Corporal punishment was permitted in Irish schools until 1982. It was so widely used in the decades leading up to the ban that Prof Pat Dolan, who is chairman of the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at University of Galway, likens the collective experience of physical abuse in Irish schools to “a pandemic”.
The Irish Times recently published a number of accounts of the effect of physical and emotional abuse of girls in schools throughout the country, some of which continued long after the abolition. That article – which can be read here – prompted a huge response from readers, both men and women.
Dozens subsequently wrote to describe how they had been beaten, screamed at, humiliated and terrified in what were supposed to be places of learning and safety. As part of our effort to highlight the full spectrum of historical abuse of children in Irish schools, more of their stories are published below.
Eithne O’Connor: ‘A nun walloped me black and blue with the leg of a chair. I was 10’
In 1957, when I was 10 years old, a nun [at a convent in south Co Dublin] walloped me black and blue with the leg of a chair for going to the pictures with a schoolfriend. She said I had committed a mortal sin. If another nun had not come into the classroom and stopped her, she would have kept on going. She was hell-bent on breaking my arm.
Three of my friends had to help me home that day. My mam went up to the school and complained about the vicious beating. I had to stay off school for two weeks afterwards. Decades later, a friend and I decided to go and confront that nun, but...she was already dead. I am still reliving the effects of that beating.
Iseult Jordan: ‘She slapped me so hard in the face that she knocked me out’
I went to a school [in south Dublin] and was beaten on a daily basis. I’m now in my 60s and, after years of therapy, am still dealing with the effects. Thinking back, I can’t believe that adults would do that to children.
My teacher, Mrs B, was a monster. Because I was not from an overly religious family, I was singled out. She would get rulers from my friends and use them to hit me. One day she really lost it, and slapped me so hard in the face that she knocked me out. I think that actually scared her a bit.
The school also had little books that they would give to one girl from each class and told them to write a black mark next to the name of each student they heard speaking English. The amount of black marks each kid would get would determine the severity of the beating. We were aged between five and 12 years old.
I hope that the children of Ireland are now safe from abuse at school and are given the love and support that they deserve.
Kieran Timmons: ‘The Brother was a violent, screaming, fuming terrorist who beat children mercilessly’
It was in the 1960s, and we couldn’t believe that we would have the same Brother for an unprecedented third year. Another year of a violent, screaming, fuming terrorist who beat children mercilessly and for interminable periods. The whole school and all the other teachers could hear him, and they tried to ignore his criminal violence. Even today, 60 years later, just thinking of this monster and those in charge who sat on their hands and did nothing to rescue us makes me breathless with rage. How many lives did this bullying coward destroy?
It took me decades to reassemble some form of functioning self. There are some burning issues: Why have these people not been charged? Why have they never admitted their guilt? Why do we still tolerate organisations that enabled these criminals?
The Catholic Church tolerates the good and the evil equally. Shame on them all – especially the do-nothing “good” colleagues who all knew.
Mark Fox: ‘He grabbed me by the neck and shook me’
This is my story. I am at a point where I wish to go public because I think the Irish education system needs to acknowledge the harm that has been done to so many of my generation with physical and mental abuse that was meted out without thought of the impact it could have on the innocent recipients.
I am 60. At 14, in 1976, I was physically abused [in a school in south Dublin] by a lay teacher for alleged “failure at lessons”. His fear-based learning technique consisted of oral tests in the classroom to check if pupils had done their homework and were able to recite definitions by raising their hands. On one occasion he asked me why I had not done my homework. I said I had done my homework and, as proof, raised my hand to volunteer to recite each of the definitions.
He became angry and asked again. I held my ground. Each time he asked me he became angrier. I will never forget the rising tension and fear I felt under this interrogation in front of my peers. In my innocence I simply could not understand why he would not accept my word. It turned violent: he grabbed me by the neck, shook me violently in a choking position, and threw me back into my desk. I was reduced to tears and went into survival mode.
This physical abuse went on for about five minutes, or felt like it. I was completely distraught, devastated and humiliated. I was thrown out of the class on to the corridor and cried uncontrollably for the rest of the class. The crying could be heard by a number of classes. At the end of the class he apologised for manhandling me. I have never experienced this level of physical and verbal assault on my character, and I believe it had a life-changing effect on me in terms of my self-confidence. Sadly, I did not speak to my parents ever about this. The level of deference to authority during the 1970s just baffles me. The incident was not reported to anyone. The memory and injustice still live with me.
Patricia Cooney: ‘It was 70 years ago. I’m still shaking as I write it’
I was educated at both primary and second level in schools run by nuns. I rarely suffered physical abuse, although I witnessed it quite a lot.
An incident that happened during my first year at school has stayed with me since. One day I wet my pants in class. I was excluded from lessons for the remainder of the day. After telling me and everyone else what a bad girl I was, the nun put me sitting on my own on a bench at the side of the room, well away from the others. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I was also cold and uncomfortable sitting in wet clothes.
Many times during the time I was there the nun pointed over at me and told the rest of the class, ‘Look at that bad girl who wet her pants.’ That was about 70 years ago, and I’m still shaking as I write it.
