On the 40th anniversary of the ban on corporal punishment…

Ireland’s legacy of physical abuse in religious run schools

Many Irish children had secure, happy school experiences. However a proportion of children who went to religious run schools experienced physical and emotional abuse. 

I was a 12-year-old student when a punch from the clerical Headmaster at one of Ireland’s oldest Catholic secondary schools permanently damaged my jaw. 

On the 40th anniversary of the rollout of the ban on corporal punishment in Irish schools I decided to seek him out. I sat down with him in July 2023, and explained the damage he had done to me and I shook his hand after he said sorry.

I wrote to the Minister for Education in respect of her Department’s Scoping Inquiry into Historical Sexual Abuse in Schools run by religious orders.

While the sexual abuse of students is reprehensible, the physical abuse of children was to some pupils, in terms of long term emotional and psychological impact, very damaging. While child sexual abuse in schools was practised by the perpetrators covertly, physical abuse was practised publicly, systemically and on a scale intended to intimidate and humiliate children while providing an unacceptable outlet for the rage and hatred of some frustrated, predatory members of the religious orders.

Myself and my former classmate Mick Quinn (who also experienced abuse from the same priest), both felt that on the 40th anniversary of the full implementation of the ban on corporal punishment this is an issue of national significance.

The state and relevant bodies have approached the matter of religious institutional and clerical abuse through a number of Commissions. (for example Ryan, Murphy Report, Goldenbridge, Cloyne and others) No similar commission has been established to examine the substantial and lifelong impact of physical abuse on children in schools run by religious orders up until the ban on corporal punishment came into widespread effect in 1983.

The reality is that it is not a legacy, “that was then” issue, as experts in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will tell you. For those of our generation that suffered physical abuse, unless they got professional help, the trauma is very much alive in their limbic system and, based on the 10 classmates I rang before I met my former Headmaster, has created a legacy of damaged lives. 

When the Minister for Education spoke in the Irish Times at the launch of the consultation element of the Department’s scoping inquiry she rightly said it was “vitally important that survivors of historical child sexual abuse have the opportunity to be heard in full’.

We firmly believe that the victims of physical abuse in schools run by religious orders should also be heard. 

As a result I decided to share my personal experience of physical abuse as a pupil, and my recovery, in the hope of helping others realise that it’s never too late to avail of the help that’s available.

Eoin Costello.

Physical and psychological abuse at De La Salle, Ballybough primary school


Physical abuse by Father Seamus McEvoy while headmaster of Saint Kieran’s College Kilkenny


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.