The rash puzzled Mother Two. It was there again, pock-marking her daughter's genital area. The child said there wasn't enough toilet paper in school. After that, the mother sent her off with a packet of 'Disney' wipes. But the rash kept coming back.
There had been a fuss about her being left-handed. She told her mother the first-class teacher had made her stay in the classroom during lunch, practising writing with her right hand. She got no lunch. The mother went to see the principal and the class teacher. The teacher said the child needed support learning. Later, the child told her mother the class teacher had taken her to the toilet, pulled down her panties and helped her wipe herself. The mother thought it odd. The child didn't need assistance at home.
Slowly, things started to click. On 7 September 2006, the parents of other children in the class called a meeting in the village hall. It was 10 o'clock when about 14 adult neighbours gathered. Parents One said they had called the meeting because their two daughters had told them they were sexually abused with a stick by the class teacher.
They said the girls had named children of the other parents present as those they had seen being taken individually to the toilet by the teacher and returning distressed to the classroom. Their girls had not said the other children were sexually abused.
Parents One said they were notifying them as good neighbours, that they had been advised to do so by Childline and that the HSE would be contacting them soon. As they left the hall, some of the mothers were in tears.
The village is still spinning since that night. It has become the Valley of the Squinting Windows. To date, 10 children from seven families have said they were physically assaulted in the school. Five of the children alleged sexual abuse by the class teacher. They said she rubbed a thorny stick against their genitalia which sometimes penetrated them vaginally and anally. Three of them said the principal also participated in the sexual abuse.
In the past 24 months, about one-fifth of the children in the national school have been removed by their parents, although some assert they were not motivated by the allegations. Petitions have been organised in support of the teacher and the principal. Complainant parents have been threatened with lawsuits for defamation. One couple claims a gate on their property was damaged and their horses let loose on the roadway. At a meeting in the village hall, a farmer fulminated that those families should take their children and "their filth" out of the community.
"Two-thirds of the parish don't believe us," says Mother Two. "It's as if we made it up. We took on the Church. We took on the school. We took on the community. We've been completely ostracised for protecting our child. Our daughter went to a summer camp last year. She was spat at. She goes to school in the next town now. We go to mass there. We live here in the parish but we have nothing to do with it."
Mother Three cannot shake off her worry about an incident five years ago. When her son was seven, he jammed a pencil into his anus. She and her husband brought him to hospital. Such a strange thing was it to do, the family was investigated. Nothing untoward was found.
Following the September meeting convened by Parents One, stories began to unfold. Many of the parents say it was after they took their children out of the school and enrolled them elsewhere that they started making disclosures. That December, Mother Three's six-year-old daughter said the principal hit her with the stick at the same time as the class teacher. "My knickers were down," the child said, adding that the class teacher had shouted in her face, 'Don't tell mammy or daddy. I'll find you'.
"Our families weren't even friends before," says Mother Three. "We used to nod to each other at the school gate. [Parents One] are seen as the wicked ones. Their children are children of the devil and they've managed to put a spell on the rest of us. Old Ireland is alive and well here."
It started on 12 June 2006, when the eldest daughter of Parents One came home from school with two fresh bruises on her left upper arm. They asked what had happened. She said a teacher (not either of the two who were the subjects of the later complaints) had done it. The parents went to the school. The accused teacher responded: "How do we know you didn't put the bruises on her yourselves?"
Dissatisfied with the response, the parents made a formal complaint to the board of management, chaired by a priest appointed by the bishop of Ossory, that their daughter had been assaulted by the teacher and that the school had failed to investigate it. The father phoned Bishop Laurence Forristal, retired since December 2007. The board of management made inquiries which fell short of the parents' expectations. "We didn't even get to produce the doctor's letter detailing the bruises," says the father.
On 13 July, the board ruled at a meeting that the complaint was not substantiated. The parents, who made a formal statement at the local garda station about the bruises, removed their children from the school and enrolled them in the nearest alternative school.
That autumn, the youngest of their daughters, then aged six and five, told a female relative that a boy in her old school was not allowed eat his lunch because he was too fat and he had to stand in the corner. She said the teacher used to drag children out to the toilet by the hair and hit them with a stick. On 4 September, while getting ready for school, the youngest girl said the teacher in her old school "did bold things". She said the teacher pulled down her knickers. Her older sister, when asked, said the teacher did it to her too. At some stage, the younger girl wrote in her diary: "I wiggle at night because ------ slapped me on the weewees. I use [sic] to cry."
