Thursday, October 19, 2006

Brothers should be contrite

Brothers should be contrite

Mary Raftery

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.


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