Diarmaid Ferriter: Artane Band name a useful reminder

Abuse survivor Mannix Flynn wants name changed, but is that such a good idea?

Perhaps reminders of difficult parts of the national experience should  also be present on All-Ireland Sundays in Croke Park. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Perhaps reminders of difficult parts of the national experience should also be present on All-Ireland Sundays in Croke Park. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

When I see the Artane Band perform at Croke Park, the industrial school established in Artane in 1868 usually crosses my mind, however fleetingly. I can hardly be alone in this, despite the fact that the school closed in 1969 and the ties between the band and the Christian Brothers were then cut.

Artane is a word long weighed down with its association with the industrial school. As journalist Gene Kerrigan remarked in his memoir of growing up in working class Dublin in the 1950s, Artane was a “byword for fear”, backed by a largely unspoken knowledge that horrible things happened there and to be sent there was the worst form of punishment.

The band, through no fault of its own, is a reminder of the institutionalisation and abuse of Irish children in the 19th and 20th centuries. For some of the victims the high profile of the band and its elevated status on big match days can be a reminder of what they suffered, simply because of its name and history.

Dublin city councillor Mannix Flynn has insisted its name should be changed. For Flynn “This is very simple . . . the band is directly linked with the horrors of Artane”, and its name is “an absolute insult for those of us still trying to recover”.

Today, the word “boys” no longer appears in the band’s title; perhaps understandably, those who run it, while acknowledging its long history, also selectively glide over that history quickly. Its official website announces “The Artane Boys Band was founded in 1872 by Brother Alphonsus Hoope, Superior of the Artane Industrial School. They gave their first public performance on the grounds of the school for the Prince of Wales.

Invisible history

“Two years later, in 1884, the Band went on their first tour – to the great exhibition in London!” The band was first asked to perform for the GAA in 1886.

The history lesson then jumps to 1947 when the band performed in New York, then straight to 1969 when “the Artane Industrial School closed, and membership of the band was opened up to boys who lived locally, ensuring a seamless transition from school band to a community band”.

Assertions about a “seamless transition” and the very partial history presented masks a lot. By the 1940s the industrial school incarcerated over 800 inmates, and a visitation report in 1952 wondered whether its regimented system was “fundamentally all wrong from top to bottom”.

The Ryan report of 2009 underlined that Artane, while containing decent Christian Brothers, operated under a “climate of fear” and some children were subjected to horrendous sexual and physical abuse. By 1957, the band was earning the school about £900 a year; the boys who toured with the band stayed with families in the locality, were taught table etiquette and instructed on “how to behave themselves in a decent home”. According to a visitor in 1957, the band did a “tremendous amount to win admirers for Artane”.

By the 1960s, 80 boys were involved in the band. Significantly, according to the Ryan Report, “Almost all of the complainants who were in it and gave evidence to the Investigation Committee gave positive feedback regarding their experience with the band.” The Report concluded: “Participation in the band could be a positive experience for the boys involved . . . boys who were part of the band fared better in Artane and afterwards”.

The band was also noteworthy because it was “the public face of Artane, and members of the public would have been reassured when seeing the boys performing that they were receiving good care and education, but in fact the band did not represent the reality for most boys in Artane”.

Extraordinary facade

Patrick Walsh was admitted to the band in 1963. His brothers told him he had to join to “avoid being beaten”; as one put it, “it wouldn’t do for them to arrive in Croke Park with black eyes, bruises or broken limbs”.

For Walsh, the band was “an extraordinary facade” and while its members might have fared better overall than non-members, that did not mean that band members were not abused.

Keith Kelly, the general manager at the Artane School of Music, has dismissed the suggestion the band should be renamed: “we are proud of where we have come from and where we are going.”

The band now has, in the words of its overseers, “exacting standards of governance and child protection”. Given the abuse he suffered in an industrial school, Flynn is more than entitled to make his call. But there is another way of looking at it. History is not about “seamless transitions”.

If it is true that Croke Park on All-Ireland Sundays encapsulates an essence of Irish identity perhaps it is appropriate that reminders of difficult parts of the national experience, which the Artane band is inextricably associated with, are also present.

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