The Goldenbridge Secret Rosary Bead Factory
Making rosary beads
From the middle 1950s to the late 60s, after ‘school’ at 4pm, children from the age of six were issued one slice of bread and margarine and then sent into St. Bridget’s classroom to make rosary beads. The classroom did duty as a mini-factory for the manufacture of rosary beads.
Each day of their lives children had to reach a quota of sixty decades and twelve threes. The task of rosary bead making is a very skilled one, and it required strict deliberation. Beads are strung onto a length of wire and are looped into the relevant beads very intricately, with the aid of heavyweight pliers. There were variations in the thickness of the wire. Silver wire, even though thin was very lustrous and burnished; it was hard to grapple and would flutter all over the place it was that temperamental. If the wire got crooked as we worked it, we positioned the wire under our sandals then impressed on it with the back of our sandals and with the aid of the pliers gripped at wire endings. Children pulled the wire towards them to straighten it.
The holes of pearl beads were very small, which made them an unqualified blight to work with. Silver wire, which was very costly, was exclusively used for the pearl and other such types of beads. Twisting loops with pliers into pearl beads was a thorny ordeal. Children cried at the painful prospect of having to work with these convoluted beads and wire.
Thick wire was used for beads with big holes. This wire consistently ripped into the skin and it resulted in deep indentation marks in the left index fingers and inside of the right palms. The hands got black from sweat and the coated substance that was on the wire. More energy was required in the making of these beads as the cutting with pliers of the thick wire was more demanding. It was very hard for small children who found the practice of cutting wire overwhelming. Not a soul gave a damn. The sizes of pliers never changed with the age of the child, the same size was used at six and at sixteen.
Irish horn beads were bockety [crooked, irregular] and came in various sizes and holes, which made them extra difficult to work with. The glass beads were lethal, as they splintered or fractured with the pressure of the pliers encountering the hole; the splinters then sprayed into the eyes of the child worker.
Life in the factory
We raced each other and tried to be in rivalry in seeing who would get their quotas done first. The beads were placed in discoloured pewter-like cans on grey padded desks; the cans could be toppled over if the loser so determined . We bartered ‘stolen’ bread, dessert or personal favours (we had no property, toys, books, or anything else to trade) for help with the bead making. Cronies helped children that they had a ‘gra’ for; it paid to be liked in Goldenbridge and if you were not you paid dearly.
Children often got temperamental and turned on each other. On the spot punishment by staff was an everyday event. Children had to stand on a cold landing (sometimes barefoot and wearing only slips) during the night for punishment. They were relentlessly flogged with thick bark from a tree by the nun in charge, if, for example, they had not fulfilled their quota of rosary beads in the factory. A quantity of older children worked on the quota for whole nights, wearing sleeveless nightdresses and no sandals.
Children from the lower echelons of Goldenbridge were always issued an assortment of leftover beads and wire which fallen on the floor during the week. The children had no alternative but to do their mandatory quota with this mish-mash despite the added technical hitches.
We constantly rocked backwards and forwards in our desks as we worked. This had a dual purpose: self-soothing, and hurrying to get the work finished. It always achieved its aim. We could block out everything. We also resorted to this type of behaviour collectively with other children at the same time, as we always had the idea that we would get our work done faster. Rocking, banging heads, sucking thumbs and fingers, also occurred when we decided to give ourselves a break for a few minutes.
Children didn’t have to leave St. Bridget’s all that often to go to the toilet as no liquids were allowed from approximately 8am breakfast time, unless children drank from the toilet cisterns and bowls.
Children as young as six had for hours on end to pick up beads and wire, which unavoidably fell on the floor. The particles of wire that carpeted the floor of the factory always presented a danger. St Bridget’s floor was strewn with beads; it was a job trying to gather them up from the floor. Some children landed up in hospital because they had put beads in their ears. Nutty flat brown beads were habitually chewed and swallowed by them, as a white coconut-like substance therein was very edible. Some children swallowed these beads just for the sheer sensation. The silver wire, employed by children in the making of pearl rosary beads, was continually blocked during the process, because of the stuffed holes on its journey through the bead holes; this caused huge problems. Children prodded or bit at them to release white contents when making these particular beads.
Younger children huddled for hours under benches stringing beads onto the tail end of wire for older girls. They were so bored and exhausted that they fell asleep. This was life in the Goldenbridge secret rosary bead factory.
No one to turn to
There were no empathetic staff in the institution that one could turn to for guidance or help. There was not any person of a sympathetic nature that I could importune with to ask if I could be let off the hook. There were no rules in place for us to exert our human rights. Children apprehensively obeyed without query. Fear continuously permeated all around, it was part and parcel of our lives in Goldenbridge.
There was immeasurable pressure on the children to reach mandatory targets. Children were punished there and then on the spot; they were pinched on the arms, or they got a dig of the pliers if they didn’t produce the prearranged amount on time; beads were flung back at them if there was deemed to be a fault.
The nervous tension haunted every day of our lives. We had not a solitary human being we could unburden our hearts to, we had to keep everything to ourselves; children would go into convulsions to rid themselves of pent-up anger. They inwardly knew there was something wrong with their lives. Children had to remain silent and conduct themselves like miniature nuns, offering up their young lives to a God that was never experienced as real. Children never got sick leave either, which factory workers generally do get.
At 6pm each evening the Angelus bell rang. Everyone lined up in the corridor to say it, then entered the Dining Hall to repeat more prayers: ‘Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts which of thy bounty we are about to receive through Christ our Lord, Amen.’ The gifts the children received day in and day out were two slices of smelly mouldy bread and a cup of black sugarless cocoa. Mother Catherine McCauley looked down upon them as they ate their pathetic meal. Little ones were still famished when they got up from the tables.
