Goldenbridge: Bed-wetting or enuresis: Ryan Report: 7.111 – 7.140

Bed-wetting or enuresis

7.111 Bed-wetting was a problem in Goldenbridge, as it was in other residential institutions. It was not confined to industrial schools, nor has it ceased to be a problem in residential homes for children. Children wet beds at night for a variety of reasons. It was probably more common in industrial schools because of the particular circumstances of the children sent there: they had to endure the stresses and strains associated with separation from their families and the anxieties of institutional life. The problem usually disappeared as children matured, but it left behind feelings of anxiety and resentment.

7.112 The practical problems were formidable. Bedclothes were made of materials such as calico and wool that were difficult to wash and dry quickly. Laundry facilities that might have been stretched in normal circumstances had to handle an increased volume of soiled bed linen. It has to be acknowledged, therefore, that bed-wetting constituted a major challenge to the facilities in an industrial school.

7.113 During Sr Alida’s time, a child who wet her bed in Goldenbridge had to sleep in a particular dormitory where all the bed-wetters were gathered. In this dormitory, children were woken up at night and taken out to the toilet. Their bedding was inspected daily. Children who wet the bed had to take their sheets to be inspected, and they were punished, usually by being beaten.

7.114 Bed-wetters had their consumption of water restricted in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of an accident at night. Girls were thirsty as a result, and sought sources of water. This included drinking out of cisterns of toilets located near the dormitories. Some gave evidence that children drank out of the pan of the toilet. The attempt to prevent the intake of fluid proved to be largely unsuccessful.

7.115 Bed-wetting was not considered to be a difficulty that children occasionally experienced, but was instead seen as a failure of discipline.

7.116 In a report by Dr Moira Maguire and Professor Seamus O Cinneide, entitled ‘Report for Newtownforbes Module’, submitted by the Sisters of Mercy in respect of Newtownforbes Industrial School, the authors refer to medical knowledge that was available in the 1930s. The two references12 used by the authors show that bed-wetting was recognised as a psychological problem as far back as the 1930s, with major causes being unhappiness and nervous strain. Treating the problem with harshness exacerbated it, according to the British texts:

In these cases … the only cure is the removal of the cause of unhappiness – that is, not by treating the physical symptoms but by treating the child psychologically. Success, not failure, should always be stressed.

7.117 The Irish article recognised the lack of child guidance practice in Ireland, but advised that children who wet the bed should be encouraged with rewards rather than punished.

7.118 In Goldenbridge, bed-wetting was viewed as a punishable offence. The method of punishment and the place of the punishments varied. One witness recalled the punishment that was inflicted on her by Sr Bianca for wetting the bed:

When I wet the bed which was nearly every night, she would bring you into this room, it’s called the linen room, it was a high room and a narrow room. She just proceeded to put me on the floor on my stomach, she put her left knee on my back, this was the punishment I was getting by the way for wetting the bed, and a big girl, just a big girl … again, to me she was about 15 or 16 … she had to hold my legs down, pull down my pants and Mother Bianca pulled up my top and proceeded to smack me really hard for a while on the bum.

7.119 Sr Bianca used a stick, and the witness recalled she was punished in this manner two or three times a week. When she first arrived in Goldenbridge, in the early 1950s, that was the regime.

7.120 She said that, when Sr Alida took over the running of the School in the mid-1950s, bed-wetters were sent to the landing to await their punishment. The witness also pointed out that children who were bed-wetters were not allowed to have a drink after 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

7.121 Another witness who was resident in the 1950s recalled the punishment she was given for wetting the bed. She was lined up in St Patrick’s classroom, along with other bed-wetters, and slapped on the hand by Sr Alida. She also recalled her hair being pulled and her face being pushed into the wet sheets.

7.122 A complainant who persistently wet the bed recalled being beaten every morning. She also described the humiliation of sometimes having to parade her wet sheet in front of everyone:

Then there were other times I remember there was a recreation hall and those of us who had wet the bed on some occasions we had to go into the front hall and stand there and people were coming in and out. On other occasions we had to go into the recreation hall, again with the wet sheets, and the other children were encouraged to walk around and jeer us. They would call us wet-the-beds.

7.123 One complainant said that, after Sr Alida became Manager:

She took over and you were put on the landing when you wet the bed or when you did anything else bold but mainly for wetting the bed. I was all the time one of those people. She would leave you on the landing until she was ready to come up and smack you, and you could be there for a long time.

7.124 One witness, who was resident in the School in the 1960s and who regularly wet the bed until she was 14, stated that she was sent to the landing to await punishment and that she would be punished in the yard:

I was afraid to go to the toilet and that’s why I wet the bed. I think when I look back I thought it was every night I was hit, I don’t know how many times a week I was hit but I was hit for bed-wetting … if it was discovered after a certain time you got hit down in the yard that was off the rec, you got hit there. I was either on the landing or in the rec, as we called it.

7.125 She stated that the beds of children who wet the bed were checked during the night time by one of the older girls and, if the bed was wet, the child would be woken up and put standing on the landing.

7.126 Another witness remembered:

I can remember praying every night that I wouldn’t wet the bed because I knew that the next morning I would be severely beaten, reprimanded and I remember feeling very cold and standing naked and just the shame, just the absolute shame of it.

