MANNIX FLYNN: TO HELL IN CONNAUGHT
Sunday Independent, December 22nd 2002
by Brighid McLaughlin
Mannix Flynn: It’s a holocaust we’re dealing with. In every bit of land around Letterfrack there is a child buried.
By the time he was eight, Mannix Flynn was in court for stealing a box of chocolates. Ultimately he ended up in Letterfrack Industrial school where he was raped, beaten and abused. The talented actor and writer tells Brighid McLaughlin a tale of Holocaust-style brutality and death in relatively modern Ireland.
JUST AS I put up the Christmas tree, the parcel arrives. There are no red ribbons, no Marks and Spencer’s happy holly wrapping paper or robin stamps on this box. I leave it lying under the tree for the day. It sits there like a tiny coffin.
As night falls, I bring it to bed. Armed with energy-boosters, Tayto crisps and a tired cheese sandwich, I read it carefully because this file belongs to a man called Gerard Mannix Flynn, recently lauded for his astounding performance in his one-man play James X. Drama critic Seamus Hosey described the play as the finest performance he had seen in 30 years.
By two in the morning, I’ve only managed to get halfway through the pile of psychiatrists reports; reports from the juvenile courts; letters from the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy; letters from St Vincent’s Industrial school, Goldenbridge, Inchicore; messages from probation officers, child guidance clinics in Rathgar and medical social workers attached to the National Children’s Hospital, Harcourt Street; registers of legal proceedings at the children’s courts; psychiatrists’ reports about Letterfrack, Daingean Industrial School, and the Central Mental Hospital where Mannix was incarcerated as a teenager.
It is indescribably painful stuff. It is his life story, courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act. As the grave, life-threatening letters and reports unfold, it is clear that a cheery Christmas tree was never a fitting abode for this parcel. Its contents are the stuff of Holocaust-style brutality and death in relatively modern Ireland.
The heavy box of State property, posted from Killorglin in Kerry where Mannix now lives, contains once-secret files about his life as a child. In his poignant biographical book Nothing To Say, Mannix described growing up in the tenement flats of York Street in Dublin one of 14 children sleeping in two rooms and his life of petty crime. This was a boy who lived in different times, a boy who had no Fisher Price toys, no Harry Potter spells to cast, no PlayStations, no Benetton clothes. These once-confidential official letters deal with the abuse of a young boy aged six who stole a box of chocolates when the dimples on his fingers were just about to disappear.
It is about a child who was orally raped by a Christian brother on his first day in Letterfrack Industrial School in Connemara when he was 11 years old. The freedom Mannix and thousands like him were denied I can now rumble through with ease. Changed times, indeed.
I have absolutely no qualms about upsetting the Christmas spirit this Sunday. The things we’ve heard before abuse, violation of human rights need to be said again and again and again. Whether I start at the beginning, middle or end of his story, it makes no difference. We are now entering a Dickensian world, so fasten your seat belt. It’s going to be a rough ride.
Hospitaller Order of St John of God, Child Guidance Clinic, 59 Orwell Road, Rathgar, Dublin. October 10, 1967.
“James X was referred by Miss XXXX, probation officer. James is one of 14 children, he is a strongly built lad for 10 and looks the typical street waif, being dressed poorly and having lots of mud spattered over his arms and legs, he felt that coming here might save him from the industrial school. He complained bitterly about the masters in the various schools and accused them of having huge poles to beat boys like himself. He gave dramatic accounts of many of these episodes and suggested that some of the teachers would be better off in St John of God hospital.”
Probation officers report, Metropolitan Children’s Court, 8 Connolly House, Dublin. May 9, 1968.
“I spoke to James’s teacher at his national school. The headmaster said that though their numbers are low in the school, he would like to lose James, that he cannot make anything of him. I think that with such a poor background that James would be better away in an industrial school until he is 14 years of age.”
To: the Clerk of the Juvenile Courts, Re: James X 13 years, 6 months.
