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Shameful Headcount of State's Dead Children Emerges

Irish Times, May 31, 2010 by Ann Marie Hourihane

Letterfrack’s graveyard is tragic proof that we have destroyed many childhoods. And still we grapple to enumerate a mounting death toll

THE SADDEST things in the graveyard of Letterfrack Industrial School are not the gravestones of the young boys commemorated there, but the toys. A bright-red toy car on the cement cross erected in 1969, on which about 60 names are inscribed. It is a miniature Audi coupe. And, at the other end of the graveyard, there is not only a large black marble plaque with a very yellow picture of the cartoon character Winnie-the-Pooh, but a model of an articulated lorry, with flames painted on its side, still in its box. “Hot Wheels” the model of the lorry is called. There is also a red-and-black football, placed between two angels.

In the bone-numbing sadness of Letterfrack Industrial School graveyard, these toys come as a shock reminder of what boys love. Of what interests them and beguiles them. Of what they enjoy. The contrast with the brief details written on the stones could hardly be starker. The walk to the graveyard, through a sun-filled wood, on the beautiful weekend of May 22nd and 23rd was carpeted with bluebells and wild garlic, and pierced – yes, it is really true – with shafts of sunlight and the cry of the cuckoo. After this sylvan beauty, the graveyard itself is perhaps appropriately institutional. The heart-shaped memorial stones lie on either side of a short path, in dull pools of grass punctuated with daisies and dandelion clocks.

The large stone cross simply lists the names of the boys who died – and not all of them either – and the dates of their deaths. The first boy listed, James Hastings, died on November 14th, 1891, according to the cross.

The last boy listed on the cross, John McDonnell, died on March 11th, 1956.

Standing in the graveyard of Letterfrack Industrial School,without the benefit of the historical research carried out there, you are trying to piece together some little stories from the stones in front of you. For example, was Patrick Hastings, who died on May 16th, 1893, the brother of James Hastings who had died two years before? Why did five boys die in 1918 alone, whereas only one died in 1904 and one in 1905?

The Joseph Pyke Memorial Research Abuse Prevention Programme has erected the heart-shaped stones which now stud the grass, and give a little more detail on the boys. This extra detail seems to consist entirely of their ages. So, James Hastings, who died in 1891, was 15, his heart-shaped stone says. Bernard Kerrigan, who died on August 15th, 1935, was four years old. And the last boy listed on the cross, John McDonnell, has no age recorded. “Died as a young boy,” his heart-shaped stone reads.

Driving away from the Letterfrack Industrial School graveyard, there was a discussion on the radio about the Health Service Executive’s estimate that 20 Irish children had died while in the care of the State in the first 10 years of this century. Later in the week that number rose to 37. The number appears set to rise again.

It seems that we have become even worse at counting dead children and dead teenagers than we were before.

It is always interesting to look at the dead people who are not counted. The Iraqi civilians, for example, who died in the early days of the invasion of Iraq. They weren’t counted. Even in the chaos and suffering of war, casualties are usually counted. By somebody who cares.

Counting dead children and dead teenagers is a terrible task. Nobody wants to do it. Nobody wants to think about dead children and dead teenagers, thanks very much.

Nobody wants to leave the graveyard of Letterfrack Industrial School and think that the teenagers lying there – and the impression is that most of the dead were teenagers – are very like the teenagers slumped in front of our televisions and permanently plugged into their iPods. Nobody wants to think of the little children who died at Letterfrack being like the children in our own families, laughing at very old jokes and kicking their siblings on the bum – and that’s on a good day.

This is why the toy cars and the red-and-black football left at the graveyard of Letterfrack Industrial School are so powerful when you see them. Because they remind us that these numbers, these problems, these elusive statistics, were children.

John McDonnell who died in 1956 at the age of who knows what, and James Hastings who died in 1891 at the age of 15, are really the ancestors of Daniel McAnaspie, whose mortal remains were found in a ditch a few weeks ago. They are his older brothers.

It might not be too fanciful to say that, even though they died before they could have children, John McDonnell and James Hastings are the father and grandfather of Daniel McAnaspie in some terrible Irish family made up of the children who never counted.

It was strange to think, as one left the carefully tended and well-defined perimeter of the graveyard at Letterfrack Industrial School, that we don’t even know yet how big the memorial garden to the children who have died in the care of the State during the 21st century is going to have to be.