Ten miles outside Ballyculchie located in a benign, all too familiar dairy farm was the local Children’s Home and Industrial or Reformatory School called Cara. It was an imposing building. Constructed of red brick with granite parapets and a grey slate roof. Windows were of the six pane kind, white wood retainers meticulously painted as only the premises owned by nuns could be. There were six large windows per floor drenching them in sunlight. There were three floors and six attic windows. Red brick chimneys rose into the sky, billowing grey smoke in winter, dormant in summer. An avenue led from the country road to the school. It was an oak tree lined avenue casting dappled light in the evening summer and full sunshine in the winter as it shed its green foliage.
In spring the avenue was carpeted with Jon Quills and Golden Daffodils dancing in the breeze. In autumn the green grass and pathway surface was a carpet of orange and brown oak leaves, crunchy underfoot, either side of the avenue standing tall was hundred-year-old oak trees ascending from the rich volcanic soil like proud, noble mountains. Flanking either side of the avenue was lush green pasture resplendent with fat, luscious, black and white Friesian dairy cows. It was a spectacular and imposing Boulevard to a grandiose doorway. After taking in the manicured gardens with its straight avenue your eye was immediately drawn to the imposing Ash, double door that was the entrance to the school. It was a bucolic scene, deceptive in its calmness, belying the stories behind the door. Entry to this hidden world was through the double Ashen door open only when a Nun would give the outside cosmos permission to enter.
These Homes were located in various counties and towns around Ireland. Many were founded in the 1870’s and continued operating into the 1970s, ’80s and some as late as 1990s. Some were managed by various religious orders and the State such as the Christian Brothers or Bon Secours, Presentations Nuns, Sister of Mercy or other Orders. The local priests ministered to the religious requirements. Children were incarcerated here for many reasons – Court Orders from petty crime, parents who could no longer manage, deafness/blindness or other physical/mental impairment, family poverty, parental death, babies from teenage pregnancies, parental separation or truancy. Ages of admission varied and while some schools were single-sex, most were a mixture of boys and girls. Many children migrated to these homes after short stays at Mother and Baby Homes with their mothers. Therefore for some residents, this home became the only one they knew unless adoption or their family came to take them home. Rare.
The Department of Education oversaw the education of these children and like the local priests and the families who could, though rarely, visit their children were the eyes of the outside world into these closeted schools and homes. They were virtually autonomous with little imposition of outside agencies on their management. Treatment of residents was at the behest of the Order and lay people into whom families had to relinquish their children. Many residents of Industrial Schools migrated from Children’s Homes as it appeared that once a child was in the welfare residential care system that continued until early teenage years when the girls would enter domestic service and the boy’s farm labour.
Education was provided and was often associated with local boarding schools in the latter years. It was not unusual to attain the School Certificate at around age fifteen. This all had to be undertaken while performing chores on the farms and laundries associated with the Schools. The older girls had the care of the younger children and babies and worked in the laundries. The boys carried out farm duties. This proved to many but not all cases to be a potent recipe for insidious abuse and horrid treatment. Many of the Christian Brothers and Nuns were kind and good natured people devoted to their charges. Others were cruel, abusive and agents of physical, emotional and sexual abuse visited upon the innocents.
My window into the world of Cara came via Aisling in the room with the floor of roses. I first saw her at age 4 with skinny underdeveloped legs and arms protruding from Industrial School clothing. The garments consisted of an ill fitting, worn brown tunic with two pleats down the front and back with a two-inch belt of the same material, stemming to dissect her minuscule frame. Underneath the sleeveless tunic was a coarse hand knitted yellow jumper with sleeves that were too short seeming to accentuate her fairy like wrist which ended in bony hands with dirty fingernails.
Her hair was short, too short. The Children’s hair at Cara was kept crudely short to make control of head lice more manageable. As she grew, her hair did not and I never remember her with different hair. The uniform grew with her, never changing colours. Her’s was a world of brown and yellow children with short hair. It was she who described Cara to me in such detail and talked of the dancing avenue of daffodils and the women dressed in black and their antics in such incredible detail. I drank in every word and visualised Aisling’s world as if it was my own.
I first encountered Aisling when I was nine and she was four. She was a blond, crystal sky blue eyed vision of beauty to my view. Like me, she was small for age. We became firm friends sharing our warped worlds.