Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
A school of scandal
A school of scandal
Memoir: Peter Tyrrell, a former resident of Letterfrack industrial school (1924-32), committed suicide by setting fire to himself on Hampstead Heath in 1967. Ten years earlier, Tyrrell had launched a campaign which he hoped would draw attention to institutional abuse, but his letters to government ministers, the media, bishops, and Brothers were largely ignored.
Owen Sheehy Skeffington, a champion of education reform in the Irish Senate, however, was struck by Tyrrell's description of Letterfrack, where he claimed to have "suffered torture and severe beatings" on a daily basis. The senator encouraged him to write an account of his time at the school, which he hoped could be published. Tragically, Tyrrell's unpublished manuscript lay hidden among Sheehy Skeffington's papers until it was discovered by Diarmuid Whelan in 2004. It is presented now as Founded on Fear, an absorbing account which describes not only Tyrrell's youth, but also his service in the British army, imprisonment in a German POW camp and subsequent life in England. Within this context, it represents a worthy emigrant memoir, containing a blistering critique of Irish society, its poverty, priests, misguided patriotism and, above all, pervasive violence.
Tyrrell's memoir makes for disturbing reading. Currently researching a commissioned history of the Christian Brothers, I have attended public sessions of the Commission on Child Abuse and studied a wide range of documentary sources, but none presents the child's perception of industrial schools as Peter Tyrrell does. From the outset, we are introduced to the appalling poverty of his childhood in Ahascragh, County Galway, his "lazy and irresponsible" father and the heroic efforts of his mother to raise 10 children in a converted stable, by "begging and borrowing", while the children scavenged in neighbours' fields for "potatoes, turnips . . . or anything which [ would] keep [ them] alive for one more day".
Peter and his siblings were taken into care in 1924. The description of the journey to Connemara and his reception is beautifully written, but the tenor of the institution is quickly established when, "all at once, a Christian Brother [ appeared] . . . chasing the young children with a very long stick, and beating them on the legs". This dispelled any illusions Peter may have had about his new school and he became "frightened and struck with horror". These emotions remained with him throughout his time in Letterfrack, where, he believed, "children were beaten and tortured for no other reason but lustful pleasure". Tyrrell's memoir presents a picture of industrial schools which belies simplistic stereotypical representations. This is an extremely complex world which Tyrrell depicts in an even-handed and credible way. Several of the Brothers are twisted, but others are kind and one is described as a "saint". The tyrants, both Brothers and laymen, preyed not merely on the boys, but upon each other; boys suffered peer abuse while the local population combined in a conspiracy of self-interested silence. Moreover, the boys' subsequent attempts to reintegrate into society prove almost impossible on account of the contempt for industrial school boys in an Ireland obsessed with respectability. In an English context, too, Tyrrell's lot is made more difficult by anti-Irish sentiment, fuelled by the IRA's war-time bombing campaign.
THERE IS A dualism about Tyrrell's Letterfrack. In addition to the terror, he describes normal schoolboy diversions, and the dramatic interruptions in the regime, at Christmas and during the summer holidays, when the usual staff were withdrawn and life was good. Tyrrell does not mention this, but it was the usual practice to bring in a relief staff from the congregation's day schools. These "Summer Brothers" were clearly different and this raises questions about the staffing of the institutions. Significantly, too, evidence suggests that many of the abusers in industrial schools were non-teaching or "lay brothers", who had unsupervised access to boys in kitchens and on the farm. This issue of supervision, or lack of it, is at the heart of Tyrrell's narrative. Clearly the State neglected its duty of care to the children; the leadership of the Christian Brothers, too, failed to exercise proactive supervision, but rather reacted, expelling Tyrrell's tormentors, such as Brothers Walsh (1926) and Vale (1941), when their ill-treatment of boys was exposed.
Tyrrell believed the superior, Brother Kelly, was unaware of the beatings and that if he had been made aware they would have stopped; on another occasion he states that he had never seen a Brother beat children in the presence of another Brother. It is quite clear, too that there were tensions amongst the Brothers about the conduct of the school. The radical condemnation of institutional care by one of the Brothers at Letterfrack, Brother Byrne, is striking; children who were brought up in industrial schools, he believed, were "generally speaking, failures". Starved of love and affection, they lacked the necessary "foundation of a healthy and happy life". In time, Brother Byrne's sentiments became Tyrrell's own campaign cry, but he was haunted by the implicit prediction of his own failure.
