The Sisters of Mercy established a convent and an orphanage for girls in Clifden, County Galway in 1861 at the request of a local priest. Clifden is located in a remote area approximately 50 miles west of Galway. A branch house was later set up in neighbouring Carna. The orphanage was certified as an industrial school for girls on 15th July 1872.
The Mercy Convent in Clifden formed one of five independent units of the Mercy Congregation within the Diocese of Tuam. From its formation in the late 19th century until 1971, it had its own governance structure and was completely autonomous. The convent was overseen by the Archbishop of Tuam. In 1971, the five Mercy convents in Tuam amalgamated to form one diocesan unit, in line with similar changes taking place throughout the country within the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy.
The photographs and plans provided by the Sisters of Mercy show the Industrial School as a large imposing building, with the convent immediately adjacent.
The original two-storey orphanage building was constructed in 1862, and various additions were made to it over the years. In 1873, after it had been certified as an industrial school, an additional wing was built and, in 1880, a new internal national school and dormitory were erected. In 1886 a kitchen, pantry, dairy, lavatory and infirmary were added. The next major extension to the premises took place in 1933, when four classrooms were added. This was the internal national school, where the Industrial School children were taught. Just yards away, within the grounds of the complex, stood Scoil Mhuire national school, where the children from the surrounding district were taught. Eventually, in 1969, some 33 years after Justice Cussen recommended in his report that, where possible, children in industrial schools should attend local national schools, the two national schools amalgamated.
Most of the Sisters in Clifden had completed secondary school education and, on entering the Congregation, many went on to train as teachers in Carysfort Training College.
As each convent within the Congregation formed its own autonomous unit, the Resident Manager and Sisters appointed to work in the Industrial School had to be drawn from the pool of Sisters available in the mother house in Clifden and Branch house in Carna. The Mother Superior of the convent made the appointments.
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.
Until 1969, when the two national schools amalgamated, three teachers were assigned to teach in the internal national school. They had little or no involvement with the children outside school hours. There were usually three or four Sisters, including the Resident Manager, appointed to work full-time in the Industrial School. Their duties ranged from supervising meals to working in the kitchen, bakery, nursery and laundry. Until 1969, the religious staff worked seven days a week, with little or no holidays.
The Sisters were further aided by lay staff, some of whom were former residents. There was an average of eight to 10 former residents who stayed on to work in the Industrial School at any one time. Most of these left some time in their 20s. They had no formal childcare training and completed their education at primary school level. The profile of lay staff changed in the 1970s, when professionals such as teachers and care workers became involved with the School.
There was no childcare training available in Ireland until the 1970s, when a full-time childcare course commenced in Kilkenny in 1971.4
Sr Renata5 completed a childcare course in Kilkenny in 1974, and Sr Sofia and Sr Olivia6 attended an in-service training course in Goldenbridge on Saturdays the same year.
The majority of children sent to Clifden were committed by Orders of the District Court under the provisions of the Children Acts and School Attendance Act. Children were committed to Clifden from all over the country notwithstanding its isolated location. There was no train service beyond Galway City and the town was served by an infrequent bus service. In 1933, the School was certified to take 100 girls over the age of six. The accommodation limit was fixed at 120 girls. In 1937, the School accommodated 142 children, although, until the mid-1950s, the numbers remained at or approximately 120.
In 1944, the Department of Education changed its system of paying capitation grants to industrial and reformatory schools, from a system of payment according to the number of children they were certified to accommodate, to one under which the schools were paid according to the number of children actually accommodated, up to the limit of their accommodation number.
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.