An Phoblacht 2 - 2022 small

29 April 1999 Edition

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Television: Obscene legacy of church and state

States Of Fear (RTE1)

I had the misfortune, like many others, to spend a year, at the age of 12, in one of Ireland's brutal boarding schools. Sweets, chocolate, music and magazines were banned, contact with the girls was strictly forbidden and those caught uttering a sound after lights out at eight o'clock were severely beaten.

One classmate was unfortunate enough to be ``sent to the office'' on a number of occasions, where he was stripped and soundly thrashed over the knees of the school ``head'' with a leather belt. His buttocks were severely marked and he subsequently developed a repeated tendency to defecate in his bed at night.

Devoid of any recourse to help, he attempted to hide his underpants in the dormitory, leading to further ridicule by his fellow students and subsequent nervous problems.

Fortunately for those of us under 35, we only suffered the tail end of a brutal anti-children institutionalised education system, exposed in its worst excesses by RTE's harrowing and deeply disturbing States Of Fear, shown on Tuesday last.

Established in 1868, Ireland's 52 industrial schools, run by the clergy and funded by the state, presided over a century of ``sadism and starvation'' against many thousands of children, most of whom were taken from able parents who were still deemed ``unfit' by our courts, including Mary Norris, who on the word of her parish priest, was taken from her parents with her six brothers and sisters, including an infant child, and condemned to a childhood of ``cruelty beyond belief''.

The religious orders `touted' for children, as they received a state grant for each child ``similar to half of the annual wage of a farm labourer''. Despite this, children were subjected to severe malnutrition - ``we were so hungry we ate grass, we used to steal pig swill from the buckets'' - accounts were rarely submitted to the state, and the church made vast profits.

On entry, which could result from ``mitching'' school or stealing an apple, children were labelled with a number and immediately set to work ``cleaning and maintaining the schools, labouring on farms and working in launderettes.

Cruelty was the norm. Many ex-residents recalled tales of absolute horror, including one suspected murder. One woman told how girls were forced to sleep in stys with pigs, and how she and others were forced to whip them afterwards as they walked, half-naked on all fours.

One man told how four boys were beaten so badly for two weeks they became gibbering simpletons.

The state provided finance at will to the church, and inspections were but a charade. ``We were warned to smile for the visitors.'' Despite a number of damning reports labelling some homes as ``Dickensian - animals treated better than children'', no action was ever taken as politicians queued to kiss the bishops' rings.

The media, including RTE, fêted these ``heroic brothers and nuns'' and most disturbing of all, the communities in which these institutions were based took no action.

The most disturbing example of the widespread sexual abuse, which one contributor said made Ireland ``the child molesting capital of the world'', were the activities of Brother Joseph O'Connor, celebrated on TV as the man behind the famous Artane Boys Band but in reality, ``a man wicked beyond words''.

Barney O'Connell, unfortunate enough to draw his wrath in Artane Industrial School, the world's largest such institution, was told to strip naked in front of his classmates and was the ``put over his lap, and as he tightly squeezed my scrotum, beat my bare rectum to a pulp, and foaming at the mouth, came to orgasm in front of the class''.

Church apologies for their ``evil deeds'' have been inadequate, but the state has been deafening in its silence. Many ex-residents have been advised to ``forget the past'' of an ``institutionalised society'' which condemned hugh numbers to psychiatric homes, lone ``Mother and Baby'' homes and Magdalen Launderettes and a population cowed by an oppressive church-state coalition.

All survivors are united in their conviction of the guilt of ``church, state and society'' and warn of the need to heed the lessons of the past.

Future episodes of this series would do well to highlight the continued plight of our children, subjected to homelessness, drugs, and appalling lack of state provided sports and leisure facilities, the worst primary school funded system in Europe and a continued belief among the majority of us in corporal punishment in preference to showing children respect.

Surely the beginning of the redressing of our past deeds would be to outlaw the physical punishment of our children. Or will that have to wait another 20 years?

By Sean O Donaíle

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1