Founded on Fear illustrates the anachronistic nature of the industrial schools, Dickensian institutions which survived in Ireland into the late 20th century. Indeed, the parallel with Dickens is uncanny. In Nicholas Nickleby (1838) he describes the boys of Dotheboys Hall with "pale and haggard faces . . . children with the countenances of old men", while Tyrrell's companions were "terribly pale, and their faces are drawn and haggard . . . the children of Letterfrack are like old men".
Diarmuid Whelan has done a great service by bringing this memoir to our attention. It is prefaced by a thoughtful introduction, but it might have been useful to reproduce the complete correspondence between Tyrrell and Sheehy Skeffington as an appendix. The introduction, too, could have addressed the nature of the memoir genre; nevertheless, while Founded on Fear is the latest to be published, it predates and largely affirms the narratives of Mannix Flynn (1983), Paddy Doyle (1988) and Patrick Touher's (1991) experience of Irish industrial schools.
It is a great shame that this powerful narrative was not published in 1959, as intended, when it might have effected real change.
Daire Keogh lectures in history at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra. He is currently researching a history of the Irish Christian Brothers
Founded on Fear: Letterfrack Industrial School, War and Exile By Peter Tyrrell. Edited and introduced by Diarmuid Whelan Irish Academic Press, 182pp. €18.50
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Brothers should be contrite
Brothers should be contrite
Primo Levi, the Italian writer who gave us probably the most compelling account of life and death in a German concentration camp, told of a recurring nightmare common among inmates.
He and his fellow sufferers at Auschwitz dreamt of a time in the future when they were free and were trying to tell people of the horrors in the camps, of the depths of depravity to which human beings are capable of sinking. Despite their desperate efforts to be heard, no one would listen or believe. They cried out and people turned their backs.
And this is indeed what happened to Levi himself. For over 10 years, publisher after publisher rejected If This Is a Man, his memoir of Auschwitz. It is now of course an undisputed classic of 20th century literature.
Last Tuesday, a remarkable book was launched in this country. As a manuscript, it lay undiscovered for almost half a century. Its author, Peter Tyrrell, had tragically committed suicide almost 40 years ago by setting himself alight on London's Hampstead Heath. Like Primo Levi, he was determined that people hear his tale of horror, and, like Levi, he was ignored and dismissed.
Tyrrell is a rare phenomenon of post-Independence Ireland - he is a genuine hero. His memoir, Founded on Fear, was discovered recently by historian Diarmuid Whelan in the National Library among the papers of the late Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington. It tells of the grinding poverty of his childhood in County Galway, and his removal at the age of eight to the industrial school at Letterfrack in Connemara. It also covers his subsequent years in the British army during the second World War. He was wounded and captured in 1945, and memorably describes his German prisoner-of-war camp as "heaven on earth" compared to Letterfrack.
Tyrrell's account of the seven years of his childhood spent at the Christian Brothers' institution has a childlike directness, an absence of self-pity and a unique even-handedness which place his memoir among the most powerful of the genre. Written in 1958, it is also the very earliest such account that we know of, and consequently a document of enormous historical significance.
In a powerfully dispassionate manner, largely unburdened by any tone of moralising, he describes the appalling reality of life for a child at Letterfrack during the 1920s and 1930s. He tells of the savage and sadistic beatings administered by a number of Brothers - boys of all ages were usually attacked from behind, so they never knew when it was coming. They were hit repeatedly, often up to 20 times, on the head and back at full force with a variety of weapons, from hefty sticks and leathers to thick rubber strips reinforced with metal wire.
Tyrrell recounts the systematic destruction of little boys, his mates, as they are literally in some cases driven mad by the endless torture they experience. On one occasion, his own arm was broken during an attack and he was ordered to tell the doctor that he had fallen down the stairs. Founded on Fear is also a rich and detailed account of daily life in Letterfrack, with all its incomprehensible contradictions. Tyrrell talks about how the Brothers completely changed personality on Christmas Day, playing and joking with the boys in the friendliest fashion. He describes outings arranged by Brothers who went to great lengths to ensure that the children enjoyed themselves.