“Dear Sir, I examined this boy at his home following his appearance in court on a robbery charge. He was sent to Letterfrack industrial school at 11 years of age and has been home during the last 12 months. His mother, Mrs Flynn stated that he takes a bath during the night and remains in the bath for hours and that he is always terrified. Since his return from Letterfrack he had two operations for abdominal obstruction which Mrs Flynn claims was caused by being kicked at Letterfrack. I found him to be a well-nourished boy with a dull manner, his mental age was 7 years 8 months and his IQ was 68 which places his intelligence at fairly severely mentally handicapped levels, he could not read or give change and he could only print his name.”
I cannot believe what I’m reading. Is this really the file of the talented actor and writer I’ve known for 15 years. Who were these people who left Mannix lie in a dust heap? Even more disturbing is a letter from Dundrum Mental Hospital in 1967. It describes Mannix as insane. Yes, in his wild, drinking days, Mannix was clearly very difficult. He did crazy things. A bit of a spiv, he was hard-bitten by a cruel life. Sometimes brazen, he could be a brat. At times, I felt that the only flies on Mannix were dead ones. He was also sensitive, seductive, charming and the power of his beguiling rhetoric never ceased to move those around him. This man was and is a great actor. Given his brutal past, it’s a wonder the man has produced so much writing. Insane? Never.
Two months from certification of insanity,the same doctor declared him sane. How much can the human spirit take? Judging by Mannix, a lot.
The day after the Christmas-tree parcel arrived, Mannix is sitting in front of me, the gap-toothed grin is as boyish as ever, the expletive wit in full throttle. The handshake is strong, his skin is silky-soft, his grip massively powerful. He has just come by train from Kerry, yet he has not removed his eyes from the spot where his file sits like a mental time bomb. Free from drink and cigarettes for the last four years, the most ‘charted’ man in Ireland looks lean and healthy looking. He looks out the window at the sea. “Hey, Brigh, your neighbours plants are going to block your sea view,” he says. “Lime. Lots of lime will sort that one out.”
I listen as he tells me about his upbringing. Mannix believes the minute he “stepped out of the womb in the Coombe” he had to be tough, “there were loads of other tough babies around the joint,” he laughs. “Otherwise your bottle would be stolen on you. The first kind of incarceration I ever had in my life was being incarcerated by the Dublin Corporation Housing department. Do you know what I mean? My mother was very hardworking, my father swept the streets. My mother did nothing but love me and care for me. I was never abused by my family. The irony of it all is that I was abused by doctors, child guidance officers, brothers, the very people who were meant to protect me.
“I remember the Christmas parties in Pearse Street police station. They used to throw a party for us every year,” he laughs incredulously at it now. “We’d be brought down either in squad cars, or given tickets to queue into the station. It was the only time I had to queue to get into a f**king police station in my entire life. They were gardai giving us presents and being extremely nice, which a lot of them are. Come the new year they’d be on the warpath again. Give us back that Roy Rodgers outfit!”
By 1967, Mannix was in court, aged eight years old for stealing a box of chocolates.
The culmination of Mannix’s unruly childhood was a long spell thieving. The skill and sense of timing demanded, have analogies with the requirements of a thespian, but although Flynn’s criminality may have met with approval on stage on the streets and in the pubs reality censured applause.
“It was a way of life,” he says, “I wasn’t terribly interested in school, it just wasn’t for me. I would have preferred to be in Switzers eating a tin of biscuits than sitting down f**king singing one and one is two. The real tough element of it was the reform school. Going to Letterfrack for mitching school and robbing a push bike, that was real trauma,” he says, his mind strait jacketing into seriousness.
“I was eleven when I was sent to Letterfrack industrial school. Letterfrack in beautiful Connemara was this State’s idea of a Special School for Special Needs. The only thing special about it was its exalted position as the monster terror hole of sub-human abuse of children. For me, it was a completely traumatic experience. The warrant for me to go to Letterfrack wasn’t even signed. The whole apparatus for sending children to Letterfrack was illegal. A lot of lies and death certificates just disappeared. It was an inhospitable and shockingly degrading place, 250 miles from Dublin. I was scared shitless, coming across hundreds of young fellas who never saw you before. There were 170 boys, five brothers and about seven or 8 others employed there. They had their own sort of regime. It was like been pulled out of the Rotunda and put into a major war zone. That was the kind of life it was. Every night, we all cried out for our mammies and daddies. I can still hear the blood-curdling screams. I was in Letterfrack for two years, they don’t let you out for Christmas until after the first year. Some kids never got out because they had no family. Looking back on it now they were tormented. They had nobody to visit them, to write to them, an awful lot of those boyo’s didn’t survive. All the stories that are coming out about it are true.