Martin Nugent: ‘The man had gone berserk. A brute wearing Brut’
Smells; evocative, redolent of other times, places and even people. Vague, long-forgotten memories instantly brought to the surface of one’s consciousness.
Our captors had their own fragrances. Brother C reeked of oranges, nauseatingly sweet like his affected smile, lingering long after he had brushed by you, uncomfortably close. Brother H: farmyard manure and more than a whiff of violence; I once saw him fell a pupil with a single blow of his huge agricultural fist. Another Brother: anger wafting off him as he hummed a ridiculous television ditty, leather strap in hand: “We make Jacob’s Mikado, diddly da doh. Take that – pull your hand away, laddie, and the next one will be worse!” Old Spice and Brut, colognes of choice for the 1970s man.
Our French-language teacher reeked of bargain-counter brands. “You copied that!” he said, looking sternly at the 14-year-old boy, impatiently awaiting his response. “No, sir,” came the reply. But it wasn’t true. He had transcribed a classmate’s homework into his own copybook. They left the classroom together. The teacher closed the door behind them, his inexpensive perfume imparting its suffocating unpleasantness in the confined space.
“I told you before, I hate lies.” The boy didn’t get an opportunity to reply. The teacher’s closed fist immediately smashed into the back of his head, driving him sideways, causing his slight frame to slam against the door. Pulling on his hair, he then hauled him forward, punching hard to the face with his other hand – one-two-one-two – George Foreman-like. Such was the ferocity of the blows that one of the boy’s eyes closed. The punches continued to rain down. The man had gone berserk. A brute wearing Brut, battering, pummelling, screaming into an already terrified face.
Resistance was useless against the bigger, more powerful, middle-aged man. Neither was there any point in calling out. They were alone, victim and near-crazed tormentor. One last flurry and it was all over, leaving the child with swollen ears, eyes and lips, blood dripping on to the collar of his once-white shirt. Brut 33, spicy, citrus and woody. An altogether miserable memory.
Anna*: ‘I was quite chubby, and the nuns mocked me incessantly’
There were three children in my family: my older sister, myself and a younger brother.
In 1950 we arrived in Ireland from continental Europe. We were enrolled at a private Catholic girls’ school in south Co Dublin. Once my brother turned four he was admitted into high babies. I remember that he wet himself out of fear on one of his first days, and was made to stand in the corner of the classroom all morning in his wet pants. He was jeered and mocked by the nun in charge.
I was quite chubby, and the nuns mocked me incessantly, delighted in making me cringe in class. They would deliberately stop me in corridors for walking too fast, always having a ruler to hand to slap me for this. I kept thinking it was my fault, and tried harder and harder to “get it right”, but of course I never could. It all haunts me to this day, and I’m now 76. The nuns thought my sister was perfect and left her alone. The constant comparisons left me all of my life with inadequate self-esteem.
Daphné Earner: ‘My mother tore strips off the nun who had inflicted the punishment’
I was one of the lucky ones – I had a mother who had a visceral contempt for bullies and who rose to the challenge of protecting myself and my sisters whenever she thought we were being threatened by one. I am not casting aspersions on any other mothers at the time – mine happened to be from a family that had a certain status, was on the right side of the tracks (I’m not sure how or why) and did not feel overwhelmed by the Catholic powers-that-were.
I went through the national school system in Offaly. I remember the nuns and their fearsome “rulers” – slabs of wood that could seriously hurt. I don’t remember my offences, but find it hard to believe they warranted whacks from the dreaded ruler.
I remember going home for lunch one day and my mother catching sight of the red, swollen welts on my hands. Before I even knew what was happening, we were in the car and back to school, where my mother tore strips off the nun who had inflicted the punishment. What I find terrible to deal with at a distance of some 60 years is that I was more worried that my mother’s reaction would cause me more problems, rather than admiring her courage. And she was right – the nun in question never came near me afterwards – and, eventually, I learned my first lesson about bullies. So many children out there don’t have a mother who can do what mine did, generally through no fault of their own. The nuns and priests we were handed over to knew that and took advantage.
Maura*: ‘She answered me with derision. Your family are poor’
I am 63 years old and have many memories of abuse – not only physical abuse but mental abuse. The nun who taught us from fifth class would make us all line up around the desks for prayers each morning. One morning following prayers, she kept us standing and went around each pupil, asking what their father did for a living. Each time someone answered she declared them to be rich or poor, depending on their father’s occupation or circumstances. When she came to me and asked, I said proudly that my father was a postman. She answered with derision: “Your family are poor.”
I was very confused by that, as I was very proud of my father, who delivered the post on a bicycle and helped many families who could not read or write, who could not speak English. He used to get home late at night, exhausted from the long hours cycling places where there were no discernible roads. To be told that my family was poor because of this stuck with me all my life. I hated the hypocrisy of the nuns, who damaged my confidence badly all my life. There was lots of physical abuse also, slapping on the hands, legs, buttocks with a long thin piece of wood. This was normal, everyday life for us.