He also refers to Brothers who did not beat the children - by no means all were cruel and vicious. In short, he does not shy away from the oddly schizophrenic nature of these places.
It is this fair-mindedness which has been highlighted by the Christian Brothers in their statement about Tyrrell's book this week. In an unusual step, they have commented favourably on the memoir, and have taken the opportunity both to apologise unreservedly to victims of similar abuse and to acknowledge publicly their failings when during the 1950s Tyrrell himself came to confront them with their abuse of children.
It was an extraordinarily brave action on his part. He was concerned that children might be still suffering from such cruelty at their institutions and he wanted it stopped. The Brothers, however, refused to listen. Documents supplied to the Child Abuse Commission show that their primary concern was that he might try to blackmail them.
Today, many of those abused at Christian Brother institutions during the very years when Peter Tyrrell was seeking to expose it have been deeply hurt by what they perceive as the Brothers' continuing denial of their responsibility for such widespread crimes against children. In this context, it is important to acknowledge the honesty of the Christian Brothers' statement accepting the validity of Peter Tyrrell's memoir. It is their most generous public utterance to date. It is all that he asked for when he was alive.
Even now, so many years after his despairing suicide, it is still not too late to express such sincere contrition.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
Q. Yes. Can we move on to the issue of physical abuse. You are aware, I am sure, that there have been a substantial number of claims by former pupils in Letterfrack of physical abuse?
Q. I think you concede at the bottom of page 87 of your submission that “ assuredly there were lapses by individual brothers“. You says: “The record shows that when a serious breach of standards occurred the matter was reported at the annual visitation when the congregation authority visited the institution.”
Q. Can we just look at some of the complaints about abuse over the period of time. On 11 November 1940 there was a complaint in relation to a brother?
A. Yes, we are on page 90?
Q. Yes, at page 3 of that report.
Q. Apparently Br. X took a serious view of his responsibility as a disciplinarian, but for the reasons stated and other serious reasons I came to the conclusion after long deliberation that he was not a proper person for the position. This was from Br. McGrath?
A. Br. McGrath, yes.
Q. In fact, the other serious reason seems to be referred to on page 2 of that letter where he talks about a brother mentioning especially his visits to the boys ref between 12:00 and 2:00 when the same brother, this brother referred to on page 3, had no class work and, as the other brother put it, his talk sickened me. It’s not very clear what he meant by that, but that seems to throw some light on the reference. Certainly he was complained of as a disciplinarian. Then there was a further note or letter from Br. McGrath saying: “I take the points underlined in my previous letter.” The first item then is punishment. It’s up on the screen there, but it’s probably not very convenient for you?
A. It’s okay.
Q. It says:
“Punishment. A stick is the general instrument used and even with this he goes beyond the rule. I have seen recently a boy with swollen hand, palm and thumb. The steward on [the] farm remarked he was not able to milk for some days. A boy was stripped and beaten in his — he names the brother’s room — he has put boys across his bed in room and even in unbecoming postures to beat them behind. The boys are absolutely afraid to divulge who punished them and won’t even answer questions truthfully through fear of being punished again. Only this week I caught two little fellows crying and I asked them what had happened. They would not tell me. Br. X was in charge at the time.”That suggests that there was a serious situation with that brother?
A. There was.
Q. That boys were afraid to report matters. I know we are going back some time, but I am suggesting it indicates that, would you agree?
A. Yes, what it indicates is that this complaint which happened in 1940 was meted out to some boys and the community considered it as brutal. In fact, the event became known in the village and the community were divided over the incident with many disassociating themselves from the brutal treatment. So the Superior as you say wrote to the Provincial that this wasn’t a proper person for discipline. So in terms of the boys, I would say that the boys were scared of the brother. Certainly he wasn’t a suitable person to be involved with discipline.
Q. Do you think that was the same incident you referred to that gained notoriety in the village —
Q. — or in the town rather. There is another letter from Br. McHugh. Who is Br. McHugh, it’s in April 1945?
A. He was one of the brothers in the community at that time.
Q. To the Br. Consulter. In this he refers to a brother, it’s actually a different brother?
A. It is a different brother, yes.
“It came to my notice that he ill treated the boys with a piece of leather on two days.”He went on in the course of a rather lengthy letter to describe how he punished a boy for carrying on immorally with other boys?
