Paddy Doyle obituary: Activist and author of The God Squad
‘He didn’t believe people with disabilities should be ruled out of anything’
Author Paddy Doyle was a strong advocate for people with disabilities and survivors of abuse. File photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times
Born: May 19th, 1951
Died: October 9th, 2020
Paddy Doyle, award winning author and disability activist has died. His book, The God Squad, a memoir of his childhood in an industrial school was one of the first testimonies of State child abuse. When it was published in 1988, it became an immediate best seller and won the Sunday Tribune Arts Award for Literature and the Dublin Lord Mayor’s prize.
In the book, Doyle wrote graphically about the cruelty and abuse he suffered in an industrial school in Cappoquin, Co Waterford. He was sent there at the age of four, following the death of his parents. “You were beaten with a bamboo cane until you screamed and then they believed the devil was out of you. I knew the horror of being beaten until it was no longer possible to stand up,” he wrote.
Dermot Bolger, who first published The God Squad as editor of Raven Arts Press, said that it was one of the books he was most proud of publishing as it played a part in transforming Ireland. Doyle’s gruesome memoir came over a decade before the RTÉ documentary States of Fear by Mary Rafferty which was credited with beginning the process of exposing the regime of abuse and cruelty in residential institutions of the Irish State.
Advocate for those with disabilities
Throughout his adult life, Doyle was a strong advocate for people with disabilities and survivors of abuse. He served on the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities for three years in the 1990s. And he travelled to the United States with the then US ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith to view disability services there.
He encouraged people with disabilities to educate themselves, be positive and proud of how they looked. He also promoted the social model of disability which encouraged the integration of people with disabilities into mainstream society, rather than the medical model which he described as centred on “hospitals, wheelchairs and crutches”.
His son, Niall Doyle, said his father was not afraid to speak his mind on anything. “He could be quite stubborn in his opinion but he was never afraid to be the voice of something he believed in. One of his mantras in life was that we should all be equal. He didn’t believe people with disabilities should be ruled out of anything.”
Born in Wexford hospital, Doyle had a few happy years living with his parents and younger sister Ann in Ballymore, Co Wexford, before his mother Lil died from breast cancer aged 43. His father Paddy took his own life five weeks later. Then only four, Paddy was sent to live in St Michael’s Industrial School which was run by the Sisters of Mercy in St Teresa’s Convent, Cappoquin.
From an early age, Doyle suffered from the neurological condition dystonia, a chronic involuntary movement disorder characterised by repetitive and sustained muscle contractions. Aged nine he was sent to hospital and diagnosed with “post-polio” and subsequently underwent leg and brain surgery. From that time onwards, he became a wheelchair user.
In his book, Doyle maintained his condition was a psychosomatic one brought on by the trauma of his childhood. He spoke frankly on numerous occasions about his struggle to reduce prescription medicines, highlighting the dangers of taking highly addictive drugs on a long-term basis. He also campaigned for the legalisation of medically supervised marijuana.
Doyle spent his late teenage years with the McGrath foster family in Ranelagh, Dublin, which was a wholly positive experience for him.
He met his wife Eileen, a paediatric nurse, in the early 1970s at the National Ballroom. The bouncers didn’t let him in two nights previous to that night because they said being in a wheelchair would make him a fire hazard. He sat outside the hall in protest, but on the third night the manager let him in.
Victims of institutional child abuse
In his 20s Doyle worked for CIÉ, the national public transport authority, as a laboratory technician. He later lectured on disability issues and undertook projects with medical students at Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. In the 1980s, he worked as a scriptwriter for the RTÉ children’s programme Pajo’s Junkbox with his good friend, TV film and theatre director and producer Art O’Briain who died in September.
Later, Doyle hosted writing workshops for prisoners in Mountjoy Prison and at St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders. He joined the Rehabilitation Institute as a consultant in 1994 and was made a full-time member of staff in 1996. One of the projects on which he worked was the as yet undeveloped national memorial for victims of institutional child abuse. This Dublin City Council Journey of Light memorial – which was a recommendation of the commission to inquire into child abuse – was initially planned for a site next to the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square but planning permission was refused by An Bord Pleanála.
- Paddy Doyle is survived by his wife, Eileen, his sons, Shane, Niall, and Ronan, his grandchildren, Seán, Adam, Teagan, Luke, Jessica and Amy and his sister, Ann.