Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 9 — Clifden

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Physical abuse


Sr Casey acknowledged that the documented case of excessive corporal punishment referred to above was ‘a significant incident’.


She conceded that, with the benefit of hindsight, both the Congregation and individual Sisters regret the use of corporal punishment and recognise the potential effects on these already vulnerable children.


In the course of an apology to former residents of Clifden, Sr Casey stated: I suppose we do recognise that the children that were committed to our care...were vulnerable and we do recognise that they were traumatised. The system that prevailed in the Industrial School mitigated against giving them the necessary affection and care that their vulnerability required ... It was necessary dealing with such large numbers to maintain order and strict discipline was required. This obviously had a negative effect on the children and unfortunately we deeply regret that this may have been excessive at times and for this we are truly sorry.


All of the complainants who gave evidence alleged physical abuse. They asserted that various implements were used to inflict punishment, including a ruler, cane, a bunch of keys and a towel roller. Allegations were made against members of the Congregation, lay workers and older children.


A common thread running through the testimony of the complainants was that punishment was meted out indiscriminately and that this created an environment of fear. One witness, who was a resident for eight years from the early 1950s, stated: it didn’t really matter what you were beaten for, it was just one of those things, if they saw you there and you weren’t doing something then you got beaten for it.


Another witness, a resident for 12 years from the late 1950s, stated that they were punished: For nothing, just because they felt like it. If they were angry then they just took it out on you, sometimes you were an innocent victim just sitting there, or just playing and then they attacked you, it all depends on what moods they were in.


A witness, who was committed for just over a year in the early 1960s when she was 12 years old, remarked: Anybody got it, it didn’t make a difference. If you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time or if you were too slow to get your work down or if you didn’t get down the stairs quick enough or if you ran...Anywhere they could get you they would hit you. Mainly on the head. That was the sorest. They would hit you with the keys, that was sore.


Another witness, who was committed to Clifden before she was a year old and spent her entire childhood there during the 1960s and the 1970s, commented: I lived in, I think – I watched – I was punished, other kids were punished, I think it was being in an environment controlled in fear. I think I was very afraid of the nuns, very afraid of getting things wrong. I think I was constantly in that state of fear of being punished.


She added that when the anticipated punishment was actually delivered, it came almost as a relief.


A witness, who was committed to Clifden in the late 1950s, at the age of 11, and remained there until she was 16, recalled, on arrival with her sisters, being met by a lay worker. The children were told to take their clothes off for a bath. One of her younger sisters was reluctant to be parted from her favourite red boots. The witness tried to prevent the lay worker from taking the boots and she was punched around the head and told that she would not be permitted to back-answer in Clifden. She further alleged that this carer regularly hit her with a bunch of keys.


Another witness, who was in Clifden in the early 1960s when she was 12, described an incident in which she and a boy were confronted by a Sister one afternoon for coming back late. She asked them whether they had had intercourse but they did not understand what it meant. She made the boy pull down his trousers in front of the witness and she beat him with a cane. The witness refused to undergo the same humiliation and tried to escape. The nun pushed her through a glass door. Her hand went through the glass and she banged her chest hard against a brass knob in the door. The Sister proceeded to hit her on the back with a bamboo cane. She did not receive any medical treatment for her injuries. Her chest injury got progressively worse and, when she complained to the same Sister, she was beaten again. Eventually, another Sister discovered the extent of the injury and took her to a doctor. She was admitted to hospital for two and a half weeks. Her family were not informed that she was in hospital. The school record indicates that she was suffering from mastitis, as does a record signed by the GP on the day she was admitted to hospital.


A witness who spent her entire childhood in Clifden during the 1960s and 1970s, made several allegations of physical abuse by the Sisters. She stated that, when she was five, a friend blamed her for bringing a cup of water into the schoolroom, which was forbidden. She was punished by a Sister who hit her with a hand brush. She remembered a number of children who had run away being beaten with a cane by a Sister whom she specifically remembered, as she used to dye her hair in the Institution. This Sister gave evidence to the Investigation Committee and vehemently denied this allegation of abuse.


Sr Olivia,9 taught the children spelling, and the witness remembered not being able to spell the word ‘colour’. The Sister hit her with a hand brush four or five times. She said, ‘Sometimes when you cried that seemed to encourage them to hit more’. She recalled other occasions on which she was beaten by the same Sister, including an incident in which she was beaten for not being able to read a passage from the Bible.


This witness made allegations of physical abuse against Sr Olivia who denied them. Sr Olivia did confirm that her usual method of administering punishment was to slap children. She accepted that occasionally she thumped the children. She added that this did not happen often and she was not aggressive with the children, but accepted that some degree of force was involved and that she would always regret it afterwards. She stated that, if she felt that she had punished the children unfairly, she would talk to them about it afterwards. Sr Olivia did not recall ever speaking to this witness referred to above after a punishment.


Sr Olivia furnished an additional statement dealing with the allegations made against her. In this later statement, she accepted that she occasionally used a hand brush to punish children, whereas in her first statement she stated that she slapped children with her hand only. She explained that initially she was devastated by the allegations made and was confused. She did not want to implicate any other Sister, or indeed herself, by conceding that they used a hand brush to administer punishment. She went for counselling and came to terms with the fact that they had in fact used a hand brush for this purpose. As conditions improved in Clifden, this method of punishment was used less frequently.

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  4. See the chapter on St Joseph’s and St Patrick’s Kilkenny for further details in relation to this course.
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  7. Dr Anna McCabe was the Department of Education Inspector for most of the relevant period.
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