A. He alleged that, yes.
Q. That he alleged that. When this boy was interviewed he said that this had never happened, but suggested that they were so terrified that they confessed to something they hadn’t done. The author of the letter refers to that and I think he even used the word torture on the last page of his letter. He said:
“I believe what made the boys fall in with what he had wished to believe was his leading question, some of which should not be used and the dread of torture. Without being uncharitable he can inflict terrible punishment on children and the boys seem to have an awful dread of his anger.”
A. That was obviously the case. I see the brother writing to the Provincial at the time was aware that this sort of behaviour shouldn’t continue and was complaining about it and saying this brother should not be considered suitable for — at the end of it he says, I don’t have the quotation, but he basically says this person should be removed from Letterfrack. The tragedy is that he was actually sent to another institution. I cannot understand why that has happened.
Q. Yes. There is a letter dated 8 April 1940. This is written by a Br. Maher. Who was Br. Maher?
A. He was a member of the community at the time and he is referring to the incident.
Q. The first of the two incidents?
A. The first of the two incidents, yes. The community were quite upset over the incident and were writing to the authorities about it.
Q. He says in the course of this letter:
“The instruments used and the punishments inflicted are now obsolete, even in criminal establishments, were it not for the frequency of the acts.”
This was pre 1954?
Q. There wouldn’t have been as many boys there for criminal offences at that time; is that right?
Q. A lot of the boys there would be boys who would now be described as boys put into care?
Q. We have a brother talking about instruments used and punishments inflicted which were obsolete even in criminals establishments?
A. Yes. In the 1908 Act I think the instruments may have been a cane, a strap and I have forgotten what the other one is. My understanding is in those instances that it could have been a whip and obviously people were saying that is — I think they may have been allowed in the turn of the century, but anything like that was considered totally against the ethos of the Christian Brothers. Hence the community were very determined to write to the Provincial and to complain about that sort of behaviour.
Q. There is a letter of 4 October 1943 to the Resident Manager from — it appears to be the secretary or an inspector. It says:
“The Minister for Education has before him a report of the Department’s medical inspector and says the school appears to be well conducted. It appears, however, that she found one boy suffering from a black eye and was informed that it was a result of a blow from one of the brothers for talking in class.”The minister looks for an explanation. The explanation appears to be written at the bottom:
“The resident Manager regrets the occurrence indicated and he has no doubt that there shall not be a recurrence of this nature. The brother while remonstrating with his class happened accidentally to strike the boy, who stood behind him, with his elbow in the face.”Does that seem to you like a plausible explanation?
A. It doesn’t.Q. Very good, I will go no further.
Saturday, May 27, 2006
Not every complaint against religious is true
Not every complaint against religious is true
Getting annoyed at Vincent Browne is a bit pointless. It is like reacting to a schoolboy who keeps on aggravating you until you blow up, and who then sits back with a satisfied smirk, mission accomplished.
Yet the other night, when he ranted on his radio programme about the unique hypocrisy of the Catholic Church on sexual abuse of children, it was difficult to dismiss it as predictable posturing.
Vincent has made countless programmes on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Yet at the time of the publication of the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland Report (SAVI) he seemed genuinely shocked at the scale of sexual abuse in the general population.
He is aware that only 3 per cent of sexual abuse is carried out by religious or clergy.
Yet how many programmes have focused on the other 97 per cent?
Maybe it is because religious orders are nice, squelchy targets - easy to kick because they are so ashamed of what some of their members have done. Targeting other sectors of society might not be quite so easy.
Commentators, including Mary Raftery, have been particularly incensed that the Christian Brothers have had the temerity to query the enormous jump in complaints in relation to Letterfrack, from 12 to 449, after the Taoiseach's apology and the setting up of the redress board scheme. She was also savagely indignant that the Christian Brothers would have pleaded naivety as a reason as to why they did not report offences to the Garda.
Perhaps it is about time that someone queried the naivety of commentators who believe that every single complaint made against religious orders will be truthful and accurate. In no other instance where money is perceived to be on offer would a journalist accept unquestioningly that every single claim will be above board.
Where does the famed scepticism of journalists go when it comes to victims of abuse? Have we seamlessly transferred to alleged victims the deference and the belief in infallibility that we once had in relation to the Catholic Church? Have we transferred the opprobrium and social disapproval that used to fall on the heads of those who dared question an all-powerful church, to those who dare question the veracity of any allegation of abuse, no matter how outlandish?
