My friend, Sr Xavieria, the ‘evil monster’
Florence Horsman-Hogan recalls the contested legacy of a controversial nun,
10 MARCH 2013
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.
Spare a thought for abuse victims
If “Sr Xaveria was so big into education”, how come only a handful went to the nearby secondary school, given that Goldenbridge school was free, thanks to the generosity of the late Archbishop Cullen as stated in the Ryan Report?
The Dear Daughter documentary in 1996 was a small example of the horrors perpetrated in Goldenbridge. It was not stated in that documentary that “one girl’s leg was bust open with a baseball bat”, rather what I stated was that I received a savage attack with a stick which was like the bark of a tree and necessitated 80 to 90 stitches. This happened when I passed a letter to the breadman begging him to bring our nightmare into the public domain. Sadly, my letter found its way back into the hands of Sr Xaveria and hence I received that savage beating. With regards to the furnace episode in ‘Dear Daughter’, firstly, the furnace at that time was not disused as stated by Ms Horsman-Hogan. It was in daily use. The sister who contradicted her younger sister, on the Prime Time programme following the Dear Daughter documentary, of being locked in the furnace did not arrive at Goldenbridge until three years after this incident occurred. Her young sister was only a few days in Goldenbridge when this ordeal occurred.
The howling of this young girl in the furnace continues to haunt me even to this day – I remember it vividly.
Now that Sr Xaveria has passed away, Ms Horsman-Hogan might spare a thought for the hundreds of survivors/victims that Sr Xaveria has left behind. Given Ms Horsman-Hogan’s profession, that of a nurse, I find it difficult to have to remind her of the qualities of a good nurse, qualities such as sympathy, understanding, compassion and empathy are paramount in the care of sick children or children who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in State care. Ms Horsman-Hogan’s stay, as stated earlier, was happy under the care of the Sisters of Mercy. She was born lucky. The majority of us were not.
Director & Co-Founder, Aislinn Education & Support Centre for Survivors of Institutional Abuse, Dublin 1
I don’t know the full truth of Goldenbridge.
Exactly. Ms. Florence-Horseman-Hogan knows nothing about Goldenbridge. As with Sr. Helena O’Donoghue, the then Leader of the provincial order of the southern region of the Sisters of Mercy, she is a mere third party. It appears that she is suffering with confirmation bias, and wouldn’t that be only natural seeing that she was a good friend to Sr. Xaveria. I don’t doubt one bit that Sr. Xaveria R.I.P. didn’t do good work at Goldenbridge. In fact she took on too much responsibility, and dominated everyone. Nuns, children, and parents.