Sisters of Mercy sued over claims of cruelty and abuse of orphans in Clifden, Co Galway
A religious order and the Irish State are being sued by former orphanage children for abuse and deprivation they claim to have suffered while living at a home run by nuns.
Gardai have also launched an investigation into allegations of physical abuse of children at the orphanage in Clifden, Co Galway.
The abuse is said to have taken place during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
St Joseph's orphanage was run by the Sisters of Mercy and catered for female children from broken homes or from deprived backgrounds. Others were referred through the courts. Many of the children were as young as three or four when first admitted.
The orphans claim they were subjected to a penal regime at the orphanage. They were regularly and severely beaten for the slightest transgression of the strict orphanage rules and were very often cold, hungry and distressed.
Many of the beatings are said to have taken place at night, with either a cane or strap used, leaving younger children in particular, distraught. They were not allowed to have any contact with children from the town of Clifden who attended the convent school - the school was separated by a wall from the orphanage.
If an orphan was caught speaking to any of the schoolchildren from the town she was beaten as a warning to others.
The orphans claim they were also deprived of emotional security and lived most of their time at St Joseph's in fear of incurring the wrath of the nuns.
They understood that they had no rights and had to comply with the rigid discipline imposed by the Sisters of Mercy because there was nobody else to care for them.
Several of those who eventually left the orphanage had little education, while almost all of them felt unable to cope with the outside world. They have spent years trying to come to terms with their nightmare childhood at the Clifden orphanage.
An informed source told the Irish Independent: "These women are only now beginning to come to terms with what happened to them all those years ago in the Clifden orphanage.
"They had most distressing childhoods and many are still deeply troubled by what went on there."
Several of the women have been referred for professional counselling, have experienced huge difficulty in establishing lasting relationships and still suffer flashbacks of their time in Clifden.
Some of the former orphans still find it difficult to take a public stance in opposition to the treatment they received at the hands of the nuns and have spent years attempting to put their lives back together and trying to forget their years in care.
Their traumatic experiences at the Co Galway orphanage are similar to the horrific stories of women who were admitted as children to the Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin, also run by the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin.
The Goldenbridge exposure two years ago led to the formation of ad hoc support groups of former orphans around the country.
Dozens of women who spent their childhood at St Josephs in Clifden have for some time been considering seeking redress through the civil courts and several have already taken steps to pursue damages.
Civil action documents, which are now to be issued, name the Sisters of Mercy, the Minister for Education and Ireland and the Attorney General as defendants. The Archbishop of Tuam is also understood to be a named defendant.
Gardai have also confirmed that they are now investigating allegations of physical abuse at the Clifden orphanage.
Officers at Clifden garda station are to interview former orphans and are also hoping to speak to any of those involved in the administration of the orphanage around the middle of the century.
A Garda spokesman said that while it would take some time to investigate complaints stretching over so many years, the Gardai were committed to carrying out a full investigation.
One woman, now in her 60s and no longer living in the Clifden area, has made specific allegations of physical cruelty at the hands of the nuns.
The Clifden orphanage closed over 20 years ago.