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Chapter 6 — Sisters of Mercy

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Other Sisters who worked in the School expressed similar sentiments. Sr Gianna5 said that she had received no training whatsoever, although she thought that her previous work with children in the Girl Guides might have been a factor in her being sent to Goldenbridge. In her evidence at the Phase I hearing in the Newtownforbes investigation, Sr Margaret Casey stated: The Sisters themselves would not, as I said earlier, have had any kind of formal training in childcare, actually such training didn’t exist until the 70s. So most of the Sisters there would have had a background in secondary education before they entered. Subsequently they would have received some training, some of them, obviously the primary school teachers would have qualified as primary school teachers. Some of the Sisters working in the Industrial School did diplomas and certificates to Ceidi and Lough Gill and home economics and housewifery, that area. I know that one of the Sisters in 1953 attended an institutional management course that was run in Carysfort. She subsequently was full-time working in the Industrial School. One Sister also trained as a children’s nurse.


In the Clifden hearings, Sr Olivia6 told the Committee that the only training that she ever received was ‘in 1974, 1975. We did an in service course in Dublin and we would go up every Friday evening and come down Saturday evening’.


The Congregation identified lack of training as one of the features of the industrial school system which contributed to the suffering of children in their care, but attempted to mitigate this by pointing out that there was no course in childcare training in Ireland until the 1970s. They also noted that most of the individual Sisters of Mercy who worked in the industrial schools run by the Congregation had a secondary school education, and others went on to train as nurses, primary school teachers or secondary school teachers.


In the Phase I hearing into Goldenbridge, Sr Helena O’Donoghue, Provincial Leader of the South Central Province, said: Each of the five Sisters who acted as Sisters in charge and involved in the Industrial School were professionally trained teachers at Carysfort Training College, which was a significant feature in the Dublin Mercy Community. Sr Bianca also had qualifications and certifications in domestic economy, cookery, needlework and household management. These Sisters also were supported by other Sisters as I have said, but who might not necessarily have any had particular training. Those who worked in the kitchen were qualified cooks and others would have taken short courses in household management.


In her 1953 lecture on childcare management mentioned above, the Resident Manager of Goldenbridge, Sr Bianca, made important points about the needs of children in care. She said that children coming from underprivileged backgrounds should be met with sympathy and gentleness. ‘Drastic remedies’ for head lice, such as cutting off hair, should not be necessary, particularly when there were remedies on the market at a very reasonable price. Children should be divided into small groups, including at meal times, to promote an intimate family atmosphere. She added that ‘formal marshalling and regimentation must be avoided’. Whilst there should be an emphasis on domestic training, there was no reason why girls should not follow a commercial or other career path if they had the necessary talent.


She proposed that every child should help with small jobs and chores about the home. They should be encouraged to be creative, and arts and crafts teachers deployed. Dressing the children uniformly should be discouraged. There was no reason why they could not be sensibly and attractively dressed.


She advised that children should be allowed a considerable amount of supervised freedom. They should be allowed to go to the local shop, and older girls permitted to go into town on the bus to run errands.


In addition, she considered that a large playground and hall were a necessity. A field for sports should be made available. Senior girls should have their own sitting room. She felt that music should be encouraged, both playing instruments and singing as well as listening to music on the radio. Dancing should be also encouraged. Caring for pets was another useful occupation for children.


Sr Bianca also felt that the Manager should possess skill and judgement, ‘have a strong personality, without being overbearing or dictatorial ... and above all, she must be strictly impartial’. Furthermore, those charged with the care of such children should have a keen interest in their work and possess the requisite experience and knowledge of psychology.


The fact that Sr Bianca was asked to deliver the lecture is evidence that she was highly regarded as a childcare expert, and the lecture expressed an enlightened and progressive view of childcare in the 1950s. Sr Bianca knew how a good institution should be run, and her lecture provides a standard against which Goldenbridge and other Sisters of Mercy industrial schools may be judged. Moreover, these progressive views demonstrated the principles that could have been inculcated in generations of carers, if training had been provided, with potentially dramatic consequences for children in care.

Impact of vows on institutional care


In May 2006, the Sisters of Mercy submitted a document entitled ‘The Influence of Religious Values and/or Religious Life of the Sisters of Mercy on the Management of Industrial Schools and on Aspects of the Care of the Children’. In this document, the Sisters explored the ways in which their religious vows affected the care they gave to children in their institutions, and it arose out of testimony at the oral hearings, particularly relating to the way in which individual Sisters interacted with the hierarchy in the Congregation and with the children in care.


The Congregation accepted that these religious values and ways of life ‘must have influenced the way in which the schools were run’.


Sisters of Mercy take the three vows common to most religious communities – of poverty, chastity and obedience – and they also take a fourth: to serve the poor, sick, and uneducated. In addition to these formal obligations, other aspects of religious life that were highly valued included prayer, routine, simplicity, silence and work. The Congregation gave examples of how these religious values might have had a negative impact on the way industrial schools were run: The strict routine of prayer followed by Sisters meant that during regular identifiable periods, the children were exclusively in the care of lay staff and it also had the consequence of a regime of strict religious observance being imposed on the children. The importance of routine also manifested itself in everyday activities with Sisters following a strict daily routine. ‘The daily routine of adherence to times for prayer, meals, work or recreation was sacrosanct’. Sisters would have expected the children to follow the same routine, with early rising, Mass, chores, special times for meals and recreation and the Congregation accepted that this ‘could have been experienced as harsh and demanding’. The emphasis on silence as a means of focusing attention on ‘God and the things of God’ had a significant impact on the manner in which individual Sisters interacted with each other and with the children. This could have had the effect of reducing the communication of information about children between Sisters, or Sisters and staff, to a ‘strictly “need to know” basis’. Work played a large role in religious observance: Working hard was viewed as generous, obedient and self-giving. The underpinning theology of the time held that grace would supply for what nature failed to offer. It was not expected or customary that a Sister would complain in any way about the task to which she had been assigned. To do so would be seen as not merely a sign of personal failing, but of inability to cope with the challenges of religious life.


The Congregation stated: The negative aspect was, perhaps, that leisure activities were circumscribed and everyone was caught up in a system where rest, unstructured relaxation and variety were seen as luxuries rather than necessities.


It also said that ‘A life of simplicity and sometimes frugality was valued as an outward expression of the vow of Poverty’. All Sisters pooled their salaries, and they were ‘directed in the main towards the works of mercy engaged in by the Sisters’.

  1. 1954 (these Constitutions were revised in 1969, 1972, and 1985).
  2. This is a pseudonym.
  3. The Commission of Inquiry into the Reformatory and Industrial School System, which was required to report to the Minister for Education on the Reformatory and Industrial School System, began its work in 1934, and furnished a report to the Minister in 1936. It was under the Chairmanship of District Justice Cussen.
  4. This is a pseudonym.
  5. This is a pseudonym.
  6. This is a pseudonym.