Personally, aside altogether from the heinous crime of child abuse, I feel shame that Irish society dumped so many children in industrial schools and could not have cared less what happened to them.
I think it is good that the redress board is essentially a welfare scheme. I have met some extraordinary people who were in these institutions, and I am humbled by how understanding and forgiving many of them are.
However, there are other seriously damaged people who make incredible claims such as that there are 30 bodies buried under the chicken farm in Artane, or who alter their claim every time they make it.
I don't stand in judgment of such people, from the exalted heights of the privileged life I have led in comparison to what they have been through, but neither would I say that they are reliable witnesses.
It also drives commentators insane when religious orders say that at the time, abuse was treated as a moral lapse and its serious nature was downplayed. Why do people find that so hard to understand? We use the very same excuses today when it comes to other forms of exploitation. I did not see the RTÉ Prime Time programme on prostitution and trafficking, but have heard from many directions how excellent it was.
We are rightly outraged at the idea of a 14-year-old being trafficked and used for prostitution, and talk about tightening the laws. But prostitution would not exist without clients, and from research with women working in prostitution, it is clear their clients come from every walk of life.
Yet if it is suggested that we need to tackle the demand for prostitution, we are told that it is the world's oldest profession and impossible to stamp out.
We absolutely refuse to see "mainstream" lap-dancing clubs are often a gateway into even more sordid and degrading activities, despite documented links between trafficking and the acceptable face of the sex industry.
We buy into the Pretty Woman mythology, instead of listening to the voices of women whose real experiences are far from a glossy fantasy.
Irony of ironies, it is often the Left who declare that having sex with hundreds of men for money to be a legitimate form of work, which should be protected in the same way as, say, factory work.
In short, we are hypocrites, and we treat men who buy the services of women in prostitution as if at worst they are suffering from a regrettable if understandable moral lapse.
Janice C Raymond, of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, has said the sex industry thrives on the distinctions made between free and coerced, or adult and child prostitution.
We frame it as a legitimate choice, if no coercion is involved. It is a distinction not unlike the Victorian division between the deserving and undeserving poor.
If "freely chosen" work in prostitution is legitimate, it becomes increasingly difficult for women to prove they have been forced. She also asks how the mere exchange of money can transform what in any other workplace would be termed sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual violence into a "job", one performed primarily by racially and economically disadvantaged women, and by overwhelming numbers of women and children themselves victims of sexual abuse.
It will be interesting to see how many Irish men avail of the "services" of the legal prostitutes available at the World Cup in Germany. The Guardian newspaper reported this week that UK police are urging fans not to visit women in prostitution, because many may have been forced into sex slavery. Media have reported that up to 40,000 women are at risk of enforced prostitution during the championship.
Hypocrisy in people claiming to uphold religious standards is sickening, especially when it concerns harm to children. As our soft attitude to prostitution demonstrates, however, hypocrisy about harm to human beings is hardly confined to religious people.
Connect: The care provided at Letterfrack industrial school in Co Galway was "the best that was available" at the time, said Brother David Gibson this week. That's how he described it: "the best available". Br Gibson, provincial leader of the Christian Brothers' St Mary's (northern) Province, made the claim to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. He added that there had been "gross underfunding by the State". That's certainly true. But, even allowing for the ethos and poverty of the period, did "the best" care have to include sexual abuse, savage beatings, brutal floggings (of, for instance, returned runaways), communal punishment, routine degradation, paltry education, gross overwork, inedible food, consistent hunger, exposure to the elements on the school's farm without adequate nourishment or clothing, silence from without and an overall climate of cruelty and dread within? Did it?
If that list constitutes aspects of "the best" - the Rolls Royce of care available then - what might an inferior version entail? No doubt, Br Gibson would dispute that such depravity typified Letterfrack. But many men, detained there as boys, have repeatedly reported that that's the way it was. Either they are exaggerating wildly or Br Gibson is, at best, seriously deluded.
Who do you believe? Do you believe those who were locked up there as boys or do you believe Br Gibson? We know, for instance, that Brother Maurice Tobin, who was in Letterfrack from 1959 until its closure in 1974, pleaded guilty in 2003 to 25 sample counts of sexually abusing boys. He was jailed for 12 years, with the final four suspended.
