Timely history of how borstal boy ended up getting 'Letterfrack treatment'


Ireland’s ‘Moral Hospital’ The Irish Borstal System1906-1956 By Conor Reidy Irish Academic Press256 pp. £45.

CONOR REIDY could not have chosen a better time to publish this book. In the media tsunami unleashed by the Murphy and Ryan reports comes this detailed history of the treatment of juvenile offenders in Ireland. Named after its pilot project in the Kentish town of Borstal in 1901, the “Borstal System” was the brainchild of the humanitarian prison reformer John Ruggles-Brise (the same prison commissioner who ordered that Oscar Wilde be given pen and paper in his cell). Ruggles-Brise was among the campaigners for the complete separation of juvenile and adult offenders in prison, and was instrumental in the transformation of prisons into penitentiaries or reformatories. Jailed with hardened adult criminals, he argued, the juvenile offender was likely to learn nothing in prison but how to become a professional criminal. Catch them young and cordon them off, however, and rehabilitation might be possible.

The borstal boy was not to be beaten or abused into submission and self-loathing, but rather through a system of non-violent discipline and rewards for good behaviour, converted into a decent, self-regulating new character. After the minimum two-year sentence, “incorrigible”, “lounging” and “hooligan” types would be shaped into useful members of society, fitted with a trade and a sense of self-worth, ready to join the ranks of respectability. The rural location of the borstal was also central to this process of removing urban bad boys from unsavoury influences, not least their own families. This is one of the reasons why, when the system came to Ireland in 1906, Clonmel was chosen as its location. The Dublin landscape of Fagin-like characters and filthy streets was to be replaced by fresh-faced Tipperary farmers and wholesome country air. The Belfast “cornerboy” could become, in just two years, a productive pig farmer.

The “borstal treatment” involved a combination of monastic and military type training: boys rose at 5.30 to a strict regime of drills, parades, chapel, gymnastics, lectures, and vocational training. Their diet was monitored and measured. Frequent measuring and weighing by the medical officer was also part of the “science” of reform in this “moral hospital”. In his study of the creation of prisons and asylums, Michel Foucault has described the Victorian drive to tabulate, collate, and chart the body, all the better to maintain control over certain bodies. Such an analysis of the borstal might understand the limits of this “progressive” system, and the discourses of (British) power involved (it is not insignificant that the only entertainment or news brought to the boys in Clonmel involved lantern slides of the “War”, and that many discharged boys ended up on the “Front”).

But it is difficult not to read within this 50-year life of the borstal in Ireland a story also about what happened when the Free State took over the institution. What had been a relatively progressive and reformist institution, committed to non-violent discipline, non-denominational management and a culture of thorough investigation when regulations were breached by staff, became something rather different after 1922. Political upheaval, a lack of funding and of vision took the borstal system down a route far from its original vision of rehabilitation. The only thing it wasn’t short of was the involvement of nuns and priests. In the context of what we might call the “Letterfrack treatment”, the Borstal treatment looks more like a Butlins holiday camp.

It was a decline that led to the prophetic attack on the country’s juvenile penal system by Fr Flanagan of Boys’ Town fame, when he, like a caller to the Joe Duffy show, called these institutions “a disgrace”.

Willa Murphy lectures in English at the University of Ulster