Sr Roberta applied to the Department of Health in 1956 for the reception of children from the local authorities. Whilst there is no documentary material confirming the approval of her application, it appears that it was granted, and there is a letter from the Department of Education to the Department of Health referring to the School in favourable terms.
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.
Another complainant, who was committed to Clifden for just over a year in the early 1960s when she was 12 years old, recalled one particular Sister who was kind: ‘When Sister Veronica beat us up, or Sister Roberta, and we would be sore or crying she would always put her hand on your shoulder and tell you not to cry, that everything would be okay. But everything wasn’t okay down there. Everything was bad’.
The Resident Manager always ensured that they were well dressed from head to toe. None of the children went barefoot. They were always made to feel that they were as good as anybody else. The witness described her as harsh, strict and dedicated: Oh, yeah. Roberta had a very authoritarian voice and if she walked up to you she would say, "Hi, how are you." Her voice would cut you. We feared her to a certain extent but yet in our own way if Roberta was sick, we always lined up to go to visit her and she loved the attention that she got from us. She was very strict, don’t get me wrong, and she could have been very hard at times but I think anything that she did for the children she did – in other words, if she bought stuff, she had to buy the best because she would make sure that anyone in the town couldn’t be talking about, "oh, look at how badly they are dressed" or something like that. She always examined things, everything with her was very ritual, the way she did things.
One of the reasons for Sr Roberta’s habit of screaming was that she was partly deaf. This witness said: In one sense you kind of feared Roberta, there is no doubt about it if someone is screaming at you all the time. But the way we would refer to Mother Roberta was, “oh, she was cracked. She’s daft”. But she was by no means cracked or daft ... She was like a sergeant major.
She added later: [Roberta] never liked any of the nuns to have any pets. But she had her own, don’t get me wrong, she had her own.
She described Sr Roberta’s deputy, Sr Veronica,18 as ‘more of a nag but she got very excited because Roberta would be always screaming at her, “get this” and “do that” and everything else.’ She was a very nervous individual and always had to have things just right.
The relationship between Sr Roberta and the rest of the staff, particularly Sr Veronica her deputy, was always authoritarian. She said: Sr Veronica had to do everything the way that Roberta wanted it. Roberta would scream at her the same way she screamed at the kids. She screamed at all the nuns the same way.
A lay worker was in charge of ensuring that the children’s heads were free from lice. Sr Roberta examined the children’s heads every week. If lice were discovered, a lotion was put in their hair and it was combed with a fine toothcomb. In extreme cases, their heads were shaved.
Her recollection was that the nuns were not permitted to show the children any sort of physical affection. ‘No,’ she said, ‘there was absolutely no affection’. She added: If one of nuns put their hands around you and Mother Roberta found that out, forget it, they were in real trouble. There was no such a thing.
Her first job after leaving the Institution was as a cleaning lady in a Dublin hospital. Sr Roberta organised this job. She said the Resident Manager would try to assist any former resident who ran into difficulty after they left Clifden. In the late 1960s, the witness moved abroad to where her mother lived.
General conclusions 1. Clifden was isolated and inaccessible for an industrial school. Contact with families was nearly impossible because of its location. Many children came from distant parts of the country, contrary to an important Cussen Report recommendation that children be sent to schools near their families. 2. Sr Roberta was Resident Manager for 27 years and established a strict, authoritarian and cold regime unsuitable for caring for children. During her administration, the School was also very understaffed. 3. Corporal punishment was over-used as a first option for enforcing discipline and was not restricted to cases of serious misbehaviour. 4. Children were institutionalised by the time they left, particularly those who were committed from a young age. They had no concept of normal family life. They were not shown love or affection by the nuns, and only had contact with the Sisters who worked in the convent (and Scoil Mhuire after 1969). The Sisters in the convent madean appearance once a year at the Christmas concert, but they were discouraged from having any other contact with the children who lived only yards away. 5. Mr Graham Granville noted as late as the 1970s that the children had very few visible reminders of home such as family photographs, which added to the isolation and lack of identity that they felt after leaving the Institution. 6. The Congregation accepts that the nuns’ vows dictated that they led a regimented lifestyle, which was reflected in the strictly controlled manner in which the children were brought up and in the absence of any demonstration of affection by the nuns. 7. The standard of education was low and there was little emphasis on academic achievement, which reflected the low aspirations the Sisters had for the children as regards future careers. 8. The children were poorly prepared for leaving the Institution and there were no aspirations for them beyond careers in domestic service. There was no preparation for departure. Many of the children had no idea what lay ahead when they were sent off to jobs in towns and cities.