I have previously written of my experiences in covering the child abuse issue for the now-closed Offaly Express.
More recently, the coverage of events relating to the Spiritans, Dominicans, Vincentians and other orders has brought the matter to the fore once again.
However, arguably less attention has been paid to physical and psychological abuse in girls’ schools, an issue explored in a recent Irish Times article.
After I posted that article on Facebook, I must admit I was gobsmacked by the level of reaction from women I know back in Ireland who commented. A total of 12 women reacted, all but one of them educated in Tullamore, and their comments related both to primary schools there and to the Sacred Heart School, previously mentioned as the secondary school where the notorious paedophile Donal Dunne taught.
While Dunne only molested boys sexually, he took his frustrations out on the girls through physical and psychological cruelty, as my own article above mentions.
After I posted the Irish Times article, one woman described being hit in the hand with a baseball bat in primary school, but said other nuns were ‘lovely’.
A second woman said that St Philomena’s National School wasn’t as bad as some of the rural schools, but her experience of Donal Dunne was very negative:
“Just read the whole article there, and I actually had Donal Dunne in The Sacred Heart for religion, he was the most angry man, spitting venom at us, we were afraid to look at him, but having said that, we as young teenage girls wanted a laugh so we would be tittering and laughing which would send him over the edge, all of us including myself spent time standing outside the door or in the corner of the room. One girl was made stand at the end of the class one day and she fainted, bashing her head off the side of the radiator, blood everywhere, well he was fairly quiet after that day, her Father was a member of the Gardai, I’m sure he had some explaining to do,” before going on to describe beatings by a female lay teacher.
A third woman described a nun mocking a girl whose parents had separated and being insensitive towards a girl whose mother had died young, saying she would, in heaven, be disgusted looking down on her.
A fourth woman wrote: “A Flat Baseball bat was used on our knuckles a lot in school. I thought one day I got splash with water on my face, but it was blood as a poor girl next to me got a ring into her head for sucking her thumb we were only 6 or 7. I was in 6th class and my friend and myself stopped a Nun hitting a poor special needs girl for wetting herself in the playground. I grabbed the nuns hand and told her to stop. I got hit for that and nearly expelled but my dad and mum called to the school and told the head Nun why I grabbed the nuns hand and it was forgotten about. I watched that Nun all the time after that till I left god love them poor children in her class. Then in Scared (sic) heart we had Mr Dunne for his last year before retirement. He had nick names for us all some of the nick names were horrible. We always tried to find out about sports with him to keep him on our good books. But if you got in trouble with him you were sent outside even if it was cold or snowing. Thank god we only had him for a year,” before going on to make allegations about the same lay female teacher mentioned above. “But our class together started to stand up for each other. So she stopped picking on them after 1st year. School wasn’t a pleasant experience in both schools in the 70s and early 80s.”
A fifth woman had even more serious allegations: “I am 55 years old I went to the sacred heart tullamore and I hated every minute of it ,I was and still am a very free spirited energetic person but I didn’t really fit in I struggled with maths and was made to feel stupid and ashamed on a daily basis ,that lesson was outside the door mainly so for that I forever struggled and didn’t follow my dreams in life as felt I wasn’t good enough,it was easier to be class clown to cover up for embarrassment of saying I didn’t understand something or couldn’t do it ,I was slapped on a daily basis whether with baseball bat on hand or cane if you pulled your hand away in fear you get double,I was smacked in ear head and face with teachers books ,I was repeatedly told I was stupid and would never make anything of my life ,they even brought in a priest who tried to say myself and a few friends were evil and possessed for writing funny dear cathy and Claire notes in class .on prayer room days I dreaded been last I. Because you would have to sit next to a priest I won’t name on here but I’m sure people will never forget him but he would put his hand on your chair so when you sat you would sit on his hand ,looking back he was a dirty paedo getting off on little touches on young girls under the pretence of being a man of God.
I found a huge amount of the nuns to be incredibly cruel and would tell you daily you were bad and made by the devil ,I remember walking over the old canal bridge after lunch innocently holding a boys hand at like 14/15 and nun came up behind us dragged both of us by our ears first to drop him to the vocational school next door and then myself to the office to get the cane and be told I was a fallen woman who was no better than a prostitute .The schools would send home complaints to your parents and get us in some much trouble even for silly little things .Spending times with my friends was good back then but actually being in that school was horrendous daily ,you you see girls lined up the wall vault after lunch hands out while nuns walking up n down slapping us with the cane for being a few minutes late .Slapped for having your socks rolled down ,thousands of lines I must not talk in class etc ,The list goes on looking back yes it did affect me of course it did gave me a life time of being angry inside myself and feeling I was never good enough ,took my confidence of doing what I wanted in my life for fear of failure or just not being good enough,The list goes on thankfully I had loving parents who helped to build me up as a strong young woman which has held me up in life and made me resilient but schooling days back then were awful turned me off nuns priest religion as a whole.”
She adds she is glad people are now speaking out on this and disagrees with people who say such things did no harm.
A sixth woman said it left deep scars on her, and the other six made similar comments, with one alleging a female lay teacher stabbed a girl with a pair of scissors.
All of this was away worse than I had realised. Now, to be clear, the women in question do make clear they are not tarring all the Sisters of Mercy or lay staff.
I always had a very good relationship with the nuns in Tullamore, but then, being male, I was dealing with them in situations outside the classroom, through their involvement in community life. I may have been lucky and just got to know the good nuns, and no doubt it is hard on them to hear about their colleagues’ behaviour.
I grew up in a family where there was a great deal of respect for the religious – a number of my mother’s cousins were Sisters of Mercy, a number were priests and one was a Christian Brother.
You grew up with a certain sense of deference towards them, and despite the revelations, It is difficult to shake that off. Getting the balance right on these matters is not easy, acknowledging the wrongs committed and the terrible impact they had, while at the same time acknowledging the good work done by many Sisters of Mercy – I think in particular of Sisters Genny, Ann and Carmel, who have done great work with young people, and the late Sister Veronica Gilsenan, who visited my father when he was dying, and read a prayer at my mother’s requiem Mass. She was also renowned for her help for the poor.
They were women of a different era and some didn’t enter the convents for good reasons. I am aware of one nun (not in Tullamore) who entered the religious life after being molested by her own brother in the 1950s, something that only came to light after it emerged he did the same to his niece, who moved to Australia to escape from him.
I found that those nuns (admittedly small in number) whom I got to know personally were pragmatic women who learnt to adjust to changing social mores and a different role for women in society. Saying this is not in any way to excuse other nuns or lay staff for their behaviour.
Likewise, when it came to my own schooldays at Coláiste Choilm, Tullamore, I generally had a good relationship with the Christian Brothers who then ran it (the school is now under the trusteeship of the Meath diocese), but I am well aware that other guys had a less favourable relationship.
Some will say we should put all this in the past, but sometimes it is necessary to discuss the past for healing to take place.
It is clear there are many men and women out there who still carry scars from events of their youth and it is important that society should provide them with support to speak about these experiences.
It is striking how two people who had the same teacher can have totally different memories of them, as their interactions were different. It doesn’t mean that either is not telling the truth.
I was reminded of this some years ago when a Franciscan brother, previously based in Clara, died. Some past pupils paid tribute and said he was a great man, but it emerged from other sources that the man was a paedophile, unknown to those who lauded him.
Declan McSweeney lives in England but is originally from Offaly. He worked for over 18 years for the now-closed Offaly Express and has also worked as a journalist in the UK.