More than 100 complaints of sexual abuse were made to gardaí against Tobin. During the hearing in Galway, at which he was sentenced, the court was told how he systematically molested, abused and buggered boys aged 11-14. Some victims recounted the devastating impact of the abuse on their lives. They're unlikely to believe Br Tobin dispensed the "best care".
Br Gibson also implied that, in making complaints, abuse victims were motivated by the prospect of money. He said claims against Letterfrack grew from 12 to 449 after Bertie Ahern's 1999 apology to former residents of industrial schools.
The Taoiseach promised redress at the time and Br Gibson inferred that, because of this, former Letterfrack inmates have sought compensation.
He added it was "probably not politically correct to say" as much. Well, not only is it "not politically correct" to suggest that abused people leapt on what they saw as a lucrative bandwagon, it's not morally correct either. The suggestion adds insult to injury. Forget "politically correct" - it's simply not correct at all to risk compounding often-criminal abuse.
It may well be that Br Gibson has been heeding PR advice. If so, then PR
has surely disgraced itself. Consider how you might feel if a provincial of the Christian Brothers maintained your "care" was, in its time, "the best available" if you had been beaten and buggered by Maurice Tobin. How
angry would you be? Ron McCartan, who was in Artane industrial school (another Christian Brothers institution) from 1956-1962, prompted the commission to adjourn its public hearing with an outburst on Tuesday.
He said the average Brother in Artane was allowed to "administer punishment of a brutality you cannot imagine". Furthermore, he questioned why Brother Michael Reynolds, deputy provincial of St Mary's (northern) province, "who was never a day in Artane", had the opportunity to give evidence.
John Kelly of the Irish Survivors of Child Abuse (SOCA) said that in suggesting that, in order to create business for themselves, solicitors convened meetings in Irish and British pubs, where they handed out videos of RTÉ programmes along with lists of
Brothers who had worked in various industrial schools, Br Gibson had "made allegations of conspiracy against our legal representatives and the gardaí".
Br Reynolds admitted it "showed a serious lack of judgment" on the part of the Christian Brothers that known sexual abusers were transferred to other schools. Not only that, but sometimes the abusers did not suffer any impediment to their careers. At least one progressed to become a superior. Br Reynolds described this case as evidence of "extraordinary naivety".
It appears extraordinarily naive - even given the ethos of the times - that the public should be expected to believe this. Of course, there were decent and fine Christian Brothers - but inmates of Letterfrack and Artane claim to have met few such people. Even then, those who could be so described invariably acquiesced to the agenda of the brutes.
In the name of the man-deity from whom the Christian Brothers take their title, Br Gibson and Br Reynolds should reconsider.
They really should. Sure, they are on the proverbial sticky wicket but their performances this week - perhaps PR-inspired - were quite disgraceful. As one decent Brother, sometimes understandably exasperated by our classroom of teenagers, used to say: "Okay, that's enough nonsense, lads. It's time to face the music."
It is too. © The Irish Times
Saturday, April 21, 2001
Willie Delaney was a child slave in Ireland
For a brief moment this week, the attention of the Western world's media focused on a story that is usually ignored. The strange voyage of the dilapidated Nigerian ship mv Etireno up and down the coast of west Africa with what was thought to be cargo of desperate children, forced us to notice that child slavery is a continuing reality. UN estimates suggest that about 200,000 children work as slaves in the region, many on the plantations that furnish the chocolate for the Easter eggs we gave our children while the Etireno was being sought.
For most Irish people, news of the persistence of such barbarity in the modern world will have come as a shock. Our hearts were touched by the description of the plight of these children by Esther Guluma, the Benin representative of Unicef: "They work hard all day, you don't have to pay them very much and they don't complain. They are subjected to hard physical labour, they are uprooted from their families, they don't have any access to education. It has a real impact on their physical and mental development. Those trafficked as domestic servants, a lot of them are sexually exploited." Uprooted from their families, worked like dogs, deprived of a decent education, sexually exploited - this is the fate of child slaves. The only consolation to be derived from thinking about their lives is that all of this goes on far away in a savage but distant place. It belongs to the heart of darkness out there beyond the reach of civilised norms. Just as the Etireno was docking in Benin and the world's attention was wandering off the subject of child slavery, the remains of Willie Delaney were being disinterred at St Kieran's Cemetery in Kilkenny. The grim operation was part of a long-running Garda investigation into allegations of sexual and physical abuse of children at St Joseph's industrial school in Letterfrack, Co Galway. The hope is that a post-mortem on Willie Delaney will show whether he died of natural causes or as a result of a beating at Letterfrack.
