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St. Joseph's Industrial School

The Tralee Industrial School      Gerry OShea

On May 4th of this year, the Mayor of Kerry, Terry O’Brien, unveiled a memorial plaque in Tralee recognizing the location of St. Joseph’s Industrial School. The poignant inscription reads: “To acknowledge the children who passed through the doors of St. Joseph’s Industrial School between 1871 and 1970.”

 Their best-known graduate, Michael Clemenger, who was there for eight years from 1959, was pleased by Mayor O’Brien’s decision to unveil the memorial because he feared that, otherwise, all the boys who were forcibly kept there would be forgotten about as if St. Joseph’s never existed.

Mr. Clemenger, an orphan, wrote a memoir starting with his early treatment by uncaring nuns in Dublin before being moved to Tralee in 1959. This book, which was published by O’Brien Press, deals with the outlandish behavior of many of the Brothers who treated the boys in their care using excessive physical punishments while keeping them on near-starvation diets.

There, the author became the unfortunate favorite of two viciously predatory Brothers, suffering through years of sexual abuse at their hands. He records in his book how Brother Price would strike for nocturnal pleasure while Brother Roberts got his jollies during a weekly bathtime ritual.

 Despite the unimaginable trauma Clemenger endured, he emerged damaged but somehow unbroken and grateful now for the Kerry mayor's recent recognition of the school’s existence.

When he was released from the care of the Brothers at age sixteen in 1967, he went directly to the local police station to report the lurid treatment he was forced to endure for many years. The gardai did not believe him, and one guard threatened to wash his mouth with bleach for alleging such disgusting behavior by the Christian Brothers.

I met a Tralee man in New York who lived through those years while attending the town's regular Christian Brothers high school. He told me that some nights, he could hear the boys’ cries emanating from the school. He spoke to his father about it but was understandably advised that people from his working-class background would not be listened to if they complained about the nighttime wailing.

Why were the people with real power, especially the priests and other community leaders, not demanding some accountability from the Brothers? Why were the boys given the deaf ear treatment? This failure speaks very poorly of Irish culture in those years.

 Why did no leader of church or state insist on some level of respect for the 1916 proclamation, which solemnly promised a nation where all the children would be cherished?

The Irish Christian Brothers received a monthly per capita payment for their services from the Irish Government. 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. Shamefully, the inspectors chose not to report on the gaunt and frightened demeanor of the children.

Fr. Edward Flannagan of Nebraska Boys Town fame, a native of County Roscommon, was shocked by the treatment of children in these institutions when he visited Ireland about eighty years ago. However, his efforts to intervene were rejected by the church establishment and by Minister Gerard Boland in the Dail. He advised the Roscommon priest that  Irish leaders, lay or clerical, did not need American advice on educating and nurturing children.

In 2009, the Ryan Report, commissioned by the Irish Government, revealed in detail a shameful catalog of abuse inflicted on poor children confined to industrial schools who had nobody to speak for them, nobody on their side. These so-called schools existed up and down the country until the 1970s.

Since the early years of the Irish state, almost 30,000 children, nearly all orphans or truants or children of unmarried mothers, were deemed very troublesome and thus confined in these institutions by courts that just wanted them out of their sight. Among the better-known locations were Letterfrack in Galway, Artane in Dublin and Upton in Cork.

The Ryan Report relates that in all these places, children were humiliated and told they were worthless, somehow deserving of their pitiful plight. In a haunting sentence, Ryan declares, “Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from.”

The sad lines from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale come to mind when contemplating such brazen bullying and unconscionable abuse of power: “Here where men sit and hear each other groan ---- where but to think is to be full of sorrow.”

The distinguished Irish historian, Dr. Anthony Keating, who has done extensive research into the whole child abuse malignancy in Ireland, argues convincingly that the new state and the Catholic Church collaborated in promoting a mythology about the country as a model of Catholic nationhood. This gave the people a strong sense of their own importance and enhanced a feeling of tribal coherence and superiority.

England, with its alleged out-of-control sexual immorality, was depicted as the antithesis of Ireland’s virtuous culture. Following this line of rationalizing, the new state, rid of the colonial masters in London, aspired to become the emblematic Catholic City on the Hill, an example for the rest of Europe.

 Ireland was imagined as a place without sexual deviancy; in fact, the culture strongly opposed any sex outside of what was required for procreation. It was widely believed that England was so out of control in this area of sexual ethics that strict censorship had to be enforced against English newspapers and magazines deemed salacious and thus unsuitable for Irish people.

The blind trust placed in Brothers, priests, and nuns was part of a culture that led to horrendous abuse of children in many of the institutions that were supposed to care for them. The memorial plaque in Tralee reminds us of the sad consequences when any institution is left unchecked and unsupervised.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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