As more children started telling similar stories, some drew pictures of the teacher's thorn stick which, they said, she kept hidden near the toilets and which had the thorns removed from one end. Gardaí never found the stick. Nor was recording equipment recovered. Several children recalled seeing a flashing red light on the wall of the toilet.
Eleven weeks after Parents One made their complaint, the second family swore a garda statement and the teacher was put on administrative leave, sanctioned by the Department of Education. The principal remained in situ.
Even when the garda investigation widened to encompass complaints of sexual abuse against her, she did not step down from her day job or from her position on the board of management. During this time, she encouraged children to send "get well" and Christmas greetings cards to the suspended teacher.
When some of the complainant parents learned that the school had been investigated 16 years earlier on foot of a complaint of physical abuse, they say they discussed it with Bishop Forristal but that he denied knowledge of it. Documents discovered under the Freedom of Information Act show that, in fact, he was pivotally involved in the investigation.
Part of that complaint, alleging "gross mistreatment" of a seven-year-old boy, accused a teacher of inserting a piece of chalk lengthways in the child's mouth and "leaving him standing facing her class" in that position.
The teacher told the inquiry she had done it "to demonstrate how one should speak and communicate and that the incident was really an elocution lesson".
That teacher was later promoted. She is the principal against whom the recent accusations were made. The official 1991 report of the department's investigation recommended that a code of discipline be drawn up for the school.
The Sunday Tribune has established that Bishop Forristal did not inform the Church-funded National Board for Safeguarding Children about the complaints that started in 2006, as required. (The NBSC was only notified in February 2008, after Forristal's retirement). A solicitor representing four of the complainant families says Bishop Forristal did not reply to any of his correspondence on their behalf.
The HSE's conduct of the case also raises questions. A senior HSE psychologist, in an assessment report on one of the children, advised that further investigations be made and that the issue of corporal punishment in the school be examined. It is unknown if this advice was adopted.
The solicitor for the families says they have never been informed. Files on the children's validation assessments were marked "inconclusive".
The Sunday Tribune put seven specific questions to the HSE about its investigation, most of which remain unanswered. Our queries prompted a solicitor's letter on behalf of a senior social worker in the region threatening "appropriate action" in the event of this newspaper identifying and "wrongfully detailing her involvement in relation to the matter".
However, last Tuesday, the families' solicitor received a letter from the HSE saying that, while responding to a media enquiry, it had been discovered that no reply had been issued to a letter of complaint from the solicitor dated 18 months earlier, February 2008.
The solicitor's letter had questioned the conduct of a senior social worker. It arose in relation to Mother Three, who was first informed by a garda sergeant that one of her children had been named as a victim. In a HSE office on 21 December 2007, the mother handed to the senior social worker a written account of abuse her daughter had alleged. The social worker then communicated the complaint to the school's board of management by letter, dated 31 December. The letter omitted to say the child alleged to her teenage cousin that the teacher "stuck a stick into her bottom, both sides".
The HSE's letter to the complainants' solicitor last week apologised for the omission and explained it as "an error of transcription".
There were inconsistencies in how the complainant children were dealt with by the health service. The first two children were referred for validation to the community childcare centre for the region. The mother of the third child signed a consent form for validation but she was not referred.
A play therapist visited the child under the 'Stay Safe' programme (which had a history of resistance in the school). The mother of the fourth child claims she explicitly told the HSE she was willing to send her child for validation. Yet the board of management was subsequently told in a letter from the HSE that she "had not availed of this offer".
All HSE files of complaint are now closed in the case. So too are the garda files. The DPP instructed in four separate cases that no charges be brought. The class teacher was reinstated last autumn. The principal remains in her post.
A communiqué from the board of management at that time said that the allegations against the two women "have been thoroughly investigated by the Board of Management (following equally thorough and rigorous investigations by both the HSE and the DPP) and have been found to be without foundation and unwarranted in both instances."
Could it be possible that the whole thing was a conspiracy?
"I don't believe there is any question of collusion by the parents and the children," says the families' solicitor. "To believe that, you would have to believe parents would put their children through all those meetings with psychologists and social workers and put their families through the heartache of being ostracised in the community and all that entails, with possible economic consequences for themselves, and put themselves through being threatened with defamation proceedings.
"You would have to believe these people would go through all of that, get their children to tell made-up stories and stick to those stories for what is now three years without faltering. No, I don't believe it."
The school, the village and the people central to these events have not been identified to safeguard the anonymity of the children