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.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

FERRYHOUSE: Every Boy Tried To Run Away

Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse: Every child in industrial schools "tried to run away, or ran away at some stage", a former school manager told the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse yesterday. Father Joe O'Reilly, provincial of the Rosminian congregation and a former manager at St Joseph's industrial school at Ferryhouse, near Clonmel, told the commission's investigation committee that "absconding had always been an issue in every industrial school, in every school to some degree... In my experience every child tried to run away, or ran away at some stage." Boys did so to escape abuse, or because of excessive punishment, being misunderstood, being lonely and homesick, bullying, resentment at being in the school, as a lark, or as a challenge to the system, he said.

Absconding had a "very unsettling effect" and there were times when staff were "truly in danger of losing control of the place". At one time they considered closing down the school for a time, such was the problem. Boys who ran away were "almost universally caught", or returned themselves. Punishment mainly involved "the strap". Boys had their heads shaved for a time, but this was stopped by the school manager. Bed-wetting was an issue "then as now", involving between 20 to 30 per cent of boys. A section of dormitory was reserved for such boys, known as "the sailors' dorm". Other boys resented sleeping near that dormitory and ridiculed colleagues with the bed-wetting problem. He agreed bed-wetting had been treated by school authorities as a discipline problem, for which boys were punished.

He had heard such boys had been made carry wet mattresses on their heads, but believed this was as they brought mattresses to be dried. Drying sheets was "a big issue", with the limited facilities. Previously Father O'Reilly told the committee that on opening, St Joseph's had a licence to accommodate 150 boys. The vast majority stayed six years, before leaving at 16. However, from the 1930s numbers exceeded that, and were over 200 in the 1960s. At any time there were approximately 10 staff, about half of them priests and half of them brothers, with two prefects responsible for keeping discipline. These slept in a room off each of two dormitories. In addition there were four or five lay teachers in the school. Today at St Joseph's 36 boys are cared for by about 60 care workers with an additional 30 staff in auxiliary roles, he said.

The "vast majority" of boys in the school had committed no offence. In 1950, of 182 boys there, just four were sentenced for breaking the law. He felt admission to the school must have been " an absolutely terrifying experience" for "a frightened, trembling child", arriving in the school's dark corridor, usually accompanied by a Garda, to be then "despatched to the main yard where they encountered a huge number of children". About half of the boys came from Dublin, with the rest mainly from Limerick, Cork, Waterford, and Tralee.

Most staff, many with little education and none with training in child care, were from rural backgrounds. "Food was a constant issue," he said, with its quantity and quality remaining a problem until the late 60s. "Most children were hungry in any school in the country at the time." He said the capitation system, whereby schools were paid grants per boy, forced managers to have greater rather than a lesser numbers, and when these dropped it was raised with the Department of Education and with politicians, he said.

Patsy McGarry Irish Times

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