Letterfrack. It was - still is, for many - a name to strike terror into the hearts of generations of Irish children. That bleak institution, bleak as the landscape in which it was set, had the mostfearsome reputation above all the houses of correction used by the State to incarcerate young children, and to sweep under the carpet the troublesome problem of dealing with the poor, the orphaned and the delinquent.
To many, Mannix Flynn’s documentary, ‘Land without God’, sheds light on a period in our history, the inhumanity of which defies belief. He had been sent to the remote, isolated St Joseph’s Industrial School at the age of eleven for stealing, and his film describes how he and
his family came to terms with years of institutional abuse, and the impact it continues to have on the lives of those around him.
Letterfrack was a truly forbidding place, run on behalf of the State for over 80 years, a place of correction for the delinquent and the abandoned. Its capacity was 190 inmates, mostly young Dubliners, for whom the physical isolation, distance from home, and lack of family visitation only made their vulnerability more acute and ensured they had little redress against the physical and sexual abuse they were subjected to.
For years, the regime of terror under which St Joseph’s was run was given the blind eye by a government only too happy to let the Christian Brothers operate by their own rules in return for absolving the state of what should have been its responsibilities. It was years after the school’s closure in 1974, and under a new climate which demanded that we confront our past, that the revelations of abuse, brutality, degradation and depravity were publicly acknowledged. The explosive Ryan report was explicit in detailing what it described as severe, excessive and pervasive corporal punishment, which created a climate of fear within Letterfrack and facilitated the heinous abuses which went largely unchecked.
Those consigned to Letterfrack, many as young as eight years of age, comprised three distinct categories. There were the homeless, the destitute, those guilty of crime, and those whose parents had fallen foul of the School Attendance Acts. Then there were those sent by the local authorities, generally the orphaned or abandoned. And then there was a cohort who were admitted on the application of parents or guardians, generally because they were unmanageable.
Perhaps it is a measure of the harshness of the times, and the lack of sentiment in a country where poverty was still rife, that in several instances where a judge ordered a child’s committal to Letterfrack, the state would often request that the parents be ordered to contribute to their upkeep there.
As an industrial school, Letterfrack was very much a self-sufficient entity. It provided a range of services to the public at commercial rates, from shoe making to carpentry, motor repairs to upholstery, tailoring to tool making, as well as running an extensive farm to provide for the institution's needs, and then marketing the surplus to local customers. All of this required a steady throughput of free labour by way of fresh inmates, and there came a lean patch in the late 1950s when numbers started to decline for what seemed, at first, to be no reason.
It was discovered that a sitting judge of the Childrens’ Court in Dublin was a Cork man, and he had begun to send boys to an industrial school in Cork, a situation which was soon reversed following spirited protests from Letterfrack.
So harsh was the Letterfrack regime that several of the Brothers, appalled by what they were witnessing, made futile attempts to effect change. But their protests were largely ignored, and the reputation of Letterfrack for cruelty and sadism was to persist until its closure in 1974.