Aisling and Cara the Industrial School

Industrial Schools (Irish: Scoileanna Saothair) were established in Ireland under the Industrial Schools Act of 1868 to care for “neglected, orphaned and abandoned children”. They were also for pregnant teenagers and unmarried mothers were sent who were ostracised by the strictly Catholic Society up until the 1980’s. Many of these schools operated up until the 1970’s and 80’s. Cara was the local Industrial School nearest my Village and many children from there were brought to my room for sexual abuse by the men who abused me.

My window into the world of Cara came via Aisling, who arrived in the room with the floor of roses when I was nine and she was four. Aisling was a blond, crystal skyblue eyed vision of beauty. Like me she was small for her age with skinny underdeveloped legs and arms protruding from her threadbare, ill fitting Industrial School clothing brown tunic with a two inch belt of the same material dissecting her tiny frame. Underneath the sleeveless tunic was a coarse handknitted yellow jumper with sleeves that were too short, accentuating her fairy-like wrists and small bony hands with dirty fingernails. Her hair was short, too short. The Children’s hair at Cara was kept crudely short to control of head lice. As she grew, her hair never seemed to change. The uniform grew with her, never changing colours. Her’s was a world of brown and yellow children with short hair. Aisling described Cara to me and talked of the dancing avenue of daffodils, the women dressed in black and what happened there in graphic detail. I drank in every word, visualising Aisling’s world as if it was my own.

Aisling and other Industrial School children were brought to the room once or twice a week by Mick, a close friend of my parents. This was happening regularly, about two per week by the time I was around nine. Aisling was the most regular for one ‘special’ visitor. Aisling and I bonded from her first appearance. I had no experience of other children but she did and she took my hand as soon as she entered the room and was clearly very scared. I was too. I had often seen Mick downstairs in the kitchen but never before in the room and never with this other ‘special’ visitor.  The touch of another child felt good. The feel of her small hand in mine was exhilarating and arousing. It awakened an untapped emotion in me, a protectiveness towards another human being I had not felt before, a feeling of guardianship, warmth and affection each time she entered the room.

At last I had found kinship, friendship and understanding. A soulmate. I hated the reason she was brought to the room but delighted in moments it gave us together. These moments came afterwards when I cleaned her up and cuddled her while the man and Mick had a smoke and  drink.

Jim was the name of the other man and he told Aisling all the same stories that the men told me about being a good girl, about puppies, about bringing her nice places.  I had heard it all before so I knew what was going to  happen to her.  I had to tell her about the secret fairy who would help her “escape”.  Sometimes we had time alone in the room and  we shared a world of private stories woven from both reality and imagination.  We never had long in the room without Mick the transporter or Jim the abuser, but what time we did have we relished  by continuing our shared stories. Usually a week would pass between her visits. At first she was tentative in her speech but soon trust developed and our understanding of each other’s experience, even though I was only nine and she just four, was obvious. We became firm, closest friends. Other children came to the room but they did not speak. I would  try to maintain eye contact with them, then clean them up afterwards, dress and cuddle them, but Aisling was special because she listened and responded. I told her about the wallpaper and flying ducks, about the beach, taking her on an imaginary journey across the sands and ebbing tides, describing sights, sounds and smells denied to her.  When I managed to keep a pebble from the strand hidden from my mother I would slip it into the pocket of little Aisling’s tunic.  She treasured those pebbles like diamonds. She would bring me a dried, pressed flower, beautiful though crushed, to hide under the mattress and look at it when I hid under the bed. We helped each other endure by sharing cherished secret treasures harvested from nature.  She would give me a beautiful though crushed flower plucked from the garden, I would give her a volcanic rock, chosen carefully.  The joy was in the sharing. 

She described the nuns to me in minute detail. Some were large, tall elegant women clad in flowing black cassocks from head to toe, a belt of thick rope with a golden tassel on the end that would swing rhythmically as they glided noiselessly across the vast wooden parquetry floors of Cara.  Invisible feet meant they appeared to float, adding to their majesty and absolute authority. Some were short, stout women squashed into their habits and veils with multiple chins wobbling erratically as they talked. Aisling said it was impossible not to stare at the wobbly chins as they held forth to a classroom with the same daunting authority as the tallest, most statuesque nun in the convent.  In fact the smaller the stature of the  nun, the more authority they seemed to wield. Aisling said the Mother Superior was tiny but her booming voice and violent temper caused any any child to freeze with fear. Lucky for Aisling her rage was usually targeted at the older children. Apparently the older children were protective of the younger ones and would take the blame and the beating on behalf of a younger soul.    

Over the years Aisling described how nuns routinely promenaded the halls feverishly fingering a string of beads and muttering under their breath. At the end of the circle of beads was a Cross with a man whose hands and feet  appeared to be nailed to it. Fixed to the outside of the Cross and His feet crossed at the bottom. Upon His head she described an intricately woven Crown made of Thorns.  This unfortunate man, she told me, was  called Jesus, the Son of God, who the nuns adored and to whom they prayed several times a day. 

