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Broken people. Book Review. Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools. By Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan.

Baltimore, West Cork: Sunny summers, sailing, excellent food. For some Irish people, however, "Baltimore" means a train journey made during the second World War:

"We got the train down and the journey took most of the day. It was getting dark when we arrived (there was a station platform in the Baltimore school grounds), but there was still enough light to make out all these boys dressed in rags, no shoes, no socks, being beaten around the place by this old man. He had a big stick and he was hitting them on the head and on the back. I started to cry. I was completely terrified. The old man was beating the boys to get them out of our way, so we could get into the building. It was like a nightmare . . ." (John, recalling his arrival in 1944, age 10, at the Baltimore Fishing School, an industrial school under the control of the Bishop of Ross.)

A decade later, another school: "You'd hear the younger ones screaming during the night, the twelve and thirteen year olds . . . There was a nightwatch man who used to patrol the dormitories with an ash plant on his shoulder. You'd see him constantly bringing down that stick onto a boy in a bed with his full force, about five or six times . . . There were an awful lot of priests and brothers there in my time . . . The priests were unimpeachable, they beat the boys with complete impunity. No one ever interfered. They were a total law into themselves . . . It was the closest thing I've ever seen to an SS prison camp. The kids were just kicked and bullied and beaten and starved, all the time." (Hugh, a former Oblate priest who worked in 1957 at St Conleth's Reformatory, Daingean, run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.)

Another decade again, after free education, after the student revolution. A Department of Justice official describes the questioning in 1968 of Fr William McGonagle, Manager of Daingean and Chairman of the Association of Resident Managers of Industrial and Reformatory Schools: "He replied openly and without embarrassment that ordinarily the boys were called out of the dormitories after they had retired, and that they were punished here on one of the stairway landings . . . Punishment was applied to the buttocks with a leather . . . Some of the Committee members asked why he allowed boys to be stripped naked for punishment, and he replied in a matter of fact manner that he considered punishment to be more humiliating when it was administered in that way."

BUT only a year earlier, in 1967, the Secretary of the Department of Education, Mr T.R. O'Raifeartaigh, could report to the Minister for Education on a visit to Daingean: "Such is the spirit of dedication on the part of the staff, religious and lay, that one's principal feeling on leaving is that it is good to know that such people exist."

This is just a small sample from the catalogue of abuse and official neglect contained in Suffer Little Children - a follow-through of the three-part documentary series, States of Fear, broadcast on RTE earlier this year. To its credit, the Department of Education, unlike the religious orders, allowed the authors full access to its archives. The book is an unusual hybrid - attempting to place the raw data of the victims' experience within the larger socio-political scaffold that supported the industrial school system. It is neither fair nor appropriate to evaluate this book as if it were an academic thesis. Neither is it an official report, with the evidence being tested and scrutinised according to strict judicial rules of evidence. No doubt, both those types of reports will follow in due course and will complete the jigsaw. The book's hybrid nature is its strength, with the lengthy quotes from official records being put into terrible perspective by the stories of the survivors. I read each page thinking it could not get worse. But it did. This book presents a preliminary analysis of the inter-locking factors that resulted in the horrors of the industrial school system - preliminary because what is missing is the first-hand accounts and archival evidence of the religious orders. The chief factor was the unholy alliance between a power-hungry Catholic Church and a State unwilling either to take responsibility itself or to make the Church accountable. The State's under-funding, in turn, was inextricably bound up with the stubborn refusal of the Catholic Church to provide any financial accounts. But inadequate funding is not sufficient to explain the systematic abuse, cruelty and degradation. The culture of secrecy, absolute obedience and sexual repression within the orders themselves was central. And that's even before we get to the sexual abuse.

This all presents great difficulties for the religious orders. Unfortunately, many religious seem to be still clinging to the wreckage. Instead of taking corporate responsibility for what was done, they have issued, for the most part, apologies that are hedged-in with provisos, referring to "mistakes" being made (Sisters of Mercy), or of being "distressed to learn of allegations of abuse being made against any of our members" (Oblates of Mary Immaculate). This unconscious ambivalence is well illustrated by the linguistic confusion in an apology offered by a nun to a former resident of St Augustine's Industrial School, Templemore whom she had beaten many years earlier. "Tessie" the nun whispered: "do you regret the beatings?"

Why were the religious orders not so shaken by the evidence of cruelty and abuse by their members that they immediately commissioned and published substantial, independent research into why and how this happened? And, if the orders have come together themselves and worked out with their fellow religious what went wrong, why have they not told us about it? Why have they not devised, in collaboration with the survivors, an agreed and fair system of restorative justice, including financial and other compensations, instead of contesting individual claims or offering circumscribed apologies?

THE fate of the victims and the religious orders are inextricably linked. Ed, a boy incarcerated in St Joseph's Industrial School Kilkenny from 1966 to 1978 expressed it movingly: "This nice nun was the only person I ever trusted as a child. But I knew when I'd tell her things that happened that I'd be hurting her. Now, whenever I see her, all she does is cry. The whole thing just broke her heart. I think that all of us connected with what happened in St Joseph's ended up as broken people in one way or another."

For all those who knew and chose to do nothing, for all those who knew but could do nothing, reading this book and hearing those voices will constitute a small individual act of reparation. And what of the survivors themselves? Primo Levi, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, writes: "The need to tell our story to the `rest', to make the `rest' participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs".

Meditate that this came about:

I commend these words to you.

Carve them in your hearts

At home, in the street,

Going to bed, rising;

Repeat them to your children'.

(Primo Levi, If This is a Man)

Originally published in The Irish Times. 

Posted: 11 December 1999