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Suffer The Little Children

Sunday Independent,  April 25 1999 by Mary Raftery

Battered, brutalised and dehumanised, the victims of sexual abuse and sadistic cruelty this is how the State looked after thousands of Irish children in the infamous industrial schools. All of them, some of them now well-known faces, endured a regime of extreme violence and stark deprivation. `States of Fear' is the title of a new series of documentaries from RTE which charts the children's disturbing experiences. Award-winning TV producer Mary Raftery writes about her journey through one of the darkest chapters of Ireland's past

MANY years ago, a man in the village of Letterfrack told me an extraordinary story. It was about what the Christian Brothers did to the boys in Letterfrack Industrial School who wet the bed at night. These unfortunate children apparently carried the nickname of ``sailors''.

Years later, during the research for the States of Fear documentaries, I was amazed to discover that the ``sailors'' label was in fact attached to bed-wetters in industrial schools all over the country. It also became clear that bed-wetting a classic sign of a child's distress was dealt with in these institutions in an almost obsessional way. It was a huge problem. In most industrial schools and there were 52 of them in the country as many as one-third of the children regularly wet the bed. These were children of all ages, up to 16 years old. It was of course involuntary. But the nuns and brothers who ran these institutions regarded bed-wetting as an intentional and premeditated statement of defiance. It was in all cases punished in the most ruthless manner.

The first inkling I had of any of this was from the man in Letterfrack who told me about the ``sailors''. They were lined up each morning and routinely beaten, he said. They were then taken out into the big, walled stone yard, where they were made to run around and around, holding their wet sheets above their heads. They had to keep running until the sheets were dry. But that wasn't all, he said. If it was raining not an infrequent event in Connemara the sheets didn't dry. But the Christian Brothers still made the boys run around and around the stone yard for hours as punishment, holding aloft their sodden sheets.

I have been in the yard in Letterfrack. The wind has a particular way of whipping around the corners to cut through anything and anyone in its way.

We filmed in that yard for States of Fear. Writer and actor Mannix Flynn, who was sent there at the age of 10, talks in the programme about how there was usually blood in the yard from children being beaten around it. But it's hard to convey in pictures the sheer misery of the wind in that place of cold stone.

I couldn't get the story of the sheets out of my mind. The more I thought about it, the more I began to realise that what was involved here went far beyond anything that we could recognise as being even remotely normal. I began to wonder, did the Christian Brothers enjoy the spectacle of small boys running in circles in the lashing rain trying to dry their sheets? Is that why they made the boys do this? Did they stand around laughing at them, jeering them? Or did they just go away and forget about them, remembering hours later that they were still running around in the rain?

It was the sailors of Letterfrack who set me on the path of discovery, and led me inside the dark walls of Ireland's industrial schools. It is quite a shock to discover just how vast was the scale of the industrial schools operation. Up to the 1950s, there were nearly 7,000 children detained in industrial schools at any one time. The courts processed 1,000 of them per year, locking them away until the age of 16.

For the greater part of the 20th century there have been more children in Irish industrial schools than in similar institutions in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together. These are total figures not per head of population.

The system was so vast that one of the jewels in its crown, Artane Industrial School, was the largest institution of its kind in the world. This school was home to the famous Artane Boys Band. That was the public face of Artane. But the Department of Education knew all about the appalling conditions for the boys in Artane. A chaplain in the school made a full report to the Department, and also told the then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. Boys were undernourished, he reported, and there were no medical facilities. He also pointed out that the children had no proper clothes during the winter. They had overcoats only if they could afford to buy them from the Christian Brothers.

It is when you realise that the State was paying the equivalent in today's money of over £1m a year to maintain the boys in Artane Industrial School, that the depth of the scandal becomes apparent.

In fact, the State paid a capitation grant in respect of each child detained in an industrial school. Up to the 1950s, the equivalent today of almost £8m per year was paid out by the government directly to the religious orders who ran the industrial schools. The basis of this funding goes a long way towards explaining exactly why there were so many children caught within the system. Simply put, the more children you had in your industrial school, the more money you got from the State. There was a clear financial incentive for the religious orders running the schools to maximise their numbers.

The Department of Education was clearly aware of this there is a clearly critical reference to religious orders ``touting'' for children. However, this concern was not enough to encourage any change in the funding basis.

