The dark, Dickensian history of Ireland’s industrial schools - euphemistically known also as reformatories - has been well exposed in print by writers like Mannix Flynn and Paddy Doyle, but no account of those centres of fear and abuse and inhumanity could match, in terms of personal tragedy, that written from beyond the grave by Peter Tyrrell and now published under the title ‘Founded in Fear: Letterfrack Industrial School, War and Exile’.
This is a book written from the memoirs of a former resident of Letterfrack which lay undiscovered for almost 50 years until a short time ago. Their author, Peter Tyrrell, committed suicide in 1967 when he set fire to himself on Hampstead Heath in London. That final act of hopelessness was prompted in no small way by the refusal by anyone to listen to the story he had to tell, and the pained memories he yearned to share. His letters to bishops and priests, brothers and politicians, Government ministers and the media had been ignored. Ireland of the early sixties had no desire to lift the lid on the unsavoury.
Tyrrell had been born into appalling poverty in the small east Galway town of Ahascragh. His father was, in his own words, lazy and irresponsible; his mother struggled to raise her ten children in a converted stable, not knowing where the next meal would come from; the children raided the neighbours’ fields for turnips or carrots or potatoes, or anything that ‘would keep them alive for one more day’.
Eventually, the children were taken into care, by which was really meant into the torture chamber which was Letterfrack Industrial School. Beatings and brutality were the order of the day. Although some of the Brothers were kind and compassionate, many were simply tyrants who beat the children for no other reason, Tyrrell said, than ‘lustful pleasure’.
The picture painted by Tyrrell of industrial schools is now better known to the world - but no less shocking for that - as a result of the enquiries and revelations of those who suffered within their walls, but there are two observations in the memoirs of Peter Tyrrell which give a more rounded view of these dread institutions, and what it was they were meant to contribute to child welfare.
In the first, he generously comments that he believed that the superior of the school, Brother Kelly, was unaware of the beatings and would have had them stopped had he learned of them. Tyrrell himself had never seen a Brother beat children in the presence of another Brother, leading him to comment that even among the staff there was considerable secrecy and lack of trust.
Even more sadly, Tyrrell’s second evaluation deals with the difficulty which Letterfrack boys had in integrating into normal society once they were discharged from what had been their home for all of their formative years. For industrial school boys, no doors were opened. They were treated at best as second-class citizens, at worst, as outcasts. And in a country where jobs were scarce they were at the back of the queue when it came to work or careers.
For Peter Tyrrell, that meant the emigrant ship, joining the British Army and serving time in a German POW camp. Irony of ironies, the boy who had been marginalised at home found himself isolated in England where, in spite of his army service, he fell victim to anti-Irish sentiment.
His sad life came to an end in flames on Hampstead Heath. But it was not all in vain. Thanks to Diarmaid Whelan, who discovered the unpublished manuscript two years ago, Peter Tyrrell’s writings have finally reached his audience.
‘Founded in Fear’ is a tribute to Peter Tyrrell’s life; for the people of Ireland it is a reminder of our collective guilt in ignoring what was done in the name of Christianity.
Mayo authors make news
Mayo photographer, Ann Henrick, is to be complimented on the launch of her second book, ‘A Time to Dance’, which was performed by former Taoiseach, Garrett FitzGerald, in Dublin.
Centred on the theme of ageing, Ann Henrick’s excellent photos are enhanced by the matching text by author Maeve Binchy. Both herself and Dr FitzGerald are living proof of the dictum that you are as young as you feel. And what better Christmas gift could there be than an uplifting copy of ‘A Time to Dance’.
Also in matters of Mayo literary achievement, well done to Colman O’Raghallaigh (below) of Claremorris who had just been honoured as author of the Irish language Book of the Year for Young People.
His graphic children’s novel, ‘An Táin’, won him the Oireachtas na Gaeilge award as well as a cash prize of €10,000 from a total entry of sixteen titles which had been submitted for the prize.
Based on the story of the legendary Táin Bó Cuailgne, one of the epic tales of Gaelic mythology, Colman’s book was warmly lauded for its content, design, layout, text and illustrations. It is indeed a tribute to an author already well-known for his books ‘as Gaeilge’ for both adults and children.
Boy racers and death games
The journalist Antonia Leslie recently gave a chilling account of the latest craze among young male motorists in her native Monaghan. She told of how young men line up in fast cars, usually in the early hours of the morning, and at a given signal they race towards each other at speeds in excess of a hundred miles an hour.
As the cars approach each other, the lights are switched off. The first driver to swerve out of the way to avoid the inevitable earns the title of ‘chicken’.
It was a hair-raising story, made all the more so by the knowledge that a week earlier, four young men had met their deaths in exactly the same circumstances as the journalist had described on the same County Monaghan roads.
But the madness may be much closer to home than we think.
Reports from Ballyhaunis suggest that the same deadly game is being engaged in on roads in the area. A stretch of road linking the Claremorris and Knock exits from Ballyhaunis is said to be the location for the east Mayo version of ‘chicken’.
Local county councillor, John Cribbin, has signalled the community outrage at the trend, warning that fatalities are certain to follow if the trend is allowed to continue.
Meanwhile the message for the law-abiding, road using public seems to be to keep off the roads and leave the highway to the death-inviting kamikaze boy racers.
One in a million
Achill’s loss was Donegal’s gain when Kevin McHugh brought his training and expertise and, most of all, his head for business to Killybegs almost 30 years ago.
And it was fitting that although he was laid to rest in Donegal soil overlooking the sparkling Atlantic with which he was so familiar, there were beach pebbles from his native Achill to remind his mourners of where he had come from.
Kevin McHugh was unique. In business, he was one in a million, his flagship Atlantic Dawn quite unlike anything ever seen before in Irish waters. Tragically, he was to fall victim to illness and death at too early an age. Energy and courage and fighting spirit and self reliance, qualities which Kevin McHugh had in abundance, propelled him to the very top of his chosen career in a relatively short time.
When future historians come to write up the Irish fishing industry, its growth and development, one name will stand out as a pioneer, an adventurer, a ground breaker. The young man who left Bullsmouth at the age of 16, first for Iceland to learn all he could about the fishing industry, was the man who would put Ireland into the major league of industry players.
The country will be the poorer for his premature death.