John*: ‘He was sweating, chasing me through the class, lashing me’
The year was 1970. I was 12 and going into sixth class. My new teacher was a famous GAA player, and my dad was thrilled. I arrived into class on a Monday and was brought up front and beaten with a broken hurley. Pieces of chalk would be regularly thrown at me, and there was lots of shouting. I was beaten each Monday until, one day, I went back into class after school with a friend and took the bata – his name for his specially modified hurley – and dumped it in the bushes on the way home. The next day he called me up again. He had a thick leather strap, about two feet long and an inch thick. I remember thinking, who would make something like that?
He beat the tar out of me. A grown man, and he was sweating, chasing me through the class, lashing me, and I was screaming and trying to get away. He stopped hitting me after that. The shouting and chalk continued. I was always afraid on Monday morning – wouldn’t go to school, would pretend to have a tummy ache. He probably got a kick out of my obvious fear.
It did affect me. I was from then on afraid – to talk, to express opinion, to trust myself in life. I was lucky and met a wonderful wife with a great sense of humour. We have three great kids and good memories. But it can surface as a sudden dark mood. It constantly replays in my head. Now I am 60, and it’s still there.
I was very angry when the clergy were hauled up for abuse but the lay teachers were given a free pass.
Doireann*: ‘She relished the torture she was inflicting upon me’
I was a good student; I am a successful lawyer today. In Irish one day I was chatting and Mrs X asked to see my mother – words that make your heart go cold. I was nine. I didn’t understand why Mrs X wanted to see her, and it wasn’t explained. I couldn’t tell my mother – she would think I must have done something wrong – and, as I didn’t understand why myself, I was scared about what offence I must have committed.
So I didn’t tell my mother. I never told her. Every day Mrs X would bring me in front of my class and ask, “Is your mother coming to see me today, then?” I would make some lame utterance of her being very busy. I was sick a lot that year. Dreadful headaches and tummy pains. I spent the whole school year suffering. I was so glad when that year ended and we said goodbye to Mrs X. At the start of September we greeted our new teacher – Mrs X again. She asked me on the first day in front of everyone whether my mother was coming to see her.
It was only many years later I realised she relished the torture she was inflicting upon me. She could have picked up the phone to my mother at any time had she really wanted to speak to her. The rapping with the side of rulers on fisted knuckles, the clips on the head, never bothered me.
In recent years my mother told me she had met an old teacher of mine in the golf club, “a lovely lady” who sent her greetings to me. It was Mrs X. It had meant nothing to her, but it had meant a lot to me. The years of humiliation she had inflicted on me, a mere child. I finally told my mother. The silver lining is that this has made me a staunch defender of the underdog, someone who speaks out and is fearless, a seeker of fairness in everything and a better parent.
Moya*: ‘Chinese burns. Circles of kids told to pull each other’s ears’
Memories, aged 10.
Was it better to lick your hand before getting the strap or not? Kids put on tables and shaken. Chinese burns. Circles of kids told to pull each other’s ears.
Did you know there is a really sore point on the inside of your upper arm when fingers are dug into it? Watching it happen is as bad as feeling it. Family circumstances meant it was never raised. Always carry it with me.
It was a time when a myriad of legitimised cruelties were the norm. There was an individual and institutional component, but also – as even now – a strong class aspect. No surprise there. It’s a shared secret among many of all ages, from both secondary and primary school. I always felt it must have been my fault. Ever after I felt tainted. A bad kid. I wasn’t at all. Just ordinary. When I see talk of anti-bullying strategies I always wish someone would acknowledge that, historically, the education sector has skin in the game. There is a thread linking then with now.
Una*: ‘The teacher danced up and down the schoolroom, waving a cane’
In a girls’ national school in Cavan during the 1940s and early 1950s, the senior lay teacher (long deceased) terrorised us. If a girl didn’t know the answer Miss T danced up and down the schoolroom, waving a cane, before pulling some unfortunate from her bench to wallop her hands. We were so terrified that one morning we “kidnapped” a classmate to copy her maths. No parent ever complained, but what a relief it was to proceed to secondary school.
It was a common experience for my generation. I’m afraid sarcasm in our weaker subjects was another method used to humiliate. On the other hand, some teachers left an invaluable sense of self-worth that lasts for a lifetime.
Megan*: ‘The teacher thrashed her across the legs with a ruler’
At a convent primary school in the west of Ireland in the early 1970s, we had a nun teaching us in second class. She was older than the other teachers and was considered a cross teacher who disciplined the classroom with her ruler. There is one memory that can still give me the shivers. She did elocution classes after school, and I remember that one girl – who, looking back, probably had a speech impediment – couldn’t say what she was told to say. The teacher made her stand up on the desk, and she thrashed her across the legs with the ruler repeatedly, telling her to say it. I can’t remember if the poor girl ever did say it, but I can still feel that ruler hitting her legs.
*Some names have been changed at the request of interviewees. If you have been affected by the issues in this article, help is available. Contact One in Four (oneinfour.ie), Rape Crisis Helpline (1800-778888), the Samaritans (116123 or email@example.com) and HSE counselling services (1800-234112)