“By the way, you make bad coffee,” says Mannix as he watches a trace of milk curdling in his cup. I make him another one this time with Soya milk as Mannix shifts from side to side. “That’s better”, he says knocking it back, and helping himself to a toasted potato cake.
Mannix is so candid, so direct, that sometimes I’m ill-prepared for what he has to say. “On the very day I arrived in Letterfrack one of the brothers orally raped me. It was savage. Horrible,” he says. A few weeks later, another brother beat him with a leather strap for smoking. Later that night, the same brother brought him to his dormitory, stripped his pyjamas and lashed Mannix for an hour.
“By sending me there, the State facilitated this rape, this torture,” he says. “One night, one of the employees came to my bed and took me into the toilets. I was half asleep and didn’t know what to do. He threatened me and held me by the hair, he held his hand over my mouth and he anally raped me. The threat and fear of violence emanated from the whole building. On a daily basis you’d see some child savagely beaten to a pulp by a grown up, flogged on the windpipe with a truncheon. It was like something out of Schlinder’s List. You weren’t just clipped on the ear, you were beaten until you were turned into whimpering simpletons,” he says, “and to think that this was all enabled by the gardai. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. The whole point for people to realise now is that hundreds of children were locked away in Letterfrack, hundreds of children were raped and murdered. It’s a holocaust we’re dealing with. In every bit of land around Letterfrack there is a child buried. My only solace in Letterfrack was when I could wander into a field. We farmed for all the brothers and the locals. I’m a good man with a pitchfork,” he says drily, “I know more about balers, barley and cows than you could imagine. The brothers had the cheapest labour in Ireland.”
“One things is certain,” he says leafing through his files. “There’s no love in here.”
When he looks at the psychiatrist’s report from Dundrum, he flinches, still transfixed by the terrifying treatment and stigmas he received.
“Even I didn’t know about the contents of this file until last week. I didn’t know that they had certified me insane aged 15. Listen to this,” he says reading out an apology from the psychiatrist who certified him insane on May 19, 1973 and then certified him sane two months later.
“Dear Mr X,
You must remember that record-keeping was not a priority, generally in psychiatry when you were a patient. While the certification of insanity seems formal and stigmatising I can assure you that it was simply ‘a transfer process’ by which persons in custody were moved into Dundrum. What I am saying basically is that although you were certified insane, insanity or madness was not necessarily validated by that opinion. Doctors used the certification process simply as a transfer document, that’s the way it was. It is no longer so, but that will not relieve you I am sure. Equally the decertification process, which again referred to insanity, was no more than a transfer process back into the prison system, there is nothing in your file to suggest insanity or psychosis, that’s all I can reassure you of.
“Not only was I called insane,” he says, “but I was called ‘criminally’ insane.” The authorities did that to thousands of people like myself. Most families thought that their sons and daughters were been admitted to the Central Mental Hospital to be helped, but a great number of these poor people were being falsely diagnosed. As for me it was catastrophic. Any appearance I made in court was rendered null and void once the the judge took one look at the words ‘criminally insane’, I was f**ked. Two months later they certified me sane. It was like bringing someone to court, charging them guilty and then finding that they’re not guilty. God forbid, if I was brought to court tomorrow, my file still stands. Their fibs about me still stand. If I was found running down Grafton Street in the nude, they could still say, he was certified criminally insane in 1973.”
“The whole business of secrecy and evil is been kept very much alive,” he says wearily. “Years ago it was the church protecting the State now it’s the State protecting the church. I was lucky enough and smart enough to get these documents from the State. Now I’d have to get a third party to agree to their release and you know what that would mean. I’d get nothing. It took me seven years to extract these documents from the State. I’ve had to chop out a lot of the more gruesome parts because of my family.”
Although Mannix aims his talk at habitual targets, the church and the gardai, there is no ill-concealed hymn of hate towards them. On the contrary, he speaks of forgiveness, love and respect.
