Saturday 18 November 2017

The lost boy in our family has haunted me for years

Easy to blame the Church for this old tragedy. But that would be juvenile, populist and wrong

Needing to be resilient: Immigrant children like Richard Tanner entering Ellis Island in the early decades of the last century. Richard did well and made a success of his life, unlike his brother Thomas, the 'lost boy' in Miriam’s family
Needing to be resilient: Immigrant children like Richard Tanner entering Ellis Island in the early decades of the last century. Richard did well and made a success of his life, unlike his brother Thomas, the 'lost boy' in Miriam’s family

Miriam O'Callaghan

It's August 5, a Saturday in late summer. In America, Rudolf Valentino is premiering the movie Blood and Sand. In Dublin, Arthur Griffith has seven days to live, Michael Collins has 17. In Cork, a 28-year-old woman ties up her hair, props her newly walking son on her hip to answer a knock on the door. A stranger has arrived with family news. Her brother Thomas is dead. He is as old as the century: 22.

She thanks the messenger. Closes the door. Tells her child this is not news at all. That his uncle has been dead for years. That the white-haired creature, who she nursed up to the time he was shifted to St Patrick's Hospital, had no peace or place in the world.

Every vestige of who Thomas could have been had been removed at Greenmount Industrial School in Cork and replaced by a trade. He was utterly institutionalised. Now, blessed by tuberculosis, untormented by breath, the dead young bootmaker could rest.

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