Industrial Schools were the product of a religious but unspiritual society

RITE AND REASON: The Ryan report has consigned the triumphalist Catholic Church in Ireland to the dustbin of history, writes BRENDAN Ó CATHAOIR

Tue, Jun 30, 2009

‘ROMANTIC IRELAND is truly dead and gone,” Mannix Flynn said with justifiable anger. In his review of Bruce Arnold’s new book, The Irish Gulag: How the State Betrayed its Innocent Children (The Irish Times, May 30th), Flynn added: “Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany will now have the company of the Irish Church State, a brutal regime that perpetrated acts of unimaginable horror on its most vulnerable children . . . It will take generations to heal and understand this trauma. The Irish people will suffer for a long time to come.”

It has taken us several generations to recover from the Great Famine (1845-1850). Unscholarly attempts were made to compare what was western Europe’s worst modern peacetime disaster to the Holocaust. Historical truth helps to set us free; unhistorical comparisons do not.

The depravity of our industrial school system has diminished us all. It may help to place this sordid chapter in historical perspective. There were 43 industrial schools and three reformatories in the Irish State; Nazi-occupied Europe had 20,000 concentration camps; the Soviet system destroyed millions of lives.

The Celtic Tiger interlude obscured our colonial experience. After the Famine in pre-industrial Ireland, people were subordinated to land. A line in Tom Murphy’s new play, The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, highlights religious hypocrisy: “Love is not where most it is professed.”

We achieved statehood in 1922 but failed to create a new society.

It was not the State envisaged by those who vowed to “cherish all the children of the nation equally”. It was a confessional State deprived of a balancing Protestant minority. James Connolly’s prediction of a carnival of reaction should Ireland be partitioned was fulfilled, with institutionalised discrimination in Northern Ireland and unbridled clerical power in the South.

Instead of building on the Treaty compromise settlement, as argued by Michael Collins, the fratricidal strife which culminated in the Civil War tore the heart out of the revolution.

Seán O’Casey cried in Juno and the Paycock (1924): “Sacred heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh. Take away this murdherin’ hate, an’ give us thine own eternal love.” Great hatred maimed us at the start.

The implosion of civic republicanism at the birth of the State left the institutional church with unrivalled authority – in charge of an educational system, a hospital system and a rudimentary welfare system. Although a relatively modernised society, Ireland was still grindingly poor.

It was made poorer by the disastrous Civil War, particularly the death of Collins. Prof Joe Lee has written: “His unrivalled combination of ability, energy, vision and magnanimity meant that his survival might, just conceivably, have made a difference to the performance of the new State.”

In the mid-1920s, for instance, destitution could still be found in Co Clare; the local board of health chairman compared conditions to 1847: “There might be plenty of food in the country, but people were starving . . . The busiest man in the place was the emigration agent.” Three “starving” children from Corofin were committed to industrial schools, their mother having been left a widow with six children.

The Ryan child abuse commission report (volume IV) describes the attitude of the Department of Education as “supine”.

Gen Richard Mulcahy, the first minister for education in the Irish Free State, saw his department as “the man with the oil-can”, who goes around attending to squeaks but makes no fundamental change to the machinery.

It is plain too, the report concludes, that officials did know about many of the abuses in the schools. Deference towards the religious congregations impeded change, however, and it took the 1971 Kennedy report “to begin the process of dismantling the industrial and reformatory school system”.

When religion begins to bully, it is unspiritual. Our industrial schools were the product of a religious but unspiritual society. While the industrial schools made a mockery of Christ’s concern for the marginalised and outcast, the State and society colluded.

The Irish Catholic Church must shed the last vestiges of hubris, if it is to serve with humility and compassion.


Dr Brendan Ó Cathaoir is a historian and journalist

© 2009 The Irish Times

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