But within a few hours we would discover we had been overlooking a place with a history too painful to contemplate.
As we looked around the scenic expanses, we could not have known that the air was once filled with the forlorn cries of anguished children who had spent their youth in this place, a place of loneliness, brutality, hunger, physical and sexual abuse, bullying, sarcasm, and death, and all inflicted on them by men who had dedicated their lives to God
and to the care of indigent children.
If ever there was an episode of wolves dressing up in sheep’s clothing it occurred here. But atop Diamond Hill, we did not yet know that.
As my wife and I descended Diamond Hill we met two women along the path.
“Did you see the cemetery yet?” one of them said. “It’s where
the boys were buried.”
What boys, we asked?
“The ones who died here in the school, the Letterfrack Industrial School. It used to be on the
grounds of this park.”
Ireland’s industrial schools came into being in the mid 1800s at the same time as England’s. Although these schools were intended to take care of youngsters in need and teach them a trade, the general attitude toward children can be inferred from the fact that a child of seven could be hanged for stealing, and some were.
When England departed most of Ireland in 1922, a movement was already abroad in London to improve the lot of minors in the care of the state.
However, Ireland, now a new country, was struggling to get on its feet, and the government asked religious orders of Catholic nuns, brothers, and priests to take over the administration and staffing of the industrial schools. The Church embraced the idea because the children would be saved from Protestant proselytizers, and the government was delighted because the religious orders would do the job inexpensively.
The Department of Education would oversee the industrial schools, financing them on a per-capita basis, and its inspectors would see to the welfare of the children, as well as examine the administrative books and the educational facilities.
Almost three hundred years of penal laws imposed by the British had seen to the suppression of Catholicism and education for the Irish. As a result, the priest educated in Europe and smuggled home was often the only educated Catholic in the locality. These priests advised the members of their flocks, taught the children, and covertly provided religious services. But with a price on their heads, they were continually on the run from the British authorities, and these heroic men were accorded enormous power by the people they served.
A three-century tradition is difficult to shake off, and when the penal laws were taken off the books, the people continued to endow the clergy with disproportionate power. It was inevitable that the leaders of the young country in the early 1920s were just as cowed by the clergy as everyone else.
The Catholic Church, during the formative years of the new state, sought to impose its own religious agenda on the country; it wielded very real power and used it shamelessly to shape the emerging social structure. For example, the church was behind the defeat of Dr. Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme in the early 1950s. As a result, Dublin was referred to as “the city in the shadow of the archbishop’s house” by those with sufficient insight and guts to say aloud what
could be plainly seen.
The individuals who staffed the Department of Education, like everyone else, were intimidated by the aura, the historical heroism, of the Catholic clergy. And because of this intimidation the religious congregations in the industrial schools were able to dictate to the Department of Education, changing the rules as they went along.
As a result, the children committed to the industrial schools did not have the protecting hand of an outside authority. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “In institutions that are not ventilated by the sharp breeze of public criticism an innocent corruption grows like a toadstool.”
And toadstools grew and multiplied in the industrial schools in the form of pedophilia, sadism, and wanton cruelty.
Of course, not all members of these religious congregations were guilty of horrendous deeds. And many of those who delivered the horror were unaware of the damage they were doing. The science of child development was in its infancy and many members of religious congregations had been recruited into institutional life before they had reached maturity.
As a result of their own ignorance and stunted personalities, the only thing many staff members of the industrial schools were capable of was keeping of the children in their places. This was achieved by instilling terror in the children. The joy of childhood was completely crushed.
Between 1868 and 1969, more than 100,000 minors were committed to Ireland’s industrial schools by the courts. The need for a child’s committal was generally presented to a judge by a representative of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, aka the Cruelty Man.
Evidence shows that some industrial schools paid some of the Cruelty Men to keep the inmate population steady, and hence keep the school’s government payments on an even keel.
The decision to commit a child was made by a judge based on “non-attendance at school,” “indictable offences,” or “lack of proper guardianship.” The last category was so broad that it allowed some children, in effect, to be kidnapped; unwed mothers sometimes lost their children to the Cruelty Man, and the children of widowed fathers were often taken away.
