Ireland's Child Care Institutions during the 20th. Century. Fo'T: The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

Wednesday, June 16, 1999

Abdication of power in a State of brutality

Sunday Independent May 16th 1999

We celebrated the `boyo', banned abortion and we buggered the orphans, writes Colum Kenny

STATES of Fear, RTÉ's long-overdue investigation into industrial and `special' schools, has confirmed our darkest suspicions about the sheer nastiness of parts of our educational system. For too long, especially if you were weak and poor, you could expect to be walked all over.

Vicious beatings by teachers as well as their crude bullying and savage sarcasm became common in many Irish schools of all kinds.

The authorities instilled dread rather than respect in the hearts of children. Not surprisingly, we learn now, the most deprived members of society suffered the worst.

And while RTÉ deserves credit for making the programmes, it's not so long since RTÉ itself decided against screening an award-winning drama series about child abuse by the Irish Christian Brothers. This was The Boys of St Vincent, shown late at night on Channel 4 but rejected by RTÉ just five years ago.

The reason which RTÉ gave at the time for not acquiring The Boys of St Vincent was that anyone who wished to see the programme could have caught it on the British channel.

This was neither true nor convincing.

The Boys of St Vincent series took the lid off systematic abuse at a children's institution in Newfoundland and had a great relevance for Irish audiences.

When I first saw it at the Banff Television Festival in Alberta, I was riveted. Indeed, a clip was included in the final part of States of Fear last Tuesday night.

It is probable that the St Vincent series embarrassed RTÉ. At best, perhaps, RTÉ did not wish to be seen having a go at the popular `Brothers', to be drawing attention to an Irish failure abroad.

At worst, RTÉ was simply afraid of the influence of the Catholic Church in general and of the `Brothers' in particular. But lately the established Church has lost much of its power and it's safe now to criticise it.

`Power', in fact, is the key word in all of this. The children in Irish institutions simply had no power and, therefore, they had no rights and few people wanted them to have rights.

For years a small number of campaigners has called for various reforms in our child laws and children's services and, right up to the present, they have been regularly ignored or fobbed off.

We banned abortion and we buggered orphans.

When we got our political independence, we might have created caring and responsive institutions. After centuries of experiencing the butt of imperialism, would not the Irish Free State be different when it came to wielding power?

Unfortunately, for decades, a sort of political brutality took hold.

Cultural or aesthetic sensitivity was scorned, artists persecuted, authors banned and fine buildings ravaged. We celebrated the `boyo', while in education, the revival of Irish was attempted in a fascist and futile fashion through terror and compulsion.

When making political decisions, democracy waited outside the door and the most crude form of jobbery and gombeenism took hold.

IT was to be decades before we began to emerge from the stupor of such grossness. Recent events suggest that we are not there yet.

No State is ever completely `there' but it's the trying at least that matters. We are still muddling our way out from under the consequences of our abdication of responsibility as an independent people who surrendered politics to the fixers and gave our children to the Catholic church.

Perhaps it was ignorance made us the way we were. Those who took over the running of this State had no tradition of self-government behind them. There was an element of bluff and bluster behind their posturing and of assertion in their high-handedness.

Things might have improved sooner had an open debate about the nature of our State taken place.

But uniformity was demanded and hysterical censorship ensured that ideas were suppressed. This suited both Church and State, as did the Church's provision of clerical labour and buildings in return for the control of our children.

We patted ourselves on the back and announced that we had the best educational system in the world.

But education was reduced to learning by rote Reading, Writing and Arithmetic or the Latin and Greek classics. The State did not welcome criticism and the Church, which ran the schools and colleges, did not welcome free thought. Science and the arts were neglected.

Instead of being a wonderful humanising influence, drawing on centuries of great learning and wisdom, the Catholic Church in Ireland became a terrible, narrow presence in the lives of many Irish children, especially boys.

Vicious beatings were widespread. While the State embarked on its doomed attempts to enforce the learning of Irish by means of fear fear of failure, fear of not getting a job, fear of not belonging to the language mafia priests and other clerics beat their way through classes in every subject on the curriculum.

Not even the colloquial expression, `He beat the bejaysus out of him,' gave them a moment's pause for thought as to the long-term spiritual damage they were doing in addition to any psychological and physical harm. Spirituality was reduced to the confession by children of insignificant sexual acts, while gross sexual abuse went unchecked.

In my own school, Belvedere College ostensibly a centre of excellence for the middle-classes we had a headmaster in the secondary school whose bullying marked for life many of those who passed through his hands.

By the wielding of his leather and the savagery of his sneering comments, the headmaster (now deceased) certainly did not inculcate a love of learning.

And when he had certain boys drop their trousers to better feel his leather (a fate I escaped, I'm glad to say), there was nobody there to see that he was not acting irrationally or out of sexual frustration or simply in a bad temper. And that was one of the best schools in Ireland.

God help the poor orphans.

Of course there were oases of kindness in education and beyond it, but our institutions were generally run on the basis of authority rather than accountability.

Necessary changes are still being dragged out of a secretive State which `loses' or suppresses official reports on children's institutions.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church employs expensive public relations consultants but shows no taste for talking about the significance of what actually happened.

In the light of the publicity surrounding RTÉ's three recent programmes, the Government has responded with a limited apology and a toothless enquiry.

Perhaps the authorities are still too busy to take complaints about children that seriously.

* Dr Colum Kenny lectures in Communications at DCU.