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Chapter 9 — Clifden

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Referring to the fact that there was a significant pool of Sisters in the convents in Clifden and Carna Sr Casey stated that each of these Sisters was involved in her own ministry, teaching, nursing etc, or retired or engaged in their own professional training, and that there was in fact no surplus supply to direct to the Institution.


Two respondent Sisters referred to staff and management issues in their evidence. One worked in the Industrial School from the late 1960s until it closed and stated that, when she was sent to Clifden, there were 86 children and three full-time members of staff: herself, the Resident Manager and a lay worker. Another Sister helped out on a part-time basis. It was a chaotic and stressful environment, involving long working hours and no holidays. She did not make any representations to her superiors at the time for assistance, and simply managed with what she had. She was very unhappy and did seek a transfer. She was told to ‘hold on for a while, you know, that we will get you out of it’. Matters did not improve until the early to mid-1970s, when a combination of a decrease in the number of residents and an increase in staff numbers succeeded in reducing the pressure. The Sister confirmed that she did not undergo any childcare training until the mid-1970s, when she attended an in-service training course in Goldenbridge.


Another respondent, Sr Carmella,11 who was both teacher and principal in the internal national school from the early 1960s stated that she did not bring any of her concerns to the attention of Sr Roberta who held the posts of Resident Manager and Reverend Mother: No, I did not discuss with the Reverend Mother. I just did what the Reverend Mother told me to do and my work was to teach in the School and that was it. That was what was allotted to me and I did what I could there. But it was – the Reverend Mother, she determined the lot of each individual.


She simply did what she was told to do, as Sr Roberta ‘was that kind of person that her word was law, she was in authority and that was it’.


She stated that Sr Roberta, the Resident Manager, and Sr Veronica,12 her Deputy, were strict with the children and could have shown them more compassion. She accepted that the Resident Manager might have appeared frightening to a child, ‘she had a very strong voice, her voice alone would frighten you and I say that alone would make a child afraid’.


Sr Carmella accepted that there were some teething problems when a new Resident Manager was appointed in 1969, and recalled the Gardaí calling to the School in relation to an incident. She was asked about a query, in a Department Inspection Report for this period, regarding the reasons behind the shortage of Sisters in the Industrial School, despite the fact that they formed part of a Community of 40 Sisters. Her rationale for this situation was that nobody wanted to work for the new Resident Manager. She reiterated Sr Casey’s evidence that all of the Sisters in the convent had their own duties, such as working in the hospital or domestic economy school, or they were retired nuns. There were not any nuns available to work in the Industrial School.


In the late 1960s, the Department of Education discovered that, small babies, admitted to the institution, were being sent out to families in the countryside without the consent of the Department or County Council. They sought an explanation from the Resident Manager, who responded that this had arisen as a result of an outbreak of smallpox and the need to isolate the babies. She confirmed that she paid the families £2.00 per week and supplied them with necessities, including baby foods, drops, clothes, prams and cots. She stated that she believed that this course was in the best interests of the children but agreed that it would not happen again.


There was a difficult transition period in 1969 when Sr Roberta, the Resident Manager, resigned her post after 27 years and a new Resident Manager, Sr Sofia, was appointed. At that stage, there were 89 children in the School and two permanent staff members. The Acting Inspector of Industrial and Reformatory Schools, Mr Phelan,13 visited the School in October 1969 and advised the Dublin Metropolitan Children’s Court that Clifden was over-crowded and that no further children should be committed there.


