‘I was told I would burn in hell if I wrote with my left hand’

A Galway man says he has lasting trauma over alleged abuse by Sisters of Mercy nuns

Gerry Kavanagh: ‘I’ve had traumatic experiences while in the Army, but this is worse.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Gerry Kavanagh: ‘I’ve had traumatic experiences while in the Army, but this is worse.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Your Web Browser may be out of date. If you are using Internet Explorer 9, 10 or 11 our Audio player will not work properly.
For a better experience use Google Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge.

 

The daily beatings that a Galway man says he endured in school for being left-handed continue to be a source of trauma for him more than 50 years later.

Gerry Kavanagh (60) says he is “devastated” that the Sisters of Mercy, whose nuns taught him at the then Scoil Íosagáin in Galway city in 1965 and 1966, will neither acknowledge what happened nor apologise.

Mr Kavanagh, who lives just outside Galway city, had a happy childhood until he started school aged four.

“From day one I was told to write with my right hand and I would burn in hell if I wrote with my left. As soon as I’d pick up the pencil with my left hand, the nun would be down with her pointer stick. It was about a foot long and there was a wooden knob, like a mini snooker ball, at the end,” he says.

“She’d beat me across my knuckles so I couldn’t hold a pencil with my left hand. I would try, but if the class broke from writing for an hour I’d forget it. When I’d resume I’d automatically pick up with my left hand and get the same thing again. Once I saw her coming I’d be terrified and trying to drop the pencil before she got to me.”

Asked about the impact this had on him going to school, he says: “I was terrified. I would hang on to the school railings for dear life every morning, not wanting to go in, knowing what was coming.”

Lack of understanding

The beatings made his hands “very sore, tender” but he says his lack of understanding as to why it was happening made things worse. The beatings stopped after senior infants as he began writing with his right hand.

He still finds writing difficult. “A lot of thought and effort goes into writing, because my brain and hand are not in sync. I tried going back to the left hand but I can’t. My handwriting is terrible.”

Mairéad Dempsey, a Dublin-based occupational therapist, describes as “very damaging” the past practice of forcing left-handed children to write with their right hands.

“Left- or right-hand dominance is a natural thing that happens that none of us can control,” she says. “A left-handed child may learn to write with their right hand eventually but it will take them longer and will be much more effortful. You can imagine the psychological stress that child is under.

“It causes huge confusion, delays their development and they may never become proficient at writing, despite being very bright.”

Mr Kavanagh “walked away” from education at 14, believing he could never complete an exam. He trained as a butcher before joining the Navy and later the Army, completing nine tours in Lebanon before retiring aged 40. He now works in healthcare.

In 2016 he initiated a case against the Sisters of Mercy over the alleged abuse. In her affidavit of defence, Sr Breege O’Neill, congregational leader of the order, said the action was “statute barred” and “should be dismissed”.

One of the nuns accused of abuse, Sr Aquinas, has died and the other is very elderly. Neither the nuns nor the school were managed by the order, she said, but by the then parish priest.

She denied Mr Kavanagh “sustained and suffered any of the alleged severe personal injuries, loss and damage” he outlined. This view was based on “a perusal of the books and records in possession” of the order.

In a statement to The Irish Times, however, the order said records from their time at Scoil Íosagáin are “not within the control of the Province”.

Personal regret

Mr Kavanagh withdrew his case and last year was invited to a meeting with Sr O’Neill, which took place in December. He says she expressed personal regret for what happened to him as a child.

“She asked what I wanted and I said a formal apology and something tangible, like a new kitchen or car – nothing huge – that I could take some comfort from on bad days.” He says Sr O’Neill promised to look into it.

In their statement, the order said: “Mr Kavanagh named … his objectives for the meeting, ie acknowledgement of what he alleged had occurred whilst he was in school, specific apologies and compensation. The provincial leader explained engagement with these objectives would not be possible.

“Nonetheless, he indicated he would still like a meeting as this may very well bring about a much longed-for inner peace. In that spirit, the meeting took place ... but unfortunately could not deliver upon the matters which Mr Kavanagh named again at the meeting as his objectives.”

Mr Kavanagh says the order’s decision not to acknowledge or apologise is “eating me up”.

“I’ve had traumatic experiences while in the Army, but this is worse. The hurt has got worse since I have been engaging with them, because this happened to a child. I need them to acknowledge the huge hurt and the child to be heard.”

The order told The Irish Times: “It has always been our hope that our engagement with Mr Kavanagh would bring him the peace he desires. It continues to be so.”

A spokesman for the Department of Education said it had no record of historical complaints about the treatment of left-handed children in schools, or of a national policy on the issue.

News Digests

Stay on top of the latest newsSIGN UP HERE