How we became an international disgrace


OPINION:Ireland was not unique in its industrial schools but the nature of Irish Catholicism set it apart, writes TOM INGLIS

IRELAND HAS become an international disgrace. It is now known that we incarcerated thousands of innocent little children into schools where they were abused, raped and tortured. How and why did it happen?

Ireland was not unique. French theorist Michel Foucault pointed out in Discipline and Punish that the idea of separating out deviants and misfits – whether they be mad, bad, poor or sick – was central to the creation of modern society. Mental asylums, jails, poor houses, reformatory schools and welfare homes sprang up all around Europe from the 16th century. Those deemed to be a threat to social order were herded into these institutions.

Those who ran the institutions specialised in producing forms of discipline and control that physically and mentally ensured that inmates were obedient and docile. Punishments for transgression were quick and harsh.

But there were added factors when it came to Ireland. As with many other social practices, the Irish did things to extreme. The British had left a legacy of treating the Irish as uncivilised savages. They instituted regimes of discipline and control that were taken over and developed by agencies of the Catholic Church.

The church played a central role in the discipline, civilisation and modernisation of Irish society. It was central to resisting and challenging the power of the British state. It was already enormously powerful before Independence. The devotion and loyalty of its members meant that the church became not only autonomous from the new Irish State but able to symbolically dominate it, particularly when it tried to interfere in areas over which it had obtained monopoly control.

However, for most of the 20th century it was a cosy relationship. There were differences over the decades but, generally, the State did not interfere with the church’s running of any of its schools, asylums, hospitals and homes.

The heyday of the Catholic Church was, then, akin to the years of the Celtic Tiger. The church was like a big bank. They had over a thousand vocations each year which produced the personnel necessary to manage and run the plethora of institutions, including reformatories and industrial schools. Indeed they had a surplus and were able to export not just missionaries but, with them, the particularly Catholic model of running these schools.

This is where Foucault again becomes useful. He argued that the most subtle way to discipline and control people was to sexualise them. From the 19th century, sex no longer remained under the jurisdiction of religion and medicine, it began to be studied and analysed by a new breed of human scientists including psychiatrists, demographers, educators, analysts, therapists, psychologists and sociologists.

GENERALLY, THROUGHOUT the 20th century there was a move from harsh physical forms of discipline and control to more subtle forms which involved forms of critical reflection and discussion about the self and the nature of sexual desire, pleasure and perversion.

However, again, things were different in Ireland. Sex remained wrapped up in Catholic teaching for longer. Such was the monopoly of the church over Irish society that, outside of a detached scientific medical language, it was almost impossible to mention the word sex.

Bourdieu, another French theorist, argued that there is a realm of thought called doxa: a realm of unquestioned orthodoxy in which things cannot be thought or let alone said. There was only ever one form of bad thought in Catholic Ireland.

It is when we put these two factors together, the huge numbers of reformatories and industrial schools in Ireland and the silence about sex, that we get the type of sadism and sexual perversion.

The absence of any thinking outside the box, let alone criticism and resistance, meant that very few people questioned the policy, particularly of religious Brothers, of taking young boys, barely teenagers, and sending them off to novitiate houses. Those who ran these novitiates operated within forms of repression, discipline and control that were copied in the schools.

The young men and women who ran these schools were servants of a system of power that was beyond question, they were Roman foot-soldiers. They were caught in a regime of Catholic thought and practice from which, effectively, there was little escape. There was no mechanism by which they could talk about themselves, their desires and frustrations. They took their anger out on the children. The children became their scapegoats.

There are three additional factors. The church propagated a form of sexuality which led to limited and often unsuccessful forms of fertility control and, thereby, the creation of large families. For most of the 20th century, Ireland had one of the highest levels of fertility in the West. The reformatory and industrial schools were, effectively, a system of dealing with excess children that, the State deemed, could not be cared for elsewhere.

Secondly, by giving the schools capitation grants for each inmate and by developing a policy (completely within the doxa of the time) of a hands-off form of regulation and control, the State ensured their persistence.

Finally, this was a system of absolute power. Many “good” Catholics knew for a long time what was happening in these schools, but they deliberately turned a blind eye. They could not mention the unmentionable.

There were no whistleblowers: there was no room for any questioning, let alone discussion or debate. The Catholic Church has always valued loyalty and obedience to the institution and it has always been willing to be loyal and to support those who had given their lives to the church, despite the enormity of their sins.

Tom Inglis is associate professor of sociology in UCD and the author of Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland