Consigning Irish children to a regime of torture
Consigning Irish children to a regime of torture

“It shall be the first duty of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold, for lack of food, clothing or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.”

The preceding quote was a central element of the Democratic Programme of the First Dail and echoed the declaration within the 1916 Proclamation that all of the children of the nation should be cherished equally.

The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse, published this week, left no one in any doubt that children in the Twenty-Six County state were never treated equally. That the measure of a society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable was a watchword of James Connolly: the testimony of the more than 1,500 people who gave evidence to this Inquiry is a damning indictment of the nature of the southern state. This was a state that deemed it appropriate to incarcerate children living in poverty and chose to ignore consistent reports of the torment they endured in these institutions.

A staggering total of 170,000 children were incarcerated in Industrial Schools from 1936 to 1970. The Commission’s report documents the systematic abuse, torture and neglect of thousands of children banished to industrial schools run by catholic religious orders the length and breadth of the state.

From Artane in Dublin to Letterfrack in Galway; from St Joseph’s Industrial School in Tralee to St Joseph’s ‘Orphanage’ in Bundoran; children were starved, beaten, sexually abused and humiliated. The vast majority received little or no education; instead, they were effectively used as slave labour for a regime that dehumanised them. Thousands have been left emotionally and psychologically traumatised, many meeting premature deaths in conditions of absolute poverty. This was not a case of a few bad apples in the system: it was systematic institutional abuse of children on a state-wide scale.

Just a few examples will suffice. Letterfrack was described as “an inhospitable, bleak, isolated institution, accessible only by car or bicycle and out of reach for family or friends of boys incarcerated there. Physical punishment was severe, excessive and pervasive... sexual abuse was a chronic problem”.

In Daingean, County Offaly, children were routinely stripped naked and flogged. According to the report, those children who passed through this so-called reformatory “were brutalised by the experience and some were damaged by it”.

Artane Industrial School was the largest in the state; it was a place where “physical punishment of boys was excessive and pervasive and, because of its arbitrary nature, led to a climate of fear amongst the boys”. Sexual abuse of boys was a “chronic problem”.

Goldenbridge Industrial School in Inchicore was run by the Sisters of Mercy. Its method of inflicting punishment and the implements used “were cruel and excessive and physical punishment was an immediate response to even minor infractions”. Child labour was a routine feature of this regime; it was used in the manufacture of rosary beads and, according to the report: “this industry was conducted in a way that imposed impossible standards on children and caused great suffering to many of them”.

The testimony of those who survived this regime is harrowing. The vast majority of the children incarcerated in these institutions were there simply because their families were poor. The state paid religious orders to lock up children living in poverty. Behind the high walls of these institutions, children suffered the most appalling abuse and privation.

From the establishment of industrial schools in 1868, over 100,000 children were incarcerated in these institutions and, right up to the 1950s, over 6,000 children were locked up in industrial schools at any one time. The timeframe for the Commission’s Inquiry ran from 1936 to the present. Not only does it document the horrific level of abuse of children, it also details how Catholic Church authorities ignored consistent complaints of abuse and simply moved known and persistent abusers from one institution to another. The care and safety of children was secondary to the protection of their tormentors. Many of these abusers received glowing references and continued to torture children in their new placements. How did such appalling abuse take place over such a long period?

The Industrial School system was a legacy of British rule in Ireland. In 1922, responsibility for this system fell to the Free State Department of Education. From its establishment, the Free State entrusted the education and care of children to catholic religious orders and continued the policy of incarcerating children.

Notwithstanding substantial reforms to the system in Britain in the 1930s, the industrial school system in the Twenty-Six Counties became the primary means through which the state dealt with child poverty. While the Catholic Church dominated many aspects of social life in the early years of the Free State and maintained its dominance for over half-a-century through the control of education, health and welfare services, it was only in a position to do so because the state directly provided the funds to religious orders to organise these services.

All industrial schools were provided a per capita grant for each child, yet the state systematically ignored both official and unofficial reports of serious abuse and neglect of children. The system of funding for these institutions actually encouraged religious orders to increase the numbers of children held under their control. The greater number of children, the greater the level of funding. In this, they were assisted by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, known by children as the ‘cruelty man’, who, in removing children living in poverty from their families, provided the religious orders a steady flow of income and a ready source of slave labour.

In the 1940s, P O Muircheartaigh, the inspector of industrial and reformatory schools, reported on serious underfeeding of children in industrial schools, particularly those run by the Sisters of Mercy. He reported that this was “a serious indictment of the system of industrial schools run by nuns” that “should not be tolerated in a Christian community”.

