on the back of the neck there ... I was down for a minute and he stood back. He didn’t go mad on me or anything. It was one blow ... When I looked he was back ... I stood up and he said, “Put out your hand” ... I put out this hand and I took the rest. I do not know if it was one or two more on me hand, and I walked out. I had genuinely got a sore thumb but everyone used to say it because if you took two you don’t feel the rest because your hand is numb. That was a ploy but they knew about it as well you know.


A witness who was in Ferryhouse in the latter half of the 1960s gave a similar account of a punishment that went out of control. The punishment was meted out by Br Valerio10 who, in the private hearing, instructed his counsel to say, ‘Br Valerio does not deny [the complainant’s] allegation as it is set out in his statement of complaint.’11 The statement said: When I was 13½ years old, maybe 14 years, I was going for a walk with other boys from St Joseph’s. I don’t know which Brother had us out for the walk but we were walking in twos and on the way out we were doing some messing ... When we got back to the school Br Valerio called me and another fellow out because of what happened on the walk. I was sent to the office to see him ... Inside the office Br Valerio asked me about the messing on the walk and if I had been involved and I denied it. He said he would give me one more chance to tell the truth. I denied it again and this time he got out the long leather strap. He had a reputation of not using his fists to hit boys but of using the strap. He gave me blows with the strap to each hand and he started to hit me all over the body with the strap. He hit me all over but did not hit my head. This lasted a good 5 minutes.


Fr Ludano who was resident in Ferryhouse in the early 1950s recalled one occasion when he was approached by a few boys about a Brother who had punished another boy. He told the Investigation Committee: Some of the boys came to me and said: “Brother so and so, he slapped so and so even though he is only a baby.” And that stayed in my mind ... I was horrified ... [I did] nothing ... I didn’t know what to do ... You see, my own position would have been a visitor, or just passing through or whatever ... I was very sorry for the little fellow who was involved, you know, and he was only a baby.


Even in an institution that was accustomed to the use of corporal punishment, there was an awareness of what was excessive and cruel. Neither the boys nor the priest, however, could challenge the right of the Brother to inflict punishment as he saw fit. Within Ferryhouse, it was the Brother in charge who set the rules.


The Investigation Committee heard many complaints of punishments that were essentially unfair. It was not the severity of the beating but the injustice of it that gave cause for grievance. As one witness put it, ‘Nothing you could do, could be an accident. Everything was deliberate that you did so you were punished’.


One witness described one such incident, when he was unfairly beaten by Br Maximo: I was coughing in the dormitory, I wasn’t feeling well, I was sick and I was coughing and I don’t know what time it would be, maybe it would be after ten or eleven or twelve o’clock at night and Br Maximo came out. He went down along the aisle of the dormitory, one of the aisles, and he wanted to see who was coughing. So he spotted me anyway and he said, “Were you coughing?” I said, I was. So with that he went and started belting me and clattering me from head down across the body for coughing ... With his hands, yes and told me not to cough again ... He gave me a fair old walloping that time ... It was so unfair severe at the same time. I never heard of anyone getting a hiding for being sick. That would be my view.


Another former resident recounted an incident when he was beaten with a strap, even though he had done nothing wrong: I used to go to the boiler room to turn the steam on, and one day a glass was broken ... It was on the side of the boiler, a kind of dial to show how much water was in the boiler. I didn’t break it, but I got belted for it on the hands because I was supposed to have been the only one who had gone in there.

  1. This is a pseudonym.
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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.