We must never forget terror of industrial schools

The church and State damaged young girls. This crime is the focus of a revised book

Looking back, it was one incident that summed up the whole story.

In 1976, Mavis Arnold and I were interviewing a jittery Department of Education civil servant responsible for what had been industrial schools.

Our focus was on the institution run by the Sisters of the Poor Clares in Cavan.

We asked to see examples of the institution’s “dietary” plan and of a notification of punishment, both required by the 1908 Children Act.


Not available, he replied.

What about children sent out to work from the age of 10 in the early 1960s?

“You can’t see individual confidential reports.”

Could we see the accounts?

They didn’t exist.

By what process, we asked, had some Cavan girls been sent to the laundry-reformatory in Gloucester Street, Dublin?

His agitation increased: “We’d better not delve into that terrain.”

The point was that that institution, run by other nuns, was not certificated, thus the girls’ incarceration there was contrary to the rules of the Act governing the schools.

Nor was so much else we’d heard from women who’d been through the system as children.

By that time, we knew what we were after.

For me, it had started with my psychiatrist husband pressuring me to investigate: a young woman patient had become hysterical when a nun entered her ward.

Later she persistently described witnessing a savage bloody beating of another little girl at her Cavan “orphanage” – a girl who subsequently disappeared.

By chance, my friend Mavis, also a journalist, had a young woman from the same place living with her, waiting for the birth of a baby.

At 16, like all the girls, she’d been sent away to work as a domestic, utterly ignorant of the world, and vulnerable to male predation.

Horrifying cruelty
She told Mavis about horrifying cruelty and deprivation at this institution – by then closed. It was often described as "one of the good schools".

There were no books on the subject and no journalists had yet exposed what went on behind the high walls of the industrial schools.

Gradually we discovered the context – that Ireland had been infested with these places, all run by religious orders.

We learnt that some still existed, and that they operated with State funding through the Department of Education under the 1908 Act’s regulations. These were designed to protect, feed, clothe and educate children in State care.

From interviews with ex-pupils from Cavan and other girls’ industrial schools, back to the 1920s, we saw that the orders had made a mockery of the law.

Whatever was known or suspected, there had been no open challenge to the church’s all-embracing power from the bureaucracy or Irish society and its political representatives. Nor from the press.

In 1943, 35 children died in a fire in the Cavan institution; transcripts of evidence from the tribunal of inquiry into the tragedy show that it was a whitewash to exonerate the nuns and government: authority closing ranks.

The absence of accountability and casual law-breaking in the whole system dumbfounded us. We even got documentary evidence of the late Brian Lenihan as minister of education concurring with a reverend mother's demand that a girl be imprisoned – illegally – in a reformatory.

Many people tried to dissuade us from writing a book.

“It’ll upset the good sisters. What’s the point? Everything’s different now.”

The original version of Children of the Poor Clares was eventually published in 1985, to mostly disapproving reviews.

However it was legitimised by the stomach-churning flood of evidence emerging in the following decades, culminating in the Ryan report.

Goldmine for lawyers
The Residential Institutions Redress Board process was badly flawed – it was a goldmine for lawyers while damaged survivors were aggressively subjected to humiliating interrogation and intimidation.

And the State, in effect, protected the assets of the orders.

There was even an echo of the 1943 Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse when the congregation leader of the Poor Clares Sisters was treated with kid-gloved deference.

We have retold the story up to the present, in the revised version of our book.

Children of the Poor Clares: The Collusion between State and Church that Betrayed Thousands of Children in Ireland's Industrial Schools by Mavis Arnold and Heather Laskey is available as an ebook