Former Artane boy Barney O'Connell vividly describes the extent of deprivation and vicious cruelty in Artane. He also talks directly about the gross sexual abuse which he and many other boys suffered at the hands of Christian Brothers at the school.

During the making of the series, I spoke in detail with well over 100 survivors of industrial school in Ireland. Their experiences all show remarkable similarities, regardless of when and where they grew up.

They all describe a regime of extreme violence and of pervasive fear. ``Children screaming, why were there so many years of children screaming?'' Mary Phil Drennan asked me. She had grown up during the 1960s in Cobh and Rushbrooke industrial schools in Cork, run by the Sisters of Mercy. There, the children were routinely made to beat each other. If one child didn't hit another hard enough, that child would herself be beaten. Perhaps it is the casual cruelty of what they all describe that is so disturbing. But one might still hesitate to use a word as strong as sadism.

However, Department of Education officials had no qualms about describing what they saw as sadism in industrial schools. The word fairly leaped out at us when last November researcher Sheila Ahern and I gained exclusive access to Government archives . The files have not been lodged with the National Archives, and up until now no one has been allowed access to them.

The file dealing with sadism describes the practice in the 1940s of publicly shaving the heads of children who had escaped from industrial schools. The Medical Inspector of Industrial Schools described this as ``sadism'' and condemned it outright. But the religious orders who ran all the industrial schools for the State simply ignored this.

The shaving of children's heads continued right into the 1960s. Nuns and Brothers alike were guilty of it. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate were very keen on it for the boys in Daingean Reformatory School.

The Rosminians shaved boys' heads with enthusiasm in St Joseph's, Ferryhouse in Clonmel. It was just one sanction in the armoury of punishments used by the Christian Brothers.

However, the most infamous incident was in 1963 and concerned the shaving of girls' heads in Bundoran by the Louis nuns who ran St Martha's industrial school there. This was no dark, hidden secret it was widely reported in the newspapers, and was the subject of correspondence within the Department of Health. For years afterwards, the threat of a ``Bundoran haircut'' was effective in ensuring the good behaviour of children all along the border region.

Essentially, what the official files show is that the country's industrial schools were very far from being part of our hidden past. It is simply a myth that people were unaware of what happened behind the high walls of these institutions. What is also clear is that the State had detailed knowledge of the misery of the children it had locked up in industrial schools. Children are described as suffering from gross malnutrition, with some of them under half their proper body weight. The Sisters of Mercy are singled out for particularly severe criticism in this regard.

Government officials were also clearly highly suspicious about a number of aspects about which they felt they were not being properly informed. They were particularly concerned that the nuns and brothers were not spending the substantial government grants on the children in their care.

THE reality of industrial school life, as seen both through the eyes of several survivors of the system, and through the archives, is that it was a system which in effect brutalised and dehumanised almost everyone who had any involvement with it. They show a society and a State which failed to seriously question or challenge those who ran a system that was cruel, negligent and abusive.

I first met Mary Norris in Abbeyfeale last year, where she told me her extraordinary story. She had been detained as a child during the 1940s in the industrial school in Killarney, run by the Sisters of Mercy. She agreed to allow me to interview her, but she set one condition. ``There's to be none of that `face in darkness' stuff,'' she insisted. ``I want my face seen. I want people to know what happened to me.''

Mary's steely determination allowed her to survive being wrenched literally screaming from her mother to be detained by the courts in Killarney industrial school. There she endured four years of brutal beatings from nuns, and was then sent to work for no wages in a Magdalen laundry in Cork. After two years of what was in effect slave labour, she managed to escape.

The Cork Magdalen Laundry was run by the Good Shepherd nuns at Sunday's Well. ``When I got talking to the young girls there I discovered they were all from orphanages [ie, industrial schools]. It was like there was one order of nuns, the Mercy nuns, raising up a workforce for another order of nuns, to work in their laundries for no wages.''

Mary has spent a lifetime thinking about how nuns could have been so cruel. ``They weren't all bad,'' she says, ``there were some nice nuns. But why didn't they stop the cruelty? Were they so busy loving God that they couldn't love little children? Jesus said suffer the little children, not beat the living daylights out of them.''

It was Mary Norris who put me in touch with John Prior. When I met John in his house in Kerry, he was caring for his terminally ill partner, Eleanor. Sadly, she died just days before we filmed John's interview for the programme. Despite his grief, he was determined that people should know what had happened to him at the hands of the Christian Brothers in St. Joseph's Industrial School in Tralee.

