Poorest of the poor put away on word of 'the cruelty man'


ORIGINS OF SYSTEM:THEY WERE the poorest of the poor, children who were sent away to industrial schools for no other reason than being needy, orphaned, or failing to attend school.

Much smaller numbers were young offenders, typically sent to reformatory schools for minor offences like stealing following a judicial process that provided them with no legal representation.

Between 1936 and 1970 a total of 170,000 young people entered the gates of the 50 or so industrial schools, staying for an average of seven years.

The population at any one time was about 6,000, peaking at 6,800 in 1946, largely as a result of the wartime emergency conditions.

The vast majority, according to the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, were “needy”, a catch-all term for children in poverty or who were illegitimate. Under the Children Act, 1908, these “needy” children could be committed to an industrial school for a range of reasons. These included begging, being homeless or under the care of unfit or sexually abusive parents and frequenting the company of a thief or prostitute. The case for a committal was typically presented to the court by an inspector of the ISPCC, colloquially known as “the cruelty man”. Children were always unrepresented. A parent was required by law to be present in court, but they were usually uneducated. The evidence of an ISPCC inspector was seldom contested.

Having been committed to schools through the district court – known principally as a place where minor criminal offences were tried – children were unfairly stigmatised as criminals, whereas their only “crime” was poverty.

Non-attendance at school was another major source of committals. It was an offence for parents not to send children under the age of 14 to school. If a parent was convicted of a second offence within three months of the first, a child could be sent away to an industrial school.

The annual number of prosecutions range between 6,000 and 7,000 during the 1940s, peaking at 13,000 in the mid-1940s. The numbers began a steep decline from the early 1950s onwards.

The enormity of committing a child for several years, simply for failure to attend school, began to be appreciated more as time went on, the report notes.

The second-largest category of young people committed to industrial schools or reformatories were young offenders. These institutions were reserved for a tougher type of boy who became eligible for committal between the ages of 12 and 17.

Children were usually sent to reformatory schools (unless they were very young) for about a year.

By contrast, young people committed to industrial schools were sent away for much longer periods. Most stayed until they were 16 years of age, with the average length of stay about seven years.

The justification offered for the anomaly was that committal was not seen as a punishment. Instead, it was seen as a period during which a child needed protection or education.

Most were admitted at a very tender age. For example, of the witnesses who gave evidence to the commission’s confidential committee, most were first admitted at the age of five.

The majority of witnesses reported that their parents’ occupational status was “unskilled” and came from large families, with an average of six children. Some children did get out earlier than anticipated. Children were sometimes removed from industrial schools by parents, without the consent of the schools.

More official removals or early discharges could be made at the discretion of the minister for education, if there had been a change in family circumstances or if a parent made a complaint about abuse. Few parents were aware of these options, though.

School managers were generally against early discharges, but their authority did not always carry the day. A few hundred applications were made each year and the majority succeeded – but there were exceptions. Artane, Letterfrack and Goldenbridge stood out in terms of the high numbers of refusals.

Long before industrial schools became debased by systemic physical, sexual and emotional abuse, they were regarded as well-intentioned.

The model was imported from Europe, where Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia had nearly 100 institutions for criminal and destitute children during the mid-1800s.

The 19th century was a desperate time for many children and families. Conditions in Ireland were such in the late 1800s that many children had to be refused places in schools.

Industrial and reformatory schools were provided for under the Industrial Schools (Ireland) Act in 1858. They essentially had two objectives: to provide skills and training to enable children to support themselves by honest labour, and to reform a child’s character.

The idea was warmly endorsed and expanded quickly, aided by grants from public funds. At their height in 1898 there was a total of almost 8,000 children in 61 industrial schools, the majority of which – 56 – were Catholic-run.

Industrial schools were run by religious orders, though subject to State approval and inspection. They also received State funds to run the institutions, but capital costs were borne by the religious institutions.

Yet, as early as the late 1800s, there were concerns. John Fagan, inspector of the reformatory and industrial schools in 1897, criticised virtually all aspects of the system, especially the physical conditions and overall condition of the children.

Ultimately, as the report notes, the capital and financial commitment made by religious congregations was a major factor in prolonging institutional care of children. From the mid-1920s in England, smaller, more family-like settings were established and they were seen as providing a better standard of care for children in need. In Ireland, however, the industrial school system thrived.