The Irish Industrial Schools Gerry O'Shea
One of the most disturbing stories during the first 100 years of Irish independence centers on the maltreatment of children in industrial schools.
It is ten years this summer since the Ryan Commission reported in detail on the disturbing catalogue of abuse inflicted on poor children in industrial schools who had nobody to speak for them, nobody on their side. These schools existed up and down the country until the 1970's. Among the better-known locations were Letterfrack in Galway, Artane in Dublin and Upton in Cork.
Almost 30,000 children, nearly all orphans or truants or offsprings of unmarried mothers, were convicted as criminals and confined in these institutions by courts that just wanted them out of their sight.
The Ryan Report relates that in all these places, which were paid for by the state, children were humiliated and told they were worthless, somehow deserving of their pitiful plight. In a haunting sentence Ryan writes "children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from."
The depressing lines from the poet John Keats' Ode to a Nightingale come to mind when contemplating these matters: Here where men sit and hear each other groan - - - - where but to think is to be full of sorrow.
The adults running these institutions were members of religious orders, mostly Christian Brothers and Sisters of Mercy, but there were priest groups too and other Orders of nuns and Brothers.
The question has often been asked seeking some explanation for how Brothers, priests and nuns could have been the perpetrators of such untoward behavior? All of these men and women would have been introduced to the Christian virtues during their mandated novitiate training which lasted up to two years.
They would surely have heard a lot about the first core Christian belief which stipulates that all human beings are God's children and this divine patrimony obviously highlights the importance - indeed the sacredness - of every person in the eyes of the creator. In addition, the New Testament stresses repeatedly Christ's attachment to the poor and especially to children.
As well as the Orders running these schools, the state, which was paying a monthly capitation fee for the maintenance of each young person, had a clear responsibility to ensure that minimum standards of humane care were met. Successive governments failed to meet their obligations to protect these young citizens.
The schools were visited by inspectors from the Department of Education who gave advance notice of their visits and, of course, the school managers arranged matters so that the kids could not respond honestly without inviting perilous consequences. The inspectors chose not to question or report on the gaunt and frightened demeanor of the children.
Ironically similar schools in Northern Ireland were properly examined by the British inspectorate, resulting in somewhat better treatment for confined children in that part of the island.
How could all of these institutions be allowed to continue for fifty years until the 1970's? I have never heard an adequate response to this conundrum which has been asked by many Irish people as they try to understand the reasons for a system that was so dehumanizing for young people.
Fr. Edward Flanagan of Boys Town fame, a native of County Roscommon, was shocked by the treatment of children in these institutions when he visited Ireland in the 1940's. However, his efforts to intervene were rejected by the church establishment and by Minister Gerard Boland in the Dail who advised Fr. Flanagan that the Irish authorities of church and state were well able to take care of their own troubled youth.
But the big question remains: how did the Christian culture tolerate such heinous abuses? The Catholic ethos largely explains big families in small land holdings and also in the overcrowded tenements in the cities. It was from these homes, often praised as places of open-door welcome and conviviality, that the vocations for the nuns and Brothers came.
The distinguished Irish historian, Dr. Anthony Keating, who has done extensive research into the whole child abuse subject in Ireland since independence was achieved from Britain in 1922, argues convincingly that the state and the Catholic Church promoted a mythology about the new country as a model of Catholic nationhood. This gave a sense of importance and tribal coherence to the people.
England with its sexual immorality was depicted as the antithesis of Ireland's virtuous culture. In this line of thinking the new state, rid of the colonial master in London, would become the emblematic Catholic City on the Hill, an example for the rest of Europe.
This imagined Ireland had no place for sexual deviancy, in fact for any sex outside of what was required for procreation. It was claimed that pagan England was so out-of-control in this area of sexual ethics that strict censorship of British publications had to be used to protect the local population from salacious books and newspapers.
The reality on the ground was very different. General Eoin O'Duffy, Irish Police Commissioner, testified to the Carrigan Committee that only about 15% of cases of sexual abuse in families were reported to the police.
Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, wanted to publish the results of an investigation into the rampant prostitution in a poor part of Dublin known as the Monto. Archbishop McQuaid, considered by many historians as the most powerful man in Ireland in those years, intervened and, much to Duff's chagrin, ordered that such matters should not be publicized, especially in a Catholic magazine. Why upset the people with the contradiction between their idealized country and so many women having to sell their bodies to achieve some kind of a livelihood?
Meanwhile, ironically, in England progressive laws were introduced to move the care of wayward kids away from large institutions to a localized system.
The Carrigan Committee, a high-powered group drawn from the elites of church and state, was set up in the early 1930's to investigate ways to improve the laws governing the treatment of Irish children as well as examining the forbidden topic of child prostitution.
The subsequent report from this distinguished group pointed to widespread sexual abuse throughout the country. The Carrigan document was never published and was only promulgated in relatively recent years by researchers in the National Archives of Ireland.
Why was the decision to suppress the findings taken by well-meaning people at the highest levels of church and state? Dr. Keating contends that they felt that if the truth was told, it would have completely undermined the myth of a pure Catholic country which underpinned the whole imaginary culture of the fragile fledgling state.
It is a great pity that the Carrigan Report was suppressed at that time. If it was released to the public, would it have caused an outcry from the Irish people rejecting the serious abuse of children in the industrial schools? Perhaps. Tough luck on the kids. They had to wait 50 years for the Ryan Report when their sad stories were finally heard.