Industrial school system will be blot on Irish history forever - it will take time to fathom it

 

We need to shed our certainty that all this abuse can be blamed on aberrant religious, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

IT IS fascinating to read the ISPCC’s press release on the Ryan report. It attempts to explain the background to the “cruelty men” and its role in committing children to industrial schools.

“The societal, economic, environmental, and personal limitations within which parents were attempting to raise their children . . . included abject poverty, substandard housing, lack of employment, poor sanitation, absentee fathers, excessive use of alcohol, and the condemnation and unacceptability of illegitimacy. It was these factors which led to the vast majority of referrals to the society’s inspectors coming from the general public, including the families themselves, and it was these factors that often meant leaving a child in the home environment was not an option.”

What would the reaction have been if any representative of a religious order had issued a similar statement this week? No doubt they would have been tarred and feathered. Yet no such reaction has greeted the ISPCC’s statement.

The Ryan report mentions that Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary, and a critic of industrials schools, referred to one woman ISPCC inspector who was “dangerous” and who was “shovelling children into industrial schools”. Virtually all the inspectors were male, so it should be relatively easy to find and name this woman. There is no interest in doing so, in stark contrast to the religious who have been named in recent days.

Several other prominent child advocates have been at pains to declare that the ISPCC is now an entirely different organisation, working tirelessly on behalf of children. Actions in the present are seen as sufficient to exonerate past behaviour.

Not one of the Irish human rights organisations that were either founded by members of religious orders or receive ongoing funding from them has offered any such defence of their patrons.

It is just as well that they have not because there is no defence for child abuse, or facilitating child abuse. The industrial schools will remain as a blot on Irish history forever. Yet there is a desperate need to understand exactly why it happened. The Ryan report made an interesting distinction between attempts to explain, and attempts to understand the reasons why so many children were damaged.

I presume that the Ryan commission is distinguishing between attempts to explain away, and to explain, because we desperately need both explanations and to understand. For example, many people now believe that poverty was the only reason for committal to an industrial school.

Harry Ferguson, an Irish academic working in Britain, offers what is in many ways a much more horrifying rationale. His analysis is particularly relevant because he had access to the archives of the ISPCC both in Ireland and in parts of Britain.

He suggests that while poverty was indeed a vital factor, many of these children were sent to industrial schools because of cruelty, neglect or abuse at home, and that “children were treated harshly in industrial schools not only due to their poverty, but because they were victims of parental cruelty, which was perceived to have ‘contaminated’ their childhood ‘innocence’.” In a truly horrifying phrase, he states that they were treated as “the moral dirt of a social order determined to prove its purity”.

If I understand him correctly, not only was it a classic case of blaming the victim, but a reaction against an oppressive colonialism. Irish identity was asserted to be “pure and holy”, as opposed to the godless British. This led to an obsession with sexual purity in particular. Worse, “the moral status of abused children was seen as dubious. Children were not worked with in terms of what they were – such as victims of abuse and neglect – but what they were going to be. They were seen as future threats to social order as much as victims. The child in danger, in time would become the dangerous child”.

So, far from receiving compassion or care, the child was seen as a potential threat to the social order, who had to be moulded into an obedient, productive, working class citizen. A 1947-48 ISPCC report quoted by the Ryan commission, which complains about the inadequacy of social provision for the poor, warns that the end result of the failure to provide adequate means of nutrition is “to produce a large crop of unemployable weeds, themselves to multiply and increase the dead weight around the neck of the taxpayer”. Again, it is an appalling way to describe human beings.

The Ryan commission suggests a memorial inscribed with Bertie Ahern’s apology. Might it be better to set up some kind of “House of Welcome” for former inmates, where all records that still exist could be centralised, so that people in search of personal information or hoping to trace family could have a kind of one-stop shop, rather than going from the Department of Education, to religious orders, to the ISPCC, to court records?

In time, this house could become a centre not just of documentation, but of research into the causes.

Unpalatable as it may be to our self-image, the religious orders were deeply embedded in the fabric and mores of the time. Certainly, the religious orders should be held to account, and where prosecutions are possible, they should follow. More should be paid in reparation by congregations. Let us take that as read. However, let us not confuse justice with vengeance, which will only perpetuate cycles of abuse. We need to look unflinchingly at Irish society, and in particular at our ideas about children.

We need to honour those who did shout stop, like Frank Duff, and see why they were ignored. We need to give credit to those who attempted to humanise conditions, and hear the voices of those for whom the industrial schools, God help us, were actually an improvement on home. Nothing will ever explain away physical and sexual abuse of helpless children but, somehow, we need to understand.

We need to shed our righteousness, our certainty that all of this can be laid at the feet of aberrant religious who have nothing to do with the rest of us. Right now, children are in danger, and some 20 have died while in the care of the State. Understanding our past might give us the moral courage to do something in the present to change that shameful reality.

bobrien@irishtimes.com

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