A school of scandal

Memoir: Peter Tyrrell, a former resident of Letterfrack industrial school (1924-32), committed suicide by setting fire to himself…

Memoir: Peter Tyrrell, a former resident of Letterfrack industrial school (1924-32), committed suicide by setting fire to himself on Hampstead Heath in 1967. Ten years earlier, Tyrrell had launched a campaign which he hoped would draw attention to institutional abuse, but his letters to government ministers, the media, bishops, and Brothers were largely ignored.

Owen Sheehy Skeffington, a champion of education reform in the Irish Senate, however, was struck by Tyrrell's description of Letterfrack, where he claimed to have "suffered torture and severe beatings" on a daily basis. The senator encouraged him to write an account of his time at the school, which he hoped could be published. Tragically, Tyrrell's unpublished manuscript lay hidden among Sheehy Skeffington's papers until it was discovered by Diarmuid Whelan in 2004. It is presented now as Founded on Fear, an absorbing account which describes not only Tyrrell's youth, but also his service in the British army, imprisonment in a German POW camp and subsequent life in England. Within this context, it represents a worthy emigrant memoir, containing a blistering critique of Irish society, its poverty, priests, misguided patriotism and, above all, pervasive violence.

Tyrrell's memoir makes for disturbing reading. Currently researching a commissioned history of the Christian Brothers, I have attended public sessions of the Commission on Child Abuse and studied a wide range of documentary sources, but none presents the child's perception of industrial schools as Peter Tyrrell does. From the outset, we are introduced to the appalling poverty of his childhood in Ahascragh, County Galway, his "lazy and irresponsible" father and the heroic efforts of his mother to raise 10 children in a converted stable, by "begging and borrowing", while the children scavenged in neighbours' fields for "potatoes, turnips . . . or anything which [ would] keep [ them] alive for one more day".

Peter and his siblings were taken into care in 1924. The description of the journey to Connemara and his reception is beautifully written, but the tenor of the institution is quickly established when, "all at once, a Christian Brother [ appeared] . . . chasing the young children with a very long stick, and beating them on the legs". This dispelled any illusions Peter may have had about his new school and he became "frightened and struck with horror". These emotions remained with him throughout his time in Letterfrack, where, he believed, "children were beaten and tortured for no other reason but lustful pleasure". Tyrrell's memoir presents a picture of industrial schools which belies simplistic stereotypical representations. This is an extremely complex world which Tyrrell depicts in an even-handed and credible way. Several of the Brothers are twisted, but others are kind and one is described as a "saint". The tyrants, both Brothers and laymen, preyed not merely on the boys, but upon each other; boys suffered peer abuse while the local population combined in a conspiracy of self-interested silence. Moreover, the boys' subsequent attempts to reintegrate into society prove almost impossible on account of the contempt for industrial school boys in an Ireland obsessed with respectability. In an English context, too, Tyrrell's lot is made more difficult by anti-Irish sentiment, fuelled by the IRA's war-time bombing campaign.


THERE IS A dualism about Tyrrell's Letterfrack. In addition to the terror, he describes normal schoolboy diversions, and the dramatic interruptions in the regime, at Christmas and during the summer holidays, when the usual staff were withdrawn and life was good. Tyrrell does not mention this, but it was the usual practice to bring in a relief staff from the congregation's day schools. These "Summer Brothers" were clearly different and this raises questions about the staffing of the institutions. Significantly, too, evidence suggests that many of the abusers in industrial schools were non-teaching or "lay brothers", who had unsupervised access to boys in kitchens and on the farm. This issue of supervision, or lack of it, is at the heart of Tyrrell's narrative. Clearly the State neglected its duty of care to the children; the leadership of the Christian Brothers, too, failed to exercise proactive supervision, but rather reacted, expelling Tyrrell's tormentors, such as Brothers Walsh (1926) and Vale (1941), when their ill-treatment of boys was exposed.

Tyrrell believed the superior, Brother Kelly, was unaware of the beatings and that if he had been made aware they would have stopped; on another occasion he states that he had never seen a Brother beat children in the presence of another Brother. It is quite clear, too that there were tensions amongst the Brothers about the conduct of the school. The radical condemnation of institutional care by one of the Brothers at Letterfrack, Brother Byrne, is striking; children who were brought up in industrial schools, he believed, were "generally speaking, failures". Starved of love and affection, they lacked the necessary "foundation of a healthy and happy life". In time, Brother Byrne's sentiments became Tyrrell's own campaign cry, but he was haunted by the implicit prediction of his own failure.

Founded on Fear illustrates the anachronistic nature of the industrial schools, Dickensian institutions which survived in Ireland into the late 20th century. Indeed, the parallel with Dickens is uncanny. In Nicholas Nickleby (1838) he describes the boys of Dotheboys Hall with "pale and haggard faces . . . children with the countenances of old men", while Tyrrell's companions were "terribly pale, and their faces are drawn and haggard . . . the children of Letterfrack are like old men".

Diarmuid Whelan has done a great service by bringing this memoir to our attention. It is prefaced by a thoughtful introduction, but it might have been useful to reproduce the complete correspondence between Tyrrell and Sheehy Skeffington as an appendix. The introduction, too, could have addressed the nature of the memoir genre; nevertheless, while Founded on Fear is the latest to be published, it predates and largely affirms the narratives of Mannix Flynn (1983), Paddy Doyle (1988) and Patrick Touher's (1991) experience of Irish industrial schools.

It is a great shame that this powerful narrative was not published in 1959, as intended, when it might have effected real change.

Daire Keogh lectures in history at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra. He is currently researching a history of the Irish Christian Brothers

Founded on Fear: Letterfrack Industrial School, War and Exile By Peter Tyrrell. Edited and introduced by Diarmuid Whelan Irish Academic Press, 182pp. €18.50