Following this inspection, the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Education wrote to the Archbishop of Tuam in October 1969, expressing his concern at the staff shortages in Clifden: My Lord Archbishop, I am aware of your deep interest in the welfare of the children in St. Joseph’s School, Clifden, and on that account I request the assistance of Your Grace in the solution of the following problem relating to the institution. In the course of a recent visit to St. Joseph’s the acting Inspector of Reformatory and Industrial Schools was concerned to find that a group of the older girls were flouting authority by refusing to attend school, by roaming the streets of Clifden after dark catcalling and behaving rudely to their elders and that the Gardaí had visited the school last week with a view to establishing a more disciplined behaviour on the part of the children in residence there. In the opinion of the acting Inspector, which is shared by Father Costello,14 a curate in the parish, whom he called on during the course of his visit, the serious deterioration of standards in St. Joseph’s is directly attributable to the insufficient staff employed to look after the 85 boys and girls at present in the institution and as a consequence this shortage of staff places an intolerable and unfair burden on the shoulders of Sr. Sofia, who has recently been assigned to manage the industrial school. To organise efficiently an institution of the size and nature of St. Joseph’s, two additional nuns one of whom, if at all possible, should have experience in nursing or child care would need to be allotted full time to assist Sr. Sofia in her duties and extra lay help is also needed in the kitchen and dormitory to the extent decided by Sr. Sofia. It is in connection with the former requirement that I would ask Your Grace to approach Mother Roberta, the Superior of the community in Clifden, to ensure that the two additional nuns referred to above be assigned to full time duties in St. Joseph’s as a matter of urgency, if effective control of the older girls is to be restored and a source of grave criticism of the industrial school removed. In regard to the engagement of extra lay staff as required by Sister Sofia, I would like to make the following point for Your Grace’ s information, Mother Roberta has been resident manger of the school for a number of years and in this position has received the maintenance grants paid by this Department and the local authorities responsible for the children detained in the school by court order. It seems, however, as a result of the recent inspection that by reason of advancing years and other duties in her capacity as Superior of the convent, Mother Roberta now has little time to devote to the actual day to day care of the children though she still controls the finances of the school. In my opinion this is an entirely unsatisfactory arrangement which must restrict Sr. Sofia in the employment of the extra lay assistance which she so badly needs, and the introduction of the other measures deemed essential if all round standards in the school are to be raised. Administratively it would be a simple matter to change the payment of the maintenance grants from Mother Roberta to Sister Sofia but in the particular circumstances of the community in Clifden this change would not be effective unless Your Grace interfered to make it so. Accordingly, I would also ask Your Grace to use your good offices to ensure that the financial control of the maintenance grants paid by this Department and the Local Authorities in respect of the committed children is placed in the hands of Sr. Sofia so that she may have a free hand in her efforts to restore to St. Joseph’s School its former high standard of performance in the field of caring for the deprived and underprivileged child. I have the honour to be, my Lord Archbishop, Yours sincerely, Assistant Secretary.


The Archbishop duly made representations to Sr Roberta who assured him that extra staff would be deployed in the School.


The acting Inspector again inspected the School a few months later and found conditions much improved, as documented in his internal memorandum: St. Joseph’s, Clifden Rúnai-Cúnta, On my visit to Clifden Industrial School ... I found that the new manager had made good progress in the task of restoring acceptable standards in the conduct of this school. Numbers have been reduced from 85 to 72, and dormitories were clean and smelt pleasantly and a new locker has been purchased for every child. In the refectory new chairs have been provided and a substantial dinner has replaced the “traditional” bread & tea as the Saturday mid-day meal. Minor improvements in the washing facilities have also been made and Sr Sofia has a programme of painting & decorating, additional heating and a more suitable arrangement of w.c. accommodation in the pipeline. Furthermore she has increased the staff from three to nine and has been successful in placing or transferring six senior girls who had got completely out of hands. We discussed further reductions in numbers, additional staff who would sleep in and become more involved in the social life of the children and the assistance of an Art teacher who would help plan a more individual colour scheme in the children’s dress. Most schools buy in bulk from shops and factories which can effect a saving of up to 35% but can result in the child having to fit the article rather than the opposite. Sr Sofia was advised to postpone structural alterations for the present and to expect a visit next May to discuss the progress of her plans. The Archbishop was to pay a further visit .... I subsequently saw Fr. Costello C.C. who supports Sr. Sofia in her determination to improve matters in St. Joseph’s. Dialogue on most matters will shortly be allowed in the community at Clifden which may reveal why out of a strength of 40 nuns only two are willing to work in the industrial school, though all have taken vows to care for “the poor the sick and the ignorant”. [A] Having seen the chaos which existed with 85 children in residence and insufficient staff & the relative improvement with 72 children and additional staff, I am now moving towards the view that in a small town like Clifden with its limited services and its comparatively isolated position, the number of children who could be successfully integrated in the school life and social activities of the district should be not more than 40-50 (boys + girls) and if you agree, I will discuss this question on the phone with Sr Sofia. In the meantime I am asking [a], Kindergarten Organiser to call on Sr Sofia and advise her on the employment of the children’s time outside school hours. [Handwritten notes at bottom of page] Since writing this report Sr. Sofia phoned to say that the Archbishop had visited ... & she felt he would like to be informed of the results of the recent inspection. In view of his continuing interest it might be well to put the proposal at A above to him in the first instance together with the recent views on the school.


The Archbishop was kept informed of developments and agreed that, ultimately, numbers would have to be reduced.


A further inspection some five months later reported that five Sisters worked part-time on a regular basis in the School, and an additional Sister had been appointed on a full-time basis.


Dr Anna McCabe was appointed Medical Inspector of Industrial and Reformatory Schools in 1939 and held the post until 1965. She also carried out General Inspections of the schools.


There are General Inspection Reports available for most of the 1940s and 1950s. All of these reports, without exception, refer to Clifden in glowing terms. Year after year, it is referred to as an excellent and extremely well-conducted school. The Resident Manager, Sr Roberta, and her deputy, Sr Veronica, are also praised and referred to as very capable and kind. The last Inspection Report by Dr McCabe with regard to Clifden is dated 1962.

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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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