Thursday 21 May 2009

Ireland and the Children: Slavery and Torture

Systemic torture and slavery of children by religious institutions; Callous indifference and collusion by the state; and a society silent and in denial. This is the essence of the recent Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

The Irish Times editorial strikes a poignant and thoughtful tone, and if you have time to read nothing else, give it a browse.

I am brought back to the story of poor Peter Tyrell, who spent seven years in the awful hell that was Letterfrack industrial school in the 1930s. Shortly after leaving Letterfrack, Tyrrell joined the British army and fought in the second World War. He was captured, but described the German prisoner-of-war camp as a tea party compared with Letterfrack. His experience in the school caused him irreparable damage as a human being. In the 60s he tried to speak out and made several attempts to raise the issue with the authorities in Ireland. But he was stone-walled.

In 1967, with no indication that anyone had taken his accounts of brutality and rape in Letterfrack seriously, Peter Tyrell committed suicide by setting himself on fire in London's Hampstead Heath. He was so badly burned that it took London police almost a year to identify his body. They traced the unburned corner of a postcard in his pocket to his friend Dr Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, himself a noted campaigner for reform in this area. Sheehy-Skeffington was able to confirm that he had indeed sent the postcard, and that the body was that of Peter Tyrell.

When Letterfrack finally closed in 1974, the Secretary of the Department of Education sent a glowing letter of profuse thanks and praise to the Christian Brothers. The Department, he said, was deeply appreciative of the great care given by generations of Brothers to the boys at the institution.

Below is an earlier post I made in response to a piece by Mary Raftery some years ago when she began to delve into the whole child abuse scandal.


Mary Raftery recently likened the dreadful experience of Peter Tyrell to that of Primo Levi . After hearing extracts from Tyrell's book on the radio the other night, I was struck by the aptness of Raftery's comparison

Both men, through no fault of their own, found themselves locked in a nightmare. They suffered appalling brutality and humiliation. They were stripped of their dignity and lived in sheer terror.

The comparison doesn't end there. In both cases society closed its eyes. The extraordinary way in which a combination of hatred and cowardice gave rise to collusion in Nazi Germany is well documented. But if it is true that ordinary Germans knew well about the horrors inside Dachau, here in Ireland ordinary people knew about places like Letterfrack. Worse still, they colluded in it. A garda would assist in rounding up boys for industrial schools. A farmer would hand over escapees that he found on his land. All in full knowledge of the cruel regimes to which the boys were being returned. Politicians rounded on anyone - and they were few - who dared to speak out. The Catholic Church, cruel and tyrannical, defended its regime with ferocity.

As Peter Tyrell sobbed after his brutal drubbings, he must have wondered what kind of people lived in the little cottages all around. He must have asked himself how a Mass-going community could allow an enclave of brutality in its midst. His heart must have been continually breaking as he wondered what he had done to deserve this cruelty.

Levi suffered a similar collapse in his faith in mankind. But at least he had the satisfaction of seeing the demise of the sick regime that was responsible for his suffering. Poor Peter Tyrell had been brave enough to raise his voice against the tyranny only to be shouted down.

In his quest for justice he met a stone wall, thick and steadfast like that of a church. We are still dismantling that wall and it is essential that we try to understand how it was built.

1 comment:

Sergei Itzam Coiot said...

I'm going to look this up now in further research. So very sad. very heartbreaking.