The Taliban of the Tabernacle
Everyone should read Bruce Arnold's new book on the shameful collusion that left innocent children languishing in Gulag-style industrial schools, writes John Spain
Bruce Arnold's The Irish Gulag is an important book, probably the most important to be published in Ireland in the past 10 years. It should be bought in bulk by the State and distributed free in every third-level college and library in the country. It should be sent to every member of every religious order and to all civil servants. Every judge, lawyer, garda, teacher, social worker, doctor, nurse, cleric and politician in the country should get a copy. And when the State has done all that, it should send the bill to Cori.
This suggestion may seem excessive. But it's reasonable, given the size of the problem we face. Somehow we have to find an explanation for how Irish society could have permitted tens of thousands of children to be grossly abused in institutions across the country over many decades. And this book is the only comprehensive explanation that exists.
It is the definitive account, not only of what went on in the institutions but of how and why. It explains the origins of the institutions, the involvement of the religious, the appalling abuse that became commonplace, the complicity of the State in what went on over so many decades.
It also details the suffering of the tens of thousands of innocent children who became the victims of the system and whose lives were destroyed. It does so in a dispassionate, factual way and is all the more powerful for that reason. And it does so comprehensively, giving us the full picture of what was going on in various institutions all over Ireland.
But this book does not stop there. It then goes on to show that the way the State has dealt with the scandal over the past 10 years has been aimed more at protecting itself and protecting the religious orders than it has been at providing genuine reconciliation and redress for the victims.
Arnold shows how the legal framework for the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was designed to prevent examination of the system that put the children into the institutions in the first place.
And he shows how the Redress Board was imposed on victims primarily to lessen the cost of claims and to make the process statutorily secretive.
It was Bruce Arnold who first exposed the outrageous indemnity deal done with the religious orders to limit their contribution to €128m when the real cost to the taxpayer is now going to be far in excess of €1bn. This is explored fully in the book, which also has many other insights into the horror of what went on in the institutions.
Following the evidence in the Ryan Commission Report (and before that in the States of Fear TV programmes and other media exposes) we are now all familiar with the appalling sexual and physical abuse. But what we are not so aware of is the utter everyday misery of the lives of the children who were the prisoners of the system, the lack of food, clothing, warmth, medical care and the total lack of the affection that is essential for a child to develop self-esteem.
The account in the book of the conditions at Letterfrack or in the Baltimore Fisheries School, for example, are truly shocking, (see panel above). Yet as Arnold points out, the religious orders were getting a capitation payment for each child which was enough not only to to feed and clothe them and heat their accommodation but to pay for lay teachers and recreation facilities as well. As he says, the amount paid for each child was equivalent to the average earnings of a farm labourer at the time.
Instead the money was siphoned off by the religious orders and the children were kept in conditions that were beyond Dickensian. They froze in winter, were covered in lice and had little or no amusement apart from prison like yards and gardens. Where did the money go? We still don't know because the orders always refused to make their accounts available.
As Arnold says, the institutions were actually juvenile slave labour camps operated in Gulag style in the service of the religious orders, instead of industrial 'schools'. At Letterfrack the boys knelt and used their spread-out fingers as hoes on the 400-acre farm. In addition to the utter deprivation, of course, there was the sexual abuse and the floggings, the injuries and the deaths (Artane even had its own cemetery and no one knows how many battered children who subsequently died were buried there).
The other aspect of Arnold's book that is vitally important is one that has not been covered by the Ryan Report or States of Fear or other investigations, all of which have concentrated on the sexual abuse and the savage beatings. That aspect is the system that provided the institutions across the country with so many children -- around 150,000 over the years by Arnold's reckoning.
If anything this aspect is the most shocking part of the book, the revelations about the system and the society that put tens of thousands of children into the institutions. This was the other side of de Valera's Holy Catholic Ireland from the 1930s up to the 1970s and beyond, where senior politicians sank to their knees to kiss the rings of the bishops and the priest-ridden Irish society was all about being pure and pious.
So children from single mothers or broken homes or homes where there was an alcohol or poverty or 'morality' problem were scooped up and sent away to join the few genuine orphans in these terrible institutions, supposedly for their own good. The Gardai, the courts, the local busybodies, they were all part of it, often led by the local priest and Catholic do-gooders.
Arnold explains the 1908 Children's Act which allowed ANY adult to bring a child under the age of 14 before a court for a long list of reasons (begging, missing school, parents regularly drunk etc) whereupon the judge could send the child to an institution. Former inmates who were small children when they were dragged (often literally) before the courts remember a member of the Vincent de Paul or the Legion of Mary, or a guard or priest or NSPCC (later ISPCC) official giving evidence on why they should be locked away.
It seems unbelievable now. But Ireland at the time was a Catholic version of Iran under the Ayatollahs. The Taliban of the Tabernacle ruled. You bent the knee or you were ostracised. And if you were a child in a poor family -- and almost all of those who ended up in the institutions were poor -- with a father who ran off to England or a mother who drank, or found it hard to cope with her eight children, or maybe just had an affair, or didn't go to Mass every Sunday, you were fair game.
In our tidy Holy Catholic Ireland of the time, messy embarrassment (especially if there was sex involved) was to be avoided at all costs. So the local Catholic worthies took it upon themselves to 'save' the children of problem parents, with the help of the State, by putting them away.
For all those who have been shaking their heads in disbelief after the Ryan Report and asking how such horror could have existed in Holy Catholic Ireland for so long, then this is the answer. It is all here in this book, the most complete explanation of the system that has shamed us before the world and the society that allowed it all to happen.
Bruce Arnold has been working on this book for the past 10 years and it shows. It should be required reading for all citizens.
The Irish Gulag -- How the State Betrayed its Innocent Children was published yesterday (June 5) by Gill & Macmillan at €16.99