Looking back in anger

 
 

After a long year of continuing revelations about State and Church institutions in Ireland, Jack Carter assesses the complex legacy of the country’s industrial school system

Industrial schools have received much attention in the Irish media. It is nearly a year since the publication of the Ryan Report when these somewhat neglected institutions emerged on the front page of every newspaper.

The ensuing controversy over physical, sexual, and emotional abuse made industrial schools the main topic of debate up and down the country. The debate focused around what abuse had happened and what efforts had been done to cover it up. Catholic religious orders established and managed most of the industrials in Ireland. These religious orders were held responsible for perpetrating and covering up abuse. The State also received much attention over its role, having funded and inspected industrial schools, and using these institutions for the purpose of child care. The State was held responsible for its role in allowing the abuse to continue, and actually bore more of the responsibility for the fallout by picking up a large portion of the compensation bill.

Both the State and the Church came under sever pressure. These two foundation stones of the Irish nation began to slowly crumble. The public outrage poured out through the media and continued to flow until institutional abuse began to pale in comparison to the clerical abuse exposed in the Murphy Report.

As the fallout of the Murphy report continues to grow and the calls for resignation ring out, it is important to remember what happened in industrial schools. Despite all the attention they have received few people are aware of their purpose.

Though industrial schools these days have connotations of paedophilia and child abuse, they were once considered respectable institutions across this country. From the late nineteenth century, industrial schools were used to house what were regarded as delinquent children. Some industrial school children had committed crimes, while others were admitted in the basis that they were in danger of committing a crime. By the twentieth century industrial schools were largely used to house children of poverty.

Children admitted to industrial schools were usually ordered to do so by a court. Their situation may have been brought to the attention of the court by the ‘cruelty man’ (from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) or the police. In Irish society it had become an acceptable feature of State childcare that children would be sent to these schools.

These institutions were spread right across Ireland. Most towns had one. There were a number of industrial schools that have received much attention such as Artane or Leterfrack but there were many other schools. A typical industrial school was run by the Christian brothers or the Sisters of Mercy. They were usually part of an ecclesiastical complex involving or National school, secondary school, or hospital.

The State supplied funds to church run industrial schools as its main from of care for impoverished children until the second half of the twentieth century. The children that went to industrial schools were to receive a literacy education similar to that of a primary school. They were also to receive an industrial education that would equip them to gain employment and therefore earn a living for their adult life – the theory being that if the children could work as adults, then they would never fall into poverty again or rely on the State for welfare.

Unfortunately for the children, and the State, the theory did not work so well in practice. One of the major charges levelled against industrial schools was that neither forms of education were adequate; many former industrial school pupils say that they never received a literacy education. Many of these children were discharged from the schools at the age of 16 without the ability to read or write, and with no form of support from either the Church or State.

The management of the industrial education also received criticism. In many cases it was apparent that the management were using the schools as factories and the children as labour. These children were not being industrially trained but rather used to make money for the religious orders that ran the schools.

It must be noted though that not all schools should be tarred with the same brush. The Ryan Report itself points out that many people expressed a positive view towards their time in the industrial schools. The report also notes that not all schools had charges levelled against them. Some people did leave the schools with a decent education and an ability to look after themselves. The history of industrial schools is indeed a difficult one to write.

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