Though it is not politic to use the phrase, Willie Delaney was a child slave. The conditions of child slaves in west Africa as described this week by UNICEF - hard labour, deprivation of family life, lack of education, sexual exploitation - are precisely those that prevailed at Letterfrack and throughout the industrial school system. For all the shocks applied to the national conscience by Mary Raftery's States of Fear series on RTE, that reality has still not been fully recognised.
When Willie Delaney was sent to Letterfrack as a 10-year-old in 1967, St Joseph's was essentially a labour camp for children. Until it closed in 1974, it advertised the extraordinary list of services quoted by Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan in their book Suffer Little Children from the institution's letterhead: "Orders Received in Tailoring, Bootmaking, Carpentry, Bakery, Cartmaking, Smithwork. Also Wire Mattress, Hosiery, Hearth Rugs, Motors Repaired, Petrol & Oils Supplied." Though it was meant to be a school, the education of boys like Willie Delaney took second place to unpaid labour in the workshops that provided these services and on the large farm attached to the institution. While he was there, an internal Department of Education memo acknowledged the utter inadequacy of schooling, due in part to "pupils, particularly senior pupils, having to undertake tiring physical work in the afternoons due to (the) shortage of paid labour in the institution". The Christian Brothers, who ran St Joseph's, saw the children in their care as vital economic assets. The financial health of Letterfrack depended on securing as many as possible of what the Brothers' internal visitors' report for 1953 calls "these children who mean so much financially to the institution". The report for 1952 notes that the brother in charge of the farm "is ever on the outlook for boys in all the centres he travels to in securing stock and supplies. To his credit goes the goodly numbers that are generally maintained in the school."
The more inmates sent by the courts, the more profitable was the Letterfrack operation. Declining numbers in the late 1950s seem to have led to operating deficits, but these would appear to have been reversed in the 1960s. By 1969, when Willie Delaney was there, Letterfrack had income of £19,131 and expenditure of £12,296, and by 1973, the school accounts show a profit of almost £12,000.
The child slaves who created these profits, like their counterparts in west Africa, were fair game for sexual abuse and physical violence. In the early 1970s, even the Christian Brothers' own internal reports were highlighting tension over "discipline". The 1972 report notes that the brother in charge of administering punishment was "over-rigid with the boys" and "scarcely a suitable person to hold his present position". Whether Willie Delaney's death had a bearing on these internal arguments is something that may only become clear when the extensive Garda investigation bears fruit.
IT IS tempting to think that all of this happened a very long time ago. Yet few regard the political events of the Arms Trial crisis in the same year as Willie Delaney's death as a mere historic footnote. Getting to grips with those events is seen as essential to any proper understanding of the way we are now. Acknowledging the reality of modern Irish slavery is, if anything, even more important.
Were he alive, Willie Delaney would now be just 44 years old. Thousands of Irish people now in early middle age should properly be regarded as survivors of child slavery, whose experiences at the hands of church and State are not fundamentally different from those that still prevail in west Africa. Even as we hand in our collection boxes for Trocaire's splendid Lenten campaign against slavery, we need to remember that the heart of darkness can be very close to home.
Friday, January 21, 2000
Letterfrack reports show controlling mentality
The debate on institutional child abuse in Ireland has been distorted by a striking absence. Because the religious orders at the heart of the saga have refused to release their archives, it is almost impossible to understand the structures that engendered abuse in spite of the best intentions of many humane and selfless people.
This week, however, I have been able to read a tiny sliver of the hidden archives. I've had access to the so-called "visitation reports" for the Christian Brothers' industrial school in Letterfrack, Co Galway, from 1952 to 1973. These are the annual reports of the order's own "visitor", essentially an internal inspector from the provincial's office. They begin to sketch the outlines of the controlling mentality. The reports throw up, for example, reminders that the Brothers themselves were closely watched and forbidden normal human contact with members of the opposite sex. The document for 1959, in its section on diet, notes: "I was told that Brothers N. and D. are frequently in the kitchen talking to the maids. I have told them that such a practice must end."
