Saluting the legacy of a brave doctor

The extraordinary story of Dr Paddy Randles, who died last week, reminds us of the importance of whistleblowers

Dr Paddy Randles: He did the right thing at great cost to himself

Brendan O'Connor

When Dr Paddy Randles's nephew rang me last week to tell me his uncle had died, it took me a second, and then it all came back to me, the extraordinary story of Dr Paddy Randles.

Despite being psychologically abused as a child at the hands of Christian Brothers, leaving him somewhat lacking in confidence, Paddy Randles would grow up to become a doctor. Those who knew him would also describe a man who was a bit of a rebel, a man who questioned things, who didn't just accept the status quo, a man who spent much of his life engaged in a quiet revolution.

Working in England as a young doctor, Paddy Randles noticed something unusual about the children of the middle classes and the upper classes there. At least, it was unusual to him. These children were different to the kind of children Paddy Randles was used to in Ireland.

"Initially," he told me, when I met him in 1999, "I thought they were precocious. But then I realised that it was simply that they were confident." This insight stuck with Dr Randles, who had a huge interest in child psychology, and who believed too that the Irish psyche was often characterised by low self-esteem.

When he came back to Ireland, as a young dispensary doctor in Navan, Paddy Randles found he eventually gave up praising the young children who would come to see him. He would say to a child's mother: "Is he a good boy?" and they would say: "No doctor, he's a bad boy."

Gradually - this was 1969 -Paddy Randles became aware of something else going on in Navan. He noticed that numerous parents were coming to him, complaining about their children being beaten by the brothers at the De La Salle school at Abbey Road.

One mother only complained to Dr Randles because her son had broken his arm and he was being hit on the broken arm several times a day with a length of rubber hosepipe. Dr Randles decided to tackle the school about this himself. When he complained to the headmaster, Br Damien, about the hosepipe, the good brother said: "Would you like to see what I use?" and he pulled out a strap and threw it on the table.

Paddy Randles's next move was to get some of the people who had complained to him to write their stories down, and he sent them off to a number of newspapers. Naturally, none of the Irish newspapers went near the story.

When I met him 30 years after the event, Paddy Randles wasn't sure if he was the one who contacted the News of the World. But how ever it happened, the British paper came over to Navan to do the story.

Navan would feature in the first of a three-part series about 'Children Under The Lash'. The story, which appeared on May 4, 1969, detailed how boys as young as eight in the De La Salle school were beaten with specially made straps and canes bought in a local shop, how one teacher had metal specially built into his strap. The boys, the paper wrote, could be beaten for transgressions as minor as missing a word in Irish. Some boys had refused to go to school and even run away from home so as not to have to face the wrath of the brothers.

The reporter apparently attempted to speak to one of the De La Salle brothers who was refereeing a football match. Having said he would speak to the reporter after the match, the brother got on his bike and cycled off. There were also attempts to put pressure on the parents involved to withdraw the story.

Paddy Randles believed that what went on in the school was sadism, pure and simple, and he believed it is what you get when you pick men at the age of 12 or 13 to become celibate teachers.

Navan was, of course, scandalised. Not by the brutality towards the children so much as by Paddy Randles and the others blowing the whistle on it.

When the papers appeared in Navan that morning, a few people picked up a copy on the way to eight-o-clock Mass, but by the time people came out of Mass, all copies of the News of the World had disappeared. For the next two weeks, as the 'Children Under The Lash' series continued, all copies of the News of the World that came to Navan were apparently dumped in the River Boyne.

On the following Saturday, May 10, a piece appeared in the Meath Chronicle under the headline 'De La Salle Brothers' Work Appreciated'. It detailed how a meeting of the Navan De La Salle Past Pupils' Union unanimously resolved on the previous Tuesday night that they fully appreciated the work of the De La Salle brothers and that they pledged their continued loyalty and confidence.

Paddy Randles didn't get the same local support at the time. When I met him and his wife Mary, who was involved in the whole affair, they told me how they were ostracised in the town, how they lost patients, received letters warning them to leave Navan and how they were called out from the pulpit at Mass.

Mary Randles, herself somewhat of a rebel who opened the first family-planning clinic outside Dublin in 1975, told me back in 1999 how the stain on them had lasted for years. A lodger who stayed with the Randles in the mid-1980s never understood why she would get odd looks and comments in Navan.

But the Randles stayed in Navan. They had good friends who supported them and they had a happy life there. When Paddy Randles's nephew rang to tell me about him dying, he spoke with fierce pride about his uncle and what he had done.

But there is no doubt that the Randles suffered hugely for Paddy's moral compass - for him blowing the whistle on something that many others were prepared to let lie. That's just they way things were back then, wasn't it? Why cause trouble? Leave it alone! The Randles always believed that Paddy's real crime in the eyes of some of his neighbours was to dare to stand up to the Church, not an easy or a popular thing to do in Ireland in 1969.

And oh, if only there had been more men like Paddy Randles and more women like Mary. Oh, if only every town in the country had a doctor like that, with no fear of the Church and no fear of causing disgrace. Because there was a much bigger disgrace going on all over the country. And the things the Church did to vulnerable women and children is still a disgrace and still shames us at regular intervals.

Paddy Randles can rest in peace. It would be wrong to say he took satisfaction from being proven so right in subsequent years, but at the time I met him, he was taking great heart from the reaction to the States of Fear documentary. He was a man who did the right thing at great cost to himself and his family. But then again, at least he died with the satisfaction of knowing he was his own man and he was true to himself, and he was right.

And if the rest of us can take anything from the story, it's that we should regard whistleblowers as distinguished and not a disgrace. And we should always have the balls to go against the herd when we know something is wrong.