For a brief moment this week, the attention of the Western world's media focused on a story that is usually ignored. The strange voyage of the dilapidated Nigerian ship mv Etireno up and down the coast of west Africa with what was thought to be cargo of desperate children, forced us to notice that child slavery is a continuing reality. UN estimates suggest that about 200,000 children work as slaves in the region, many on the plantations that furnish the chocolate for the Easter eggs we gave our children while the Etireno was being sought.
For most Irish people, news of the persistence of such barbarity in the modern world will have come as a shock. Our hearts were touched by the description of the plight of these children by Esther Guluma, the Benin representative of Unicef: "They work hard all day, you don't have to pay them very much and they don't complain. They are subjected to hard physical labour, they are uprooted from their families, they don't have any access to education. It has a real impact on their physical and mental development. Those trafficked as domestic servants, a lot of them are sexually exploited." Uprooted from their families, worked like dogs, deprived of a decent education, sexually exploited - this is the fate of child slaves. The only consolation to be derived from thinking about their lives is that all of this goes on far away in a savage but distant place. It belongs to the heart of darkness out there beyond the reach of civilised norms. Just as the Etireno was docking in Benin and the world's attention was wandering off the subject of child slavery, the remains of Willie Delaney were being disinterred at St Kieran's Cemetery in Kilkenny. The grim operation was part of a long-running Garda investigation into allegations of sexual and physical abuse of children at St Joseph's industrial school in Letterfrack, Co Galway. The hope is that a post-mortem on Willie Delaney will show whether he died of natural causes or as a result of a beating at Letterfrack.
Though it is not politic to use the phrase, Willie Delaney was a child slave. The conditions of child slaves in west Africa as described this week by UNICEF - hard labour, deprivation of family life, lack of education, sexual exploitation - are precisely those that prevailed at Letterfrack and throughout the industrial school system. For all the shocks applied to the national conscience by Mary Raftery's States of Fear series on RTE, that reality has still not been fully recognised.
When Willie Delaney was sent to Letterfrack as a 10-year-old in 1967, St Joseph's was essentially a labour camp for children. Until it closed in 1974, it advertised the extraordinary list of services quoted by Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan in their book Suffer Little Children from the institution's letterhead: "Orders Received in Tailoring, Bootmaking, Carpentry, Bakery, Cartmaking, Smithwork. Also Wire Mattress, Hosiery, Hearth Rugs, Motors Repaired, Petrol & Oils Supplied." Though it was meant to be a school, the education of boys like Willie Delaney took second place to unpaid labour in the workshops that provided these services and on the large farm attached to the institution. While he was there, an internal Department of Education memo acknowledged the utter inadequacy of schooling, due in part to "pupils, particularly senior pupils, having to undertake tiring physical work in the afternoons due to (the) shortage of paid labour in the institution". The Christian Brothers, who ran St Joseph's, saw the children in their care as vital economic assets. The financial health of Letterfrack depended on securing as many as possible of what the Brothers' internal visitors' report for 1953 calls "these children who mean so much financially to the institution". The report for 1952 notes that the brother in charge of the farm "is ever on the outlook for boys in all the centres he travels to in securing stock and supplies. To his credit goes the goodly numbers that are generally maintained in the school."
The more inmates sent by the courts, the more profitable was the Letterfrack operation. Declining numbers in the late 1950s seem to have led to operating deficits, but these would appear to have been reversed in the 1960s. By 1969, when Willie Delaney was there, Letterfrack had income of £19,131 and expenditure of £12,296, and by 1973, the school accounts show a profit of almost £12,000.
The child slaves who created these profits, like their counterparts in west Africa, were fair game for sexual abuse and physical violence. In the early 1970s, even the Christian Brothers' own internal reports were highlighting tension over "discipline". The 1972 report notes that the brother in charge of administering punishment was "over-rigid with the boys" and "scarcely a suitable person to hold his present position". Whether Willie Delaney's death had a bearing on these internal arguments is something that may only become clear when the extensive Garda investigation bears fruit.
IT IS tempting to think that all of this happened a very long time ago. Yet few regard the political events of the Arms Trial crisis in the same year as Willie Delaney's death as a mere historic footnote. Getting to grips with those events is seen as essential to any proper understanding of the way we are now. Acknowledging the reality of modern Irish slavery is, if anything, even more important.
Were he alive, Willie Delaney would now be just 44 years old. Thousands of Irish people now in early middle age should properly be regarded as survivors of child slavery, whose experiences at the hands of church and State are not fundamentally different from those that still prevail in west Africa. Even as we hand in our collection boxes for Trocaire's splendid Lenten campaign against slavery, we need to remember that the heart of darkness can be very close to home.
© The Irish Times