Ironically, given the fact that most children were incarcerated as a result of poverty, O Muircheartaigh observed: “if the children’s parents subjected them to semi-starvation and lack of proper clothing and attention from which they suffer in some industrial schools the parents would be prosecuted”.

An Irish-American priest, Edward Flanagan, who ran a childcare centre in the US, travelled to Ireland in 1946 and visited many of the industrial schools. He was horrified at what he witnessed and described the industrial school system as a disgrace to the nation.

The political establishment was not impressed by his observations. The Fianna Fail minister for justice, Gerald Boland, dismissed Flanagan’s testimony, claiming he didn’t know what he was talking about and exaggerated what he witnessed. Fine Gael leader James Dillon denounced Flanagan for publishing what he described as “falsehoods and slanders,” claiming that he had “done a grave injustice not only to the legislators of this country, but to the decent, respectable, honest men who are members of the Irish Christian Brothers”. These were the same Christian Brothers many of whose members were involved in raping and torturing children. Calls for a public inquiry into the system were dismissed by Fianna Fail minister for education Tom Derrig because it was claimed it “would serve no useful purpose”.

The political establishment in the Twenty-Six Counties, represented by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, saw no useful purpose in investigating the systematic abuse of the most vulnerable in Irish society. It is a shameful testimony on a society that criminalised the impoverished while institutionalising poverty and refused to respond to serious criminal acts against children. Those in poverty were voiceless and powerless in the face of the political and social ruling classes who controlled their lives.

No religious orders have been brought before the courts for these crimes against children. Regimes of torture have gone unpunished. Not only have religious orders escaped punishment, they continue to be paid by the state for the provision of a range of day care services for children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

In 2007, a total of just 10 religious orders received in excess of O376 million [#331 million] from the Twenty-Six County Health Services Executive, with one order, the Brothers of Charity, receiving O166 million [#146 million].

A 2005 report from the Twenty-Six County comptroller and auditor general expressed concern about the manner in which funding for these services was allocated and highlighted both a distinct lack of clarity about the costs of the services being purchased by the state and a lack of accountability about the quality of those services.

There is a continuing myth that religious orders are charitable organisations. The figures from the HSE suggest otherwise. These orders have financial turnovers equivalent to large corporations. They are also in possession of large tracts of land and a substantial property portfolio throughout the state. Notwithstanding their healthy financial state, they will pay just 10 per cent of the estimated O1 billion costs relating to the redress scheme and legal costs of the Inquiry. Under a deal agreed with the state in 2002, religious orders were indemnified from redress claims in exchange for cash payments and property transfers equivalent to O127 million [#112 million].

The publication of the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse has succeeded in exposing the sickness at the heart of the Twenty-Six County state and has given voice to many hundreds of those who were incarcerated at the behest of the state and tortured at the hands of religious orders.

It was another world from that envisioned in the Democratic Programme of the First Dail, in which the well being and education of children was to be paramount. Instead, children living in poverty were criminalised, forcibly removed from their families and locked up in institutions, where they suffered the most appalling privations. The abuse was systematic and widespread. It involved the courts, state institutions and government departments, state agencies, such as the perversely-titled Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and over a dozen religious orders. It was funded by the Dublin government and happened because the neo-colonial state vested power and privilege within a social class that treated those experiencing poverty as second class citizens who were responsible for the circumstances in which they found themselves. Such a system perpetuated gross inequality and ensured that wealth remained in the hands of a small minority.

While the torture of children in these institutions may have ended, the legacy remains. It is found in the broken lives of those who were subjected to these regimes of torture, in their continuing poverty and homelessness.

The system of childcare in the Twenty-Six Counties remains chaotic; 6,500 children at risk of abuse or neglect have not been allocated a social worker. Over the last number of years, 20 children in the care of the state have died from neglect. Young teenagers in need of care have been assigned to entirely inappropriate ‘emergency’ bed and breakfast accommodation; many have died as a result of drug overdoses.

Throughout the economic boom, levels of childhood poverty grew and recent budget cuts have targeted children’s hospitals and children suffering educational disadvantage. Those in power in the Twenty-Six Counties remain committed to inequality and unconcerned about the impact of their policies. The Commission of Inquiry has recommended the erection of a memorial to those incarcerated within the Industrial School system. The construction of a society that cherishes all of the children of the nation equally would be the only really fitting monument.

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