Odd as it may sound, the most jolting details in Documentary On One: Blackrock Boys (RTÉ Radio 1, Monday) are the least graphic. “I can still smell the chlorine and the hotness of the pool,” says David Ryan, recalling the school sports facility where he was serially sexually abused by Fr Tom O’Byrne, a teacher at Blackrock College.
“That’s part of the grooming, being chosen, being made to feel special,” notes Mark Ryan, David’s older brother, who was also repeatedly abused by O’Byrne during the 1970s.
Mark Ryan tells how Fr Tom O’Byrne gained his trust when he was a first-year pupil at the prestigious school, with the then fiftysomething priest giving him a home computer, a rare commodity in 1970s Ireland
Delivered in calm, at times almost forensic fashion, the Ryans’ testimony drives Liam O’Brien’s powerful programme, which recounts the brothers’ traumatic experiences while shining a light on yet another instance of widespread clerical institutional abuse, this time in one of the State’s most storied establishments.
Though made under the auspices of the lauded Documentary on One series, Blackrock Boys has already made the kind of headlines normally associated with current-affairs scoops. The Spiritans order, previously known as the Holy Ghost Fathers, which runs Blackrock College, admits in a letter to the programme-makers that 233 people have made allegations of sexual abuse against 77 members, with 57 people alleging they were abused on the Blackrock campus. The order also states that it has paid more than €5 million in settlements to date.
These shocking figures make the documentary newsworthy: tellingly, it’s broadcast after a truncated edition of Drivetime on Monday, rather than the Doc on One’s usual Saturday time slot. But it’s the Ryan brothers’ story that gives the programme its gut-wrenching impact.
Mark, who is now 61, tells how O’Byrne gained his trust when he was a first-year pupil at the prestigious school, with the then fiftysomething priest giving him a home computer, a rare commodity in 1970s Ireland. The abuse started after O’Byrne invited Mark for private swimming lessons in the pool on the school campus, and got steadily worse, particularly when a second priest began sexually assaulting him.
Some of the programme’s most painfully vivid moments come when Mark and David talk about the guilt they felt for decades after; as so often in cases of sexual violence, the victims feel they are somehow to blame for the crimes inflicted on them
Mark never told anyone about what happened, not even his younger brother David, who would himself start private swimming lessons with O’Byrne three years later. “I thought he was safe,” Mark says. David, who is now 58, graphically describes the sexual assaults by O’Byrne, and another Blackrock College priest (a different person from Mark’s second’s abuser); but, again, the incidental details have their own insidious horror: “He always said, ‘David, this is our secret.’” Sure enough, neither brother ever knew the other had been sexually violated.
The brothers’ meticulously recounted stories bring to life experiences that are unimaginable to many listeners, as well as providing a reminder of the personal suffering behind this latest revelation of widespread clerical abuse. But it also highlights the institutional instinct for self-preservation that covered up crimes at the expense of victims.
Following a complaint when O’Byrne asked teenage girls to pose in shell bikinis, O’Byrne was sent away from Blackrock College, only to return several months later and resume his abuse. Years later, when Mark and David went to the Garda about O’Byrne’s crimes, in 2002, the then octogenarian priest was defended by a top barrister; the Spiritans admit in the programme that the order covered legal fees for members accused of crimes. As a way of preventing Blackrock College’s reputation being dragged through the mud in a court case, it worked. In 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that O’Byrne would not stand trial, because of his age. Unsurprisingly, Mark is scathing in his verdict on the “judicial system”.
With its clear narrative and linear timeline, the documentary has the immediacy of a news report, and for good reason: the after effects of the abuse suffered by the Ryan brothers ripple to this day. Only in recent years did either of them seek professional counselling for their traumas, which also had a devastating impact on their parents when the truth eventually emerged: Mark breaks down when recalling his father’s pain over the matter. Some of the programme’s most painfully vivid moments come when Mark and David talk about the guilt they felt for decades after; as so often in cases of sexual violence, the victims feel they are somehow to blame for the crimes inflicted on them.
Blackrock Boys is a tough listen but an essential piece of radio, highlighting the sickening sexual abuse committed at the heart of supposedly the most elite establishments, and the institutional complicity that perpetuated it. “They knew what was going on, but they brushed it under the carpet,” says David, in disgust. But, above all, it’s a story of personal pain and survival, underscoring how cases of historical abuse are anything but: sometimes, the scar never heals. “I still can’t deal with it properly,” Mark concludes. “I’ve never really had an apology.”