Aisling told me the nuns believed Jesus would one day come and save us all and take us to a place called Heaven.  There will be no Jim’s in Heaven she said. Some nuns prayed in the garden, some in halls and some in the classrooms while children were at work. Others did not appear to have hands. They were sequestered underneath the outer cassock in mysterious, unseen pockets.  Others fingered keys on a chain which could be rather menacing to the younger children.  None had hair that was visible but concealed beneath a black veil which completely covered their head and forehead and fell down their back to just above their waist.  “Where was their hair?”I asked, “Jesus has taken it” mused Aisling.  She made me laugh when she described Sister Aquinas who oversaw the baby’s room. Sister Aquinas had an obsession with the babies lying down and used to spend her day going from cot to cot lying each baby down. No sooner had she passed the cot than the baby would spring back up again and giggle and shake the side of the cot, delighting in the attention. It seems Sister Aquinas never got cross with the babies, nor tired of her mission of getting them all to lie down. Aisling said those under six months would easily comply but the older bairns quickly worked out the game and ran the poor woman ragged until they eventually tired and fell into a natural slumber or were taken outside by the older girls for some playtime. Other nuns were, apparently, not so tolerant and would not countenance any such behaviour from the little ones and the babies and toddlers knew it. Those were the days they cried a lot.

Several times a week the Priest came to the school to say Mass and deliver a Sermon on obedience to the children.  He too was dressed in black but had a white stiff collar that enclosed his two chins.  His portly stomach was held in by a tightly fitting shirt and his thin legs encased in black trousers ending with black shiny leather shoes. After Mass the Priest was given tea in a special room the nuns called the Parlour.  Only certain boys and girls were ever permitted in there and only ever one at a time. Aisling thought the Priest must be very old because he had thick grey hair on his head. She marvelled at his red nose with a purple bump on the end of it.  She noticed his hair, she said, because at Mass and when he went into the Parlour it was neat and brushed back but when he came out it was tousled and messy.   Mystery.

Aisling told me that some of the teachers and nuns at the school were kind and encouraging. They carried the babies on their cassocked hips, jiggling them up and down to make them laugh and never left them on the ground to  cry.  They would comfort a younger child who had fallen down and gently hold them up, dusting them down.  Difficulties understanding mathematics were met with careful, repeated explanations and wonderful fables were told at story time. A child wetting the bed was not treated with anger or derision but rather a comforting hug, change of nightgown and bed clothing, prayer and tuck back into bed. Aisling said many of the younger children wet the bed and it was a big problem.

Sadly Aisling described how some nuns reacted very differently and this unpredictability made things worse. These nuns would beat and scream at a child who wet their bed. Older sisters on learning their siblings had wet the bed would quickly swap beds with them if they did not have time to change the sheets before bed inspection in the morning and take the flogging themselves rather than let their five or six year old sister get punished yet again.  She spoke of Nuns who, unlike Sister Aquinas, ignored and even slapped crying babies.  They routinely responded to any crying toddlers or younger distressed children with harsh threats or sharp slaps instead of kindness or warmth.

All the children had chores to do on the farm or in the home before  and after lessons. Any lack of performance of these chores to the satisfaction of the Nun in charge would be met with rage expressed in many forms. Already blistered hands held out for whips with caning, being slapped across the face, kicked, punched or beaten naked at bed time in front of all the other children.  Aisling recalled her sister having her head knocked against window ledges or lifted off her feet by her hair and swung to the ground if a Gaeilge lesson was incorrectly recalled.  It was not all nuns, but it was enough of them to make life frighteningly unpredictable and capricious for Aisling and the other children. The children learned not to trust any nun, but above all to avoid at all costs being chosen to go the Priest in the Parlour. No child ever emerged smiling from there.

I asked her once what scared her the most. She said being made to kneel on the granite avenue for hours on end was excruciating agony and left her knees bloody. Tiny shiny shards of granite embeddeded themselves in the bony, fleshless knees and took painful hours to remove with each fragment was followed by a pool of red blood trickling down the shin eventually ending at the scarlet soaked sock. I saw her knees once after one of these episodes were black and blue with bruising from the kneeling marathon. 

When Aisling asked me in return about my biggest fear I replied, “Being left in the room for days on end seeing no one.” Loneliness and desolation would swim over me.   It was not so much the hunger which lessened after the second day and I had water to drink from the yellow sink but the greatest fear was that my mother would never come back for me, would finally abandon me and never love me.  As long as she returned to the room, even if for beatings or with men, there was always the hope that she would, at last, love me.  I told myself that was why she kept me, that one day she would love me as I loved her. I had no idea what I could do to assuage her anger or please her so that she might love me, I just knew that so long as she was still coming back to the room there was hope.

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