In 1970, the visitor reports that "two young, frivolous girls, constituting the kitchen staff, are not suitable. Superior says that one of them will be given notice to leave this week and that the other, the cook, will soon be dispensed with." Another obvious feature is the way the institution acquired a financial stake in the survival of a brutal system. The financial health of Letterfrack depended on securing as many as possible of what the 1953 report calls "these children who mean so much financially to the institution". The report for 1952 notes that the brother in charge of the farm "is ever on the outlook for boys in all the centres he travels to in securing stock and supplies. To his credit goes the goodly numbers that are generally maintained in the school."
The more inmates sent by the courts, the more profitable was the Letterfrack operation. In 1955, the Letterfrack visitation report complains that numbers had declined and were creeping up only gradually "owing to the fact that one of the Dublin judges sends convicted boys to the Cork industrial schools. He is a Corkman. This matter will require attention soon if the establishment here is to remain financially sound." Declining numbers in the late 1950s seem to have led to operating deficits, but these would appear to have been reversed in the 1960s. The 1960 accounts showed "a surplus of 172 pounds". By 1969, Letterfrack had income of £19,131 and expenditure of £12,296, and by 1973, the school accounts show a profit of almost £12,000. As for the inmates, there is a blithe assumption that all is for the best. The 1952 report says that "the boys seem to be quite happy in their dealings with their teachers. There seems to be very little punishment." The following year's visitation results in a judgment that "a splendid spirit of harmony and co-operation exists".
In 1961, "the happy community spirit is reflected in the life of the boys" and "each of the classrooms presented a picture of happy and contented boys". Yet there is no attempt to square this aura of happiness with the fact that, in the words of the 1967 report, "the boys . . are liable to run away at any time". Break-outs are noted in the most matter-of-fact tones. The 1959 report, compiled at the end of February that year, speaks of the fact that "since Christmas, 11 boys ran away at different times". The subject is raised, not as a cause for alarm, but as an explanation for the failure of one of the brothers to attend regularly at early morning prayer: "He says he had to take the car and follow [the escapees] or that he got word from the guards that they had been captured and that he had to collect them and sometimes was not home with them until 1.30 a.m."
The documents do show an occasional awareness of the poor conditions in which the boys lived. The 1959 report complains quite strongly about the bad food: "I understand they get bread and tea for dinner three days a week. They get very little meat and the cooking and serving of it is not satisfactory." Breakfast on most mornings was a "saucer full" of porridge. "The only redeeming feature is that they get two sausages each on two evenings of the week." These complaints then cease, presumably because they were acted on. The most important feature of the documents, however, is that they reveal a clear struggle between reform-minded brothers on the one hand and institutional power on the other. By the early 1970s, there is tension over "discipline". The 1972 report claims that two of the eight brothers have "great difficulty getting on" with the brother in charge of administering punishment. This latter brother is stated in the report to be "over-rigid with the boys" and "scarcely a suitable person to hold his present position".
His two critics "disagree with his method of carrying out his duties as disciplinarian . . . so there is a troubled situation, a sort of cold war in the school, sometimes heating up in the presence of the boys". The following year's report fills in some of the causes of these tensions. The younger brothers, it notes, are now rejecting "traditional" approaches and "believe that the boys should be given much more freedom, that greater attention should be paid to their emotional problems". This, according to the clearly disapproving visitor, has caused them "to be soft with the boys". This same report reveals a quite extraordinary distortion of spiritual priorities. One of the brothers is noted for his kindness to the boys in his care, among whom he is "very well liked". He "spares no effort to add some little happiness to these unfortunate boys". He has "a great understanding . . . and genuine sympathy for them".
Yet the report actually suggests that this brother is the wrong man for the job. Why? Because he is not sufficiently assiduous in attending to his religious exercises in the morning. "His limitations as a religious . . . makes one doubt if he is a suitable person to have in charge of these boys." Since his name does not appear on the following year's list of the members of the Letterfrack community, it seems that he was in fact removed. There, perhaps, lie the seeds of an explanation of the powerlessness of the good people.