How statistics tell the story of children in industrial schools

In 1950 there were three reformatories and 51 industrial schools, all run by religious orders

When Eoin O’Sullivan, professor of social policy in Trinity College Dublin, pointed out that data on admissions to industrial schools between 1935 and 1970, published by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report) were wrong, I thought of Roy Geary, who was Ireland’s foremost statistician.

Under the Free State government until 1949, a statistics branch existed in the Department of Industry and Commerce. Geary became the first director of the Central Statistics Office (CSO) when it was established 70 years ago in 1949. From 1957 to 1960 he was head of the national accounts branch of the UN Statistical Office in New York. In 1960 Geary returned to Dublin to become the founding director of the Economic Research Institute which later became the ESRI when social research was added to its remit.

Geary had a life-long interest in policy and wanted statistics to be useful. He was a frequent letter-writer to The Irish Times; his last letter was published the day before he died. He was also an avid soccer fan.

How would Geary react to the Ryan error – perhaps with wry amusement and the offer of a tutorial on the difference between stocks and flows? Geary was hugely generous with his time if someone wanted to learn about statistics.


Twenty years ago, when the CSO marked its 50th anniversary in 1999, it published a book entitled That was then, This is now: Change in Ireland, 1949-1999. The book uses statistics to provide a synopsis of the development of the economy and society in Ireland from the founding of the CSO in 1949 to the dawn of the millennium. It is a treasure trove of information: it includes a section on reformatories and industrial schools.

The CSO describes as “one of the most extraordinary social differences between the 1940s and now [the 1990s] the extent to which children were committed to Industrial Schools”.


In 1950 there were three reformatories and 51 industrial schools in the country, all run by religious orders. The largest industrial school for boys was Artane in Dublin where 776 children were detained in 1950. The largest industrial school for girls was Goldenbridge, also in Dublin, with 148 girls.

In 1950 there were 833 committals while 994 were discharged and 31 children absconded. Thus at the end of that year there were almost 200 fewer children in the schools than at the start. Of the 833 children committed two-thirds were less than 10 years old. Half of the committals were on the grounds of not having a settled place of abode or visible means of subsistence.

By 1960, the number detained in industrial schools had fallen below 4,000 and fell to 1,270 in 1970. In 1970, Artane, with a capacity of 830, only had 10 boys. The following year, reformatories and industrial schools were reclassified as special schools and residential homes. The total number of children in detention was 127, of which 11 were girls. The number of full-time staff was 302.

Wealth of data

The CSO provides a wealth of data about Irish society and economy which is of fundamental importance to policy makers. The most important are based on the census of population, which long predate the CSO, and which has taken place at intervals going back to Thomas Larcom, a captain of engineers with the Ordnance Survey, in 1841. CSO data show that between 1936 and 1971 total population hardly changed rising by just 10, 000 from 2.97 million to 2.98 million.

By the time of the 2016 census the population had risen to 4.75 million – an increase of 1.77 million. The distribution of the population by age, gender and location, are all provided. Such data are a sine qua non for policy in health, housing, transport and many other areas.

Among other data provided by the CSO are those on the labour market, agriculture, industry, services, trade, births, marriages and deaths. On a more sombre note, in 1949 one murder was recorded. Thirty-eight murders were recorded in 1998. This number had doubled to 77 20 years later in 2018. Geary might say, “Here are the data, show me the policies”.