“The gardai in Clifden, fair play to them, uncovered a massive paedophile ring and it ran from the low minions right up to the top. These gardai who investigated this took it upon themselves to work very seriously on it. It’s unfortunate that their efforts have yielded such little return. I saw the incident room in Clifden Garda station myself. There were thousands of old files with corraborative statements. The public haven’t got a clue what’s really going on.”
Had he ever experienced any small kindness in Letterfrack, I prompted. “There were a few local women who were decent enough. But no one else that I can remember.
“Now I am about to abandon myself to the people who abused me all my life. Now I want to say to those brothers, ‘This is your shame, I’m just here to hand it back’,” and he leaves his file, the file of his life in the middle of my floor.
There is no hate. Only love. There is however an innocence that can only compel affection and admiration. “This play James X is a public matter, it has to be seen in the public domain. The State and church have been involved in a conspiracy. The media are only dealing with it when a gory headline is discovered. I’m going to perform my play James X for the public, for the clergy. If they won’t come. I’ll go to them.”
Already I can see that Mannix’s old mischief is still alive and well. “I’ll get a huge cherry picker to drop me into the Bishop’s Palace. I can’t see Archbishop Desmond Connell coming to me. Can you? So I’ll just drop into him.”
Before Mannix leaves, I ask him can he ever get over such abuse, can anyone get over it? He pauses. “I think you can let go of the toxicity, let go of the shame that abuse brings with it. It’s about a willingness to forgive”
Are you still angry?
Mannix pauses. I can see that he is. “I have the ‘appropriate’ amount of anger, of love, of likes and dislikes that are necessary to keep my soul healthy on a daily basis. I have to keep my integrity. My needs are met on a daily basis.”
“The play, James X is not trying to expose anything. I’m trying to exhibit things into the public domain. I wrote this play to bring closure to some of the issues. But at the end of the day I have no illusions about the fact that justice won’t be done. This nation has no future until it addresses and deals with the past. The past is not 1798 or 1916, the past is the rape, brutalisation and murder of children.” While Mannix makes more coffee, I wonder are we a nation that can be judged by the way we care for and love our most vulnerable or our handicapped? How do we rate in that league of kindness and love of the Life of Christ?
“We’ve a fairly good legacy of human torture and brutality here,” says Mannix, “let us cover it up no longer. Nelson Mandela got his country to admit its abuses,” he explained, “before healing and trust could come back.”
“At the end of the day the only person I have faith in to deal with this are the Human Rights people. The State has failed me and my fellow travellers. We need Mary Robinson to look into it. When you’re in a place like Letterfrack, all past life disappears. Your soul and spirit are murdered in a matter of minutes. When you sleep at night you think of the young boys murdered in the grass below you. And their graves are everywhere. Kids murdered for no reason, and buried like dogs all over the 5,000 acres of Letterfrack wilderness.”
We now know that the 125 headstones, with names and ages from 10 to 17, are only a fraction of those killed. Does anyone care in a State we call civilised? Will there be a tribunal? It is doubtful. One wonders who cares about unwanted children anyway? A priest who abuses and brutalises kids for up to 40 years is released after serving a year. Why? On humanitarian grounds! Where is the humanity for the special needs kids murdered in Connemara? We all know their death has been dreadful.
“I’m not anti-Catholic,” says Mannix, who is the window to this story of horror, a survivor, “I totally believe in God, in redemption, in forgiveness. Christ told us not to live in fear and I’ve liberated myself from the bondage of fear in the last five years. The defining moment for me was when I realised that my life wasn’t my fault but it was my responsibility. I believe that justice cannot be done at this particular time because it is too contaminated. I don’t feel sadness about my life. I’ve dealt with my own sadness. I’ve been given the ability to get well by the grace of God. And for that I thank him.”
I watch Mannix carefully. The boiling cauldron of emotion and anger is completely gone. Now, he is hesitant, struggling to find peace and he is all the better for it. As I hug him goodbye, I hope and pray that God will make the truth cry out and flail this deafening silence. Those little beaten and broken bodies, those bleached bones that lie buried in this wet canny land, our western place of great natural beauty demands it.
