Church and State, 1st September 2001
A new book chronicles the failure of publicly funded "faith-based" institutions for poor children in Ireland, asserting that the system subjected thousands of children to physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools (Continuum Publishing, 424 pp., $29.95), examines Ireland's "industrial schools," institutions run by the Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church, with state funds where poor children were warehoused and often forced to work long hours at grueling jobs.
The system was first established in Ireland in the 19th century, when the country was ruled by Great Britain. It remained intact after Ireland gained independence in 1921 and was not dismantled entirely until the mid 1980s. Two years ago, after the release of a three-part television documentary examining the schools, government officials formally apologized to those who were mistreated in the institutions.
The authors of the book, Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan, interviewed hundreds of adults who spent their childhood years in industrial schools. Many said they were underfed, subjected to horrific forms of abuse and forced to work at menialjobs.
The story told by one woman, identified as Catherine, is typical. Born out of wedlock, Catherine was brought to St. Joseph's Industrial School in Dundalk by her mother in 1937. The institution was run by the Sisters of Mercy.
Catherine told Raftery and O'Sullivan that she was subjected to frequent beatings for bed-wetting. The children, she said, were fed mostly on bread, cocoa and potatoes, and the institution was overrun with mice. Girls were trained to be domestic servants and turned over to families for work at age 16.
"There were big fireplaces all over the building, but they never lit fires in them," Catherine recalled. "I remember being brought to a doctor in Dublin because I had a club foot, and he remarked how cold I was. He warmed up my feet in front of an electric fire. The teacher with me told one of the nuns about this and she beat me and beat me, just because I was cold. This nun, we used to call her the Witch, but even that was too good for her -- she was like a devil in nun's clothing. When she'd be walloping me, froth used to come out of her mouth."
A man named Barney told the authors about his experiences in Artane Industrial School, run by the Christian Brothers. Barney said conditions were so bad that boys frequently tried to run away.
"Anyone who ran away got a horrific beating, and their heads were shaved," Barney said. "So you were bald, and you had to stand facing a wall for days and days. Sometimes you were chained to a tree, or tied to what we called the lamppost in the middle of the grounds. And if someone ran away, the whole school would be punished. We wouldn't be allowed margarine for maybe a week, and we'd have to eat the bread dry. And of course when you got the boy who ran away, you gave him a good kicking. He got a terrible time."
Ireland's system of industrial schools began to crumble in 1970, with the release of the Kennedy Report, a government-sponsored investigation that criticized the schools as "haphazard and amateurish" and accused them of lacking "awareness of the needs of the child in care."
Industrial schools gradually began to close in the wake of the report. By 1984, Ireland's Department of Health had taken over the care of orphans and indigent children and shifted the focus away from institutional care and toward foster care.
Some Catholic orders have subsequently issued apologies to those who were abused while in their care. However, the orders continue to fight several legal cases that have been filed against them by victims.
The new book about the scandal has drawn praise for its careful depiction of a church-state union gone horribly awry.
Frank McCourt author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes, observed, "Suffer the Little Children is a book that might torment you, a story of incredible cruelties tolerated -- no, perpetrated -- by minions of church and state."