``The first time I was badly sexually abused was on the day that I made my First Holy Communion,'' he told me. John was systematically abused at the school until he was 15.

``The only good thing about Christmas was there was no sexual abuse on Christmas Day. We thought we were there for the Brothers' use. We didn't know any different.''

When he left Tralee at 16, John was given a £1 note and his first pair of long trousers. ``The Brother who put me on the train to Dublin said to me `if you know what's good for you, you'll never mention what happened at the school'.''

John Prior, like many other survivors of industrial schools, has begun the process of gaining access to the files kept on him by the State. Under the Freedom of Information Act, he now has a right to seek access to all information which the States holds on him.

To his horror, John has just recently discovered that it was on the recommendation of an ISPCC inspector that he was committed by the courts to be detained by the Christian Brothers in Tralee. He is now in search of the files the ISPCC holds on him. He is just beginning the process of uncovering hidden aspects of his own past.

Don Baker and Sharon Murphytwo fine musicians - also spent time in these institutions as children. Don Baker got into trouble when he was 12, and was sent to Daingean Reformatory School in Co. Offaly for two years during the 1960s. He describes having a nervous breakdown at the age of 13, caused by the predatory attentions of one Brother who used to get him on his own and interrogate him about sex. Don describes the sheer terror of this Brother pursuing him almost every day for an entire year and he graphically describes the horror which he himself experienced there as a child at the hands of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who ran the Daingean school.

Sharon Murphy grew up in St Joseph's Industrial School in Clifden, Co. Galway, run by the Sisters of Mercy. Even though this was the 1970s, Sharon describes a harsh and brutal regime. She also vividly remembers a visit by RTE, who filmed a programme on Clifden Industrial School during the 1970s.

``You knew that when RTE was there, you weren't going to be hit, at least not in public. You could feel safe for a little bit,'' Sharon told me. But as soon as the RTE crew left, she said, everything returned to normal the beatings and the constant fear returned.

Much of Sharon's music reflects some of the sadness and anger about her childhood. She is a singer and songwriter, and has just brought out her first CD collection.

Both Sharon Murphy and Don Baker have found that counselling has been of great help to them in dealing with the hurt of their childhoods. Most particularly, it has allowed them to perceive that what happened was not their fault. This is described by many as a crucial step towards recovery.

The feeling that they themselves are to blame is widespread among those who grew up in industrial schools. For their entire childhoods, they were told that they should be grateful if it were not for the nuns and the brothers who looked after them, they would be starving on the side of the road.

What no one ever told them was that it was the State, and not the religious orders, who were paying for their care.

It's also clear from the archives that the State would have increased these grants if the religious orders had been willing to submit proper accounts. However, the religious regarded this request from the Department of Finance as unwarranted interference in their management of the schools. The religious orders' refusal to submit accounts to the State served only to further disadvantage the children in their care.

Although industrial schools were often mistakenly referred to as orphanages, very few of the children detained were in fact orphans. Most had either one or both parents alive, who had fallen on hard times. Only a tiny proportion were detained for breaking the law. But because the vast majority of children were committed by the courts, there was always an association with criminal behaviour. Some were locked up for not attending school, but the vast majority were simply there because they were poor.

Instead of supporting families in difficulty, the State removed the children and paid the money to religious orders instead.

We are only now beginning to realise the full extent of the legacy of this State policy the damage done to the lives of tens of thousands of survivors of the industrial school system is its tragic consequence. At a conservative estimate, there are more than 30,000 Irish people alive today who grew up in industrial schools.

While many of the religious orders who ran industrial schools have apologised to those whom they damaged and hurt as children, there has so far been silence from the State. Several of those interviewed point now to the need for the State to acknowledge its own role in the damage caused to so many children, and to apologise to them. The revelations in States of Fear of what the State actually knew about the system into which it was committing so many children make it all the more important for a response from the Government to the calls from victims for a full inquiry into Ireland's child prisons.

The first programme of the series States of Fear will be shown on RTE1 on Tuesday April 27 at 9.30pm, after the news. The second programme in the series (to be shown at 10.10pm on Tuesday May 4) deals with the experiences of sick and disabled children who grew up in institutions. The final programme, which looks at the legacy of the industrial schools, will be broadcast at 10.10pm on Tuesday May 11.