The children of industrial schools had no constituency, and those few who spoke up on their behalf were ignored. The Medical Inspector of Industrial and Reformatory Schools, Dr. Anna McCabe, recommended in 1943 that child guidance clinics be built to take care of girls and boys exposed to the most harsh and cruel conditions at home.
Father Edward Joseph Flanagan, the Roscommon native who founded Boys Town in Nebraska, visited some of Ireland’s industrial schools in the 1940s and raged against their culture of chastisement and abuse. With his celebrity, Fr. Flanagan might have succeeded in embarrassing the government and the church into bringing in reforms, but he died soon afterward.
My wife and I found the black iron gate between its two pillars, one of which held a plaque: “LETTERFRACK INDUSTRIAL SCHOOL GRAVEYARD.”
Beyond the gate we followed a short, narrow, mulch-covered path through trees and bushes to an opening no larger than the average-sized backyard. The grass in this tiny cemetery had been recently mowed, and in it sixty-one, small, heart-shaped headstones for little boys were set in straight lines.
Several of the headstones carry an identical piece of information: “DIED AS A YOUNG BOY,” because the date of birth was unknown or lost. The sadness of the place was overwhelming.
The original cemetery had been overgrown until a few years earlier, the boys forgotten, until two activists, Christina Holt and John Prior, cleaned it up and saw that each child was given a headstone, even if it did not mark his exact resting place.
As we left the grounds of the former Saint Joseph’s Industrial School that day, we did not know we were stepping away from one of the most abusive of the fifty-two “refuges” for children that had existed in Ireland for over a hundred years.
Soon, however, we would undertake a research project for my upcoming novel “Nailer,” a journey that would reveal to us a history of extraordinarily shameful happenings in twentieth-century Ireland, a history that most people were unaware of.
We would return to Letterfrack and stand in buildings where windows were purposely set so high in the walls that the
youngsters could not look out; we would visit St. Conleth’s Reformatory in Daingean in County Offaly where fifteen-foot walls prevented the boys from escaping; and we would stand on the site of the Baltimore Industrial School which had been run by diocesan priests and which would probably win first place if there was an award for cruelty to children.
According to the Irish writer John McGahern, “The true history of the thirties, forties and fifties in this country has yet to be written. When it does, I believe it will be shown to have been a very dark time indeed, in which an insular church colluded with an insecure state to bring about a society that was often bigoted, intolerant, cowardly, philistine and spiritually crippled.”
McGahern was right.
With the publication of the Kennedy Report in 1970, the Ferns Report in 2005, the SAVI (Sex Abuse and Violence in
Ireland) Report in 2002, and now the publication of the Ryan Report in May by the Commission to Investigate into Child Abuse, the true history is being dragged out into the spotlight.
Each of these reports exposed the unhealthy relationship between the Irish government and the church that led to the detriment, not only of the children of the industrial schools, but to the detriment of Irish society at large.
One thing the Ryan Report shows is that the individuals who were permanently damaged by the industrial school system cannot be repaired, cannot be made whole.
But despite nine years of testimony, despite the personal appearances of hundreds of victims, and despite more than two thousand pages delineating the sufferings of thousands of Irish children, the Ryan Report is not definitive.
Even though the commission heard from so many former inmates who suffered from the malign influence of the church, it was unable to free itself of clerical influence. The Irish Christian Brothers, the religious congregation most reviled in the report, sued the commission not to have guilty parties named. As in the past, there is a set of rules for the clergy and another for the rest of society, and so the names of the criminals, dead and alive, remain unpublished.
Since the publication of the Ryan Report, some have suggested that safeguards be instituted so that Irish children are never again abandoned by society into the hands of those who would terrorize them.
Might I suggest that the state conduct the business of the state without Church interference and that all clergy be removed from political and managerial positions in Irish society?
Even today, for example, the parish priest is the manager of the local national school, an arrangement that was beneficial when the priest was the only one in the town with an education. But that arrangement gives immediate entr