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Monday 19 August 2019

Jemmy was 'Schindler' hero for boys fleeing institutions

One resourceful Dublin man helped young boys escape from our abusive industrial school system, writes Alan O'Keeffe

TOUGH STATION: Corporation Buildings on Corporation Street (now James Joyce Street) in Dublin
TOUGH STATION: Corporation Buildings on Corporation Street (now James Joyce Street) in Dublin
HERO: Jemmy Gunnery
Children in Corporation Buildings in the early 1970s

Alan O'Keeffe

It was sports day at the industrial school - the day of the planned escape. In the afternoon sunshine, a boy running in a race with his fellow inmates had no idea he was about to be rescued.

The boy was Christy Fagan. He was a primary school pupil in the 1960s when a judge sentenced him to seven years in an industrial school.

This resulted in the young Dublin boy suffering four years of severe and often depraved abuse at the hands of some members of religious orders.

He escaped several times, from three industrial schools, but he never made it home. Each time, he was captured and brought back to suffer further abuse.

The man who would rescue him on that sunny sports day was Jemmy Gunnery.

His rescuer knew first-hand the horrors of abusive industrial school regimes having suffered in them in the 1930s.

Jemmy Gunnery was on a mission.

The father-of-nine, a Dublin docker, arrived on the grounds of Saint Joseph's Industrial School in Clonmel that afternoon with a plan.

He was accompanied by Christy's widowed mother, Margaret, and his older teenage brother, Terry.

Jemmy's getaway car was parked on the main road outside the reformatory.

"Christy didn't know we were coming. He hadn't seen anyone in the family for four years. I recognised him running with other boys," said Terry.

"Then Christy saw me in the crowd and I said to him 'You're going home, son. Keep running'. He saw our mother and Jemmy Gunnery and his face lit up," said Terry, now aged 68.

"I told him to keep on running and run through a gap in the trees. He took off like he was in the Olympics," he said.

Christy was soon reunited with his mother in the back seat of Jemmy Gunnery's car as the four of them made their escape down the main road.

Jemmy told them gardai would probably be checking cars on the roads back to Dublin so they went as far as the Rock of Cashel and stayed there among the ruins until nightfall.

Late at night, they got back to Dublin. Jemmy had a number of 'safe houses' where mothers were happy to hide and feed young escapees from the notorious reformatory system. He also had links with families in Britain who were willing to help provide care and shelter.

He wanted Christy to go to England to stay with a family, but Christy refused to leave his mother in the Corporation Buildings complex on the then named Corporation Street.

In the end, Jemmy told him the only way to avoid being arrested as 'a runner' would be to pretend to be a girl. He must only be seen in public when dressed up as a girl.

Young Christy had a head of curly hair. He agreed to the plan and wore a dress, cardigan and sandals in public and even carried a doll as part of his disguise. His family and his pals all co-operated in Jemmy's plan.

"Christy remained free for a couple of years," said Terry

"But one day a garda thought it was very unusual to see a girl playing handball with a gang of boys in Corporation Buildings.

"He was arrested and he spent a year in Saint Patrick's Institution."

Jemmy Gunnery died in the 1998, aged 80, and is buried in Fingal Cemetery.

In September, a plaque in honour of Jemmy Gunnery's compassion in helping boys escape from abusive industrial schools will be unveiled at a ceremony involving family and friends.

"For many people, we like to say Jemmy Gunnery was the 'Oskar Schindler of the North Inner City'," said Terry, referring to the businessman who saved many Jewish children from the Nazis.

Jemmy Gunnery was known to have helped a number of boys escape from industrial schools, but he refused to talk about it.

When he was a boy in 1930s' Dublin, he stole from a bread van and was sentenced to four years in an industrial school. He did not want to talk about what happened to him during those years, but he was filled with compassion for the plight of young boys incarcerated in such institutions.

When he was released by the authorities, his mother met him and handed the teenager money to travel alone to England to get away from Ireland.

He ended up living on the streets in Liverpool where a cafe worker named Siddy felt sorry for him and gave him free breakfasts.

They ended up getting married before eventually moving to Dublin with a young family. They lived in Corporation Buildings where they were friends with the Fagan family.

Jemmy worked on the docks with Michael Fagan, who died in 1964, leaving his widow with nine children.

When young schoolboy Christy Fagan was arrested for climbing over a wall to enter a local rosary beads factory as an intruder, he received the seven-year sentence at an industrial school.

He escaped from Artane Industrial School and was captured at home.

Christy was then transferred to Letterfrack Industrial School in County Mayo where he was the victim of severe abuse for years.

He escaped so many times he was transferred to St Joseph's industrial school in Clonmel where he again suffered severe abuse.

Christy (61) told the Sunday Independent: "If it hadn't been for Jemmy, I don't know what else would have happened to me in that hell-hole in Clonmel.

"I'm so grateful to him for rescuing me. It was a nightmare.

"The church in the place was supposed to be a sanctuary but it was a torture chamber where I was attacked. Every day there could be something different. It was hell," he said.

Another inmate of the institution was Michael O'Brien who later became Mayor of Clonmel.

O'Brien memorably spoke of his own experiences on television of how he was raped and beaten regularly by a member of the Rosminian religious order.

Christy Fagan said: "Jemmy Gunnery saved me from those bastards. He told me I would never have to go back there again.

"I was willing to dress up like a girl to keep out of that place.

"I know he helped a lot of other boys too," he said.

Jemmy's daughter Margie (75) said the Gunnery family were "very proud" of what her father did to help people who needed help.

Terry Fagan, who is a local historian and tour guide and a central figure in the North Inner City Folklore Project, said it was almost nine years since an RTE radio documentary featured Jemmy's role in Christy's escape.

Jemmy's wife Siddy and other local mothers also helped feed and hide young escapees, he said.

In speaking of the abuse in industrial schools, Terry said: "We know not all religious brothers were bad and we cannot tar them all with the one brush.

"There's good and bad in all walks of life."

Terry visited Jemmy at his home in Coolock in Dublin shortly before he died. He said the elderly man still declined to speak of his role in helping boys escape from brutal industrial schools.

Terry said: "He took his secrets to his grave."

Sunday Independent

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