From noon until 8 the following morning, three slices of bread and one cup of cocoa were the staple diet. This derisory meal was expected to foster and sustain hard-working growing children. Oliver Twist would have felt at home. Having completed evening responsibilities children returned to the sweatshop to finish slaving at the third world job.
Morning at Goldenbridge
The children got up at six o’clock each morning. A staff member who grew up in the institution stormed into the dormitories and switched on the lights and roared ‘Get out of those beds immediately!’ If a child hesitated at all the bed covers were flung across the floor, if a child became even more stubborn, as often happened, the mattress with the child was toppled over onto the floor. We then had to make our beds to hospital standards.
Goldenbridge housed on average two hundred children, which included infants and babies; a good percentage of them were infants, babies and toddlers. I remember clearly, at 6:30 in the mornings, when I was eleven years old or thereabouts having to go to St Joseph’s babies/infants dormitory. I had to dress the toddlers. It was normal for some of them to have slept in their own excrement. When I took them from their destroyed beds, I found it so upsetting as they were always covered from head to toe in excrement. They were shivering and were all colours of the rainbow as they stood there waiting to be cleaned. I had to use the clean corners of the destroyed sheets. The only place to get water was from a very small toilet bowl. I dipped the sheet in the bowl and then cleaned the children. The whole dormitory which was a dark dank cold place stank to high heaven. The head honcho of the Sisters of Mercy at this time of morning was up in the convent saying her prayers. The sheets were placed in a soiled open sheet, and with the help of another child we carried them down to the school laundry. There were other sheets there from the Sacred Heart dormitory.
Children like myself who had no family visitors, or big girls who wet the bed, were given the grotesque taks of handwashing the sheets in cold water in the laundry.
This story, like that of the rosary beads, can be properly told only by those who were hidden in Goldenbridge, the ones who were imprisoned behind the doors, who were the lowest on the rungs of the institutional Goldenbridge ladder. Bernadette Fahy, author of Freedom of Angels, or Christine Buckley who appeared in the documentary ‘Dear Daughter,’ would not have been doing this despicable job, as they were both allowed to go to outside school.
On Saturday morning children worked like slaves doing hard maintenance jobs. The whole institution was scrubbed and polished from top to bottom , all done on bended knees.
Saturday afternoons children went to the factory to do time and a half. This entailed producing ninety decades and fifteen threes. Every week beads had to be equipped and organised for Walsh’s Factory outside Rathfarnham. Older children stayed up until all hours checking and rechecking beads. The beads had to be in perfect arrangement. Sixty decades and twelve threes of concluded decades of rosary beads were looped by the fatigued workers onto a stretch of circular looped or hooked wire approximately twelve inches long. Two decades were then held up parallel to each other and methodically examined, till the whole batch of sixty passed the test; this was repeated till all were examined.
Through years of familiarity, older girls could differentiate instantaneously those decades of beads that were erroneous. If there were mistakes such as inconsistencies in the tension of beads, this resulted in lengths not squaring up with each other or beads not nestling correctly together because they were crooked and out of order. This at once rendered the batch defective. All hell let loose, and the staff were on the warpath. ‘If I get my hands on you, I will leave you black and blue,’ echoed all round. Finally during the course of the night, the children filled brown boxes with batches of decades – the culmination of the hard work of very young people.
The government paid capitation grants to the religious for the children’s upkeep, yet they were behind locked institutional doors all their childhood, doing factory work unbeknown to the Inspector Mrs McCabe, their parent or parents, and holy Irish society.
Children did not get any superfluous food from the nuns or staff for all the quadruple over-time that they were busied with. On the contrary, the staff requested children to fill hot water bottles for the nuns in charge. This indeed, was considered an honour. A cruel, cruel system prevailed in Goldenbridge Industrial School, Inchicore, Dublin, Ireland.
No outsiders were aware of all of this or if they were, they too did not care. A local woman, employed by the nuns in the latter part of the sixties, had to oversee the whole rosary beads making process. She was not a very strict woman – thank God. Children dreadfully needed some normality and sanity in their lives.
It is ironic that whilst children were doing this third world drudgery behind closed institution doors, the religious were perpetually collecting money for children in Africa.
In Goldenbridge Industrial School, the children produced rosary beads at a phenomenal rate. This factory work went on for a generation. Walsh’s of Rathfarnham were conspiring with the Sisters of Mercy in this racket. The whole of holy Ireland were buying their pompously labelled ‘Made by Irish Cailini Rosary Beads’ from an assortment of religious outlets and holy places such as Knock Shrine. Did the populace at large ever know that children with abnormalities, severe injuries, orphans, vulnerable children who were wrongfully incarcerated (without their consent), who developed welts and deep cuts which frequently bled – were the ones responsible for their production? Blood sweat and tears and a scant once yearly fee of 2/6d was the recompense children received.
The Sisters of Mercy were in breach of the 1935 Employment Act and that too of the 1908 Children Act (Industrial Schools).
An antiquated radio and a 98 record player were perched on a high ledge in St Bridget’s Classroom; they were solely for the pleasure of the nun in charge. John McCormack duly serenaded children with the ‘Last Rose of Aughrim’…a song about consumption and death.
I imagine the holy people of this island of saints and scholars hadn’t a notion as to what was going on inside the bitter austere inhospitable labour camp called Goldenbridge, as children were imprisoned there and visitors weren’t ever allowed past the porch hall. To think of all the rosary beads that went to the graves of people who had no idea of the stories behind them.
December 27, 2006
Marie-Therese O’Loughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org