7.127 A complainant who continued to suffer from nocturnal enuresis for some years after she left the School recalled being beaten by Sr Alida in the classroom. She was also beaten on the landing and she continued to be punished for bed-wetting until she left Goldenbridge at the age of 16.

7.128 A woman described how, in the 1960s, her younger siblings were hit by the lay staff for wetting the bed. As the eldest child, she could not bear to hear them being slapped, because she ‘felt every slap they got’. As a result, she took preventive measures:

I found it very difficult because they were chastised in the mornings if they wet the beds. I couldn’t bear that so I ended up waking up during the night and crawling under the beds up to the top beds to take the dry sheets off the other kids and bring them down to … take the wet sheets off and just throw the dry sheets beside my brothers.

7.129 This complainant was approximately 10 years old when she was resorting to such measures to defend her siblings from being punished. For a child of such tender years, it was a very stressful experience for her. She told the Committee, ‘I didn’t get much sleep in the early days in the good few years while they wet the bed. I never really slept that well’.

7.130 A male witness who was resident in Goldenbridge in the 1970s recalled being beaten on one occasion for wetting the bed. He had tried to conceal the wet sheets, but a nun came into the dormitory and discovered them and ‘she did kind of batter me’. This nun then threw him and the sheets into a bath. He conceded that this was not a regular event. The worst aspect of this incident was the humiliation and fear of wetting the bed: ‘just the whole humiliation of the whole lot’. Even to this day, he said he had a fear of wetting the bed: ‘I would still have that fear. I would wake up during the night just in case because sometimes you would feel like I was going to the toilet’.

7.131 Bed-wetting was an indication of emotional disturbance, yet the Sisters of Mercy used punishment relentlessly as a policy to deal with it, rather than analysing the reasons for the problem. The Sisters of Mercy acknowledge that it was not dealt with appropriately. They stated in their Opening Statement:

Unfortunately, one of the methods of trying to deal with the problem in the earlier part of the period under review was to try to jolt the child out of the habit by punishment.

7.132 They also conceded that older girls were punished for bed-wetting. They said that two of the tactics used with the younger children was to deprive them of fluids in the late evening and waking them during the night to take them to the toilet.

7.133 They acknowledged that the children who wet the bed would have suffered humiliation by ‘the very reason of having to bring soiled sheets to the laundry basket’. Furthermore, they apologised for any hurt and pain caused by them in response to the issue of bed-wetting:

We further particularly regret the use of any form of punishment, including corporal punishment, in respect of children who suffered from a bedwetting problem. At the time it was thought that punishment would provide a deterrent in the erroneous belief that the child was able to control his or her bedwetting. In retrospect, we recognize that punishment for bedwetting must have been particularly traumatic, and that children who suffered from bedwetting, and punishment for bedwetting, had a particularly difficult time.

7.134 In their written Submissions, too, they accepted that corporal punishment and shaming tactics, such as making children parade their wet sheets in front of the other children, were used, but that it was likely from the evidence heard that such practices ceased after a certain point.

7.135 Sr Alida stated that bed-wetting was a huge problem during her early days in Goldenbridge. She asserted that they tried every possible means to counteract this problem, including waking children at 2am to go to the toilet. She stated that each child who had a persistent bed-wetting problem was sent to Dr. Steevens’ Hospital for investigation. She also recalled that she received medical advice, around 1954, to cease the practice of waking children during the night.

7.136 Sr Alida denied beating any child for bed-wetting:

… For bed-wetting, I cannot account, I cannot account for bed-wetting, I didn’t beat for bed-wetting. I beat for lots of other things.

7.137 She added that none of the lay staff had authority to deal with the problem of bed-wetting amongst the children and, in particular, they were not permitted to punish the children:

[The staff] had never any authority to punish children for bed-wetting that I know of, I never gave it to anybody. I don’t remember myself taking anybody in the line, beating them for bed-wetting … I have no recollection of ever having children on the landing for bed-wetting.

7.138 However, under cross-examination she conceded that she had in fact slapped children for bed-wetting. When asked whether she accepted that she had slapped children for bed-wetting, she responded, ‘I suppose I have to. I slapped a lot more than I am happy to be thinking of these days’.

7.139 She continued to deny that she lined up bed-wetters in St Patrick’s classroom for punishment, or that children were made to parade with their wet sheets.


  • Corporal punishment was used as punishment for bed-wetting long after the 1950s, contrary to what was asserted by Sr Alida and the Congregation. Witnesses who were in Goldenbridge in the 1960s, and even the 1970s, gave evidence of being beaten for wetting the bed at night.
  • The methods of dealing with bed-wetting proved to be wholly unsuccessful, but they were continued over many years and under different Managers. If the management had sought to create conditions in which it was probable that children would wet their beds, the steps adopted could scarcely have been chosen with more effect. They set up a cycle of behaviour by the children and by the authorities which, instead of tending to eradicate the problem, actually exacerbated it. The combination of measures resulted in more extensive bed-wetting and for longer periods in the child’s life than would otherwise have been the case. The pattern of identification, exposure, segregation, differential treatment, embarrassment and humiliation was completed by punishment when the predictable and almost inevitable result came about.

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