My friend, Sr Xavieria, the 'evil monster'
Florence Horsman-Hogan recalls the contested legacy of a controversial nun
My GOOD friend Sister Maura Lally passed away in late January in her early 90s. Aged 87, despite having undergone surgery, she was still well known for hopping on a bus and heading into a prison or city-centre flat where she'd visit some of her 'past pupils'. Or sometimes, no matter how tired or unwell she was – she would diligently write letters and cards to send to her 'past pupils' who wrote to her or rang her, wanting to keep in touch with their 'mother'.
Maura had gone to Goldenbridge Industrial School as a young nun in the Forties. She became resident manager in the mid-Fifties. She described her time there as one of "hard work, blood, sweat and tears", as the school had up to 190 pupils with six staff to look after them. I just can't imagine nowadays any teacher or childcare worker accepting 24-hour care of over 30 children each. Scabies, rickets, dysentery, malnourishment, child brutality and poverty was the norm for post-war Ireland, but at least within the walls of the school the sisters felt they could provide some sort of safety.
She appeared to have great memories. I don't know if she was just trying to fool herself – or whether she actually did manage, as a young woman with no childcare experience, to achieve some level of happiness in what appeared to me to be a world of drudgery and broken dreams.
In 1963 she was transferred from Goldenbridge to a smaller residential care facility run by the Sisters of Mercy in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow. Although she would describe her time in Rathdrum as very happy, always, to me, she appeared to hanker for Goldenbridge.
Her support of others was legendary – making wedding dresses and even helping to pay for the weddings of former pupils. She was also big into encouraging girls to advance in education at a time when education of females wasn't so hot in Ireland.
But here's the rub. Maura, otherwise known as Sr Xavieria Lally, has also gone down in history as one of the most evil monsters to ever care for a child. Serious allegations of child abuse as the resident manager in Goldenbridge were featured in a programme called 'Dear Daughter' in 1996. The programme, which achieved worldwide fame, portrayed her as an evil child-beater, even bursting one girl's leg open with a baseball bat, such were the beatings she gave.
A Prime Time programme featuring Maura and many past pupils from Goldenbridge was aired later. At the time Maura was 76. Pupils came forward to accuse and defend her with equal fervour. In one case, a girl directly contradicted an allegation by her sister that Sr Xavieria had thrown her into an old disused 'furnace room' and left her there for days, stating that it was a housekeeper who'd locked her there for less than an hour
By her own admission, Maura admitted "she used the stick" far more than she'd ever like to think about – but this was in the 'spare the rod and spoil the child' era.
Yes, there was abuse in Goldenbridge. But to hold one nun, herself a victim of the terrible poverty and oppression that had swept post-war Ireland, to blame for a poorly State financed, overcrowded and understaffed institution was cruelty itself. Even in the final Ryan Report, the most savage allegations made so publicly against her were omitted.
Despite garda investigations of the allegations of severe physical abuse in 'Dear Daughter', no criminal charges were ever brought against Sr Xavieria Lally. Such was her public vilification, that when 20 of her former pupils from Rathdrum tried to get a support letter published in the media, they had to get a solicitor to do it for them.
I don't know the full truth of Goldenbridge. I only know through my own upbringing by a Sister of Mercy who was also accused of abuse in the Redress Board, that while there were many guilty of visiting terrible abuses on those of us who were vulnerable and unprotected – not all of those accused were guilty.