There were three Resident Managers in Clifden during the period under review: Sr Alma1 held the position of Resident Manager until her retirement in 1942, and was succeeded by Sr Roberta,2 who held this post until 1969; and Sr Sofia3 then took over as Resident Manager until 1984, following the resignation of the certificate by the School in 1983. During Sr Roberta’s 27-year reign, she also held the position of Mother Superior for two terms, her last term ending in 1971 when the five Mercy convents in the Diocese of Tuam amalgamated. Clifden was very influenced by the personal qualities of Sr Roberta, who ran the School in a strict authoritarian manner. Her departure from the School coincided with the opening-up of the whole industrial school system that occurred after the Kennedy Report in 1970.
A significant factor in the running of Clifden was the enormous workload undertaken by Sr Roberta. According to the evidence of the Congregation, she worked long, punishing hours in the Institution. Whilst this can be seen as laudable on the part of the Sister, she was not able to care for the children properly and did not seek extra help from the local convent.
On 8th June 1959, Sr Roberta applied to the Department of Education for a revision in the certificate to enable the School to accept junior boys. In support of her application, she stated that, if successful, this would enable siblings to stay together rather than being scattered to various schools around the country. She also made similar representations to the Minister for the Gaelteacht, and added, ‘For some time past our numbers here have fallen so we are most anxious to get the little boys’. The ISPCC supported the application, describing the School as ‘excellent’.
However, at the eleventh hour, Sr Roberta withdrew her application to the Department, as the Archbishop of Tuam refused to support it. It is not clear why the Archbishop made this last-minute objection, but the following year Sr Roberta renewed her application, this time with the consent of the Archbishop. She explained: He has now given us the permission as our numbers have decreased very much since then.
During the 1960s, Sr Roberta actively sought new pupils. In response to rumours in 1964 that the Industrial School in Westport was due to close, she wrote to the Department and stated that she ‘would be more than grateful if you could see your way to send us a few pupils’. In 1967, she wrote to the Department, thanking them effusively for sending the School five children.
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’.
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.
The Archbishop duly made representations to Sr Roberta who assured him that extra staff would be deployed in the School.
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.
Despite the apparent emphasis on educating the children, most of them were destined for a life in some sort of domestic service. Sr Carmella’s explanation was that such an outcome was never questioned: ‘I think the order of the day was that in the end of it they were going to end up as domestics’. Sr Roberta, who held the position as Resident Manager until 1969, decided who would go on to secondary school. She would have liked to have seen more children go on to further education.
Head lice were a constant problem which was treated by putting a white powder in the child’s hair and by keeping the hair short. The Resident Manager, Sr Roberta, used to check their heads for lice and children whose heads were infested were beaten.
The positive witness proposed by the Congregation who gave evidence also spoke about being retained after her sixteenth birthday, and stated that Sr Roberta decided when girls could leave and that her word was law.
Sr Roberta was feared by the children, and this witness remembered her screaming voice. She said, ‘Her voice would cut you ... when Sr Roberta screamed she kind of like screamed in general, everything she said was a scream’.
She summed up the general attitude of the girls to Sr Roberta by saying, ‘we would say, “oh, yeah, Roberta was cruel but she was very decent”’. She added, ‘We always refer to her as being very decent and very kind’.