James X will be at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin in January and Triskel Arts Centre, Cork in February.www.jamesX.ie
(B) RESPONSE FROM CHRISTIAN BROTHERS
ABUSE: ‘GOD WILL MAKE THE TRUTH CRY OUT’
Sunday Independent January 12th 2003
I refer to the interview by Brighid McLaughlin with Mannix Flynn in your paper on December 22, 2002. It is not intended here to take from or dilute the many acknowledgements and apologies that the Christian Brothers have made for any abuse that occurred in institutions under their management, including Letterfrack. However, please permit me to make the following points.
It is not true for Mr Flynn to claim that he was sent to Letterfrack Industrial School under an “unsigned warrant”. Two such “warrants” exist and were signed by a Justice of the District Court. It is also untrue for him to claim that “the whole apparatus for sending children to Letterfrack was illegal”. Indeed, his appeal against sentence was withdrawn in open court and his original sentence was extended until he would have reached his 14th birthday.
It is certainly not true to state that young boys were murdered in Letterfrack. The claim that the Gardai in Clifden “uncovered a massive paedophile ring” in Letterfrack is also untrue. This can be checked with the Gardai in Clifden. It follows, therefore, that it is not true to say that “boys murdered” were “buried like dogs all over the 5,000 acres of Letterfrack wilderness”. All who died are buried in the cemetery there or in cemeteries elsewhere. No boy died in Letterfrack while Mannix Flynn was there in 1968-1969. The last boy to die there was buried in the cemetery in 1942.
Surely it is fair to expect that journalists would check the truth of all claims. Your newspaper was supplied by the Christian Brothers with clear information concerning the boys who died and were buried at Letterfrack. The date, place and cause of every death are all fully documented. That information has been supplied to the Gardai and is available for every appropriate authority or person who needs access to it.
The Christian Brothers pray with the author of the article that “God will make the truth cry out”. However, they also hope that the “deafening silence” to which she refers will continue to be broken by a fair presentation of fact and truth. In view of the falsehoods listed above, together with other matters raised in the article, every fair-minded person must ask what else is untrue.
Brother Edmund Garvey, Director of Communications, Christian Brothers, Dublin 7.
(C) RESPONSE FROM MANNIX FLYNN
Christian Brothers’ ‘sorry’ is not enough
Sunday Independent, February 2nd 2003
In his letter of January 12, Brother Edmund Garvey, Director of Communications for the Christian Brothers, accused me of telling untruths, in other words “lies”, in an interview with Brighid McLoughlin. In reply, let me make the following points.
It is true that I was sent to Letterfrack, aged 11, under an unsigned warrant. I have a copy of the warrant in my possession supplied by the Department of Justice and Education and, as far as I know, it is illegal to detain anybody anywhere under an unsigned warrant.
Furthermore, by putting into the public domain the information that my sentence was extended, Brother Garvey is in clear breach of my confidentiality. He is also wrong. Following the withdrawal of my appeal, the original sentence stood, there was no extension. I also find it shocking that Brother Garvey has any documentation at all in relation to me, since I have been informed in writing on three occasions by the Christian Brothers Provincialate that they have no such records in their possession.
I never said that boys died in Letterfrack while I was there. However, I am by no means the only person to suggest that a number of children died in suspicious/unexplained circumstances at the hands of the Christian Brothers. In fact, a group called Joseph Pyke Memorial Trust has been set up specifically to uncover the number of children who died in Ireland’s 76 industrial schools, the circumstances of their deaths, and where they are buried. (See also Mary Raftery’s States of Fear). Add to this the fact that one body has been exhumed in relation to Letterfrack and a Garda spokesman said they were investigating reports by relatives of boys said to be buried in wooded areas around Letterfrack.
Brother Garvey prays that “God will make the truth cry out” I believe God already has, and is continuing to do so. The deafening silence is the silence of denial that is emanating from the Christian Brothers. Have they no shame? Have they no respect for the survivors? The Christian Brothers have never “apologised” for abuse in their institutions. To say “sorry” for the hurt caused is a neutral expression of regret, not an admission of responsibility.
How can Brother Garvey be so sure of what happened in the Industrial Schools. Was he there to witness it as I was? When truth is weighed against untruth, it will show the Christian Brothers and other Catholic orders perpetrated crimes against humanity’s most vulnerable members children, not just in Ireland but everywhere they went.
Gerard Mannix Flynn, Co Kerry.