Galway man who set himself alight in 1967 said "the Nazis treated him better than the Christian Brothers did."

Galway man who set himself alight in 1967 said "the Nazis treated him better than the Christian Brothers did."iStock

Two months before the famous Summer of Love in 1967, a thin 51-year-old Irishman named Peter Tyrrell walked into Hampstead Heath park in London, poured gasoline over his head, then lit a match and set himself on fire.

His body was so badly charred it would take a year before he was successfully identified.

His name, the authorities discovered, was Peter Tyrrell. A native of Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, he was one of 10 children raised in chaotic poverty.

In his memoir he recalls how “six of us slept on the kitchen floor on an old mattress. There were no windows in the house and the floor was cobblestone because it was intended to be a stable...”

Conditions were so bad that six of the 10 children were taken into what could only euphemistically be called care. Aged eight, Peter joined his three older brothers in the now notorious boys home of St. Joseph’s Industrial School in Letterfrack, run by the Christian Brothers. He would remain there until 1932.

What he saw and experienced, the sheer cruelty and despair, would haunt him for the rest of his troubled life.

As is now undeniable, extreme poverty was often criminalized by the authoritarian Ireland of the 20th century. People who were as poor and vulnerable as the Tyrrell's could quickly find themselves treated as non-citizens, targets of unrestrained contempt and abuse.

Founded on Fear is the name the book Tyrrell wrote about his life in Letterfrack. Written between 1957 and 1958, about 10 years before his death, he writes in the foreword that it is with “deep regret that I find it necessary to tell my story.”

That level of self-effacement tells you just how hard it must have been to put himself forward, and it also suggests that he anticipated being ignored, because people in his dire straits usually were in the Ireland of the period.

The manuscript went unpublished and reportedly languished for decades among the many papers of the late Irish Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington, until it was eventually discovered by Diarmuid Whelan, an academic based at University College Cork who understood its importance as a social document and had it published in 2006.

Tyrrell wrote to Sheehy Skeffington in 1964, three years before his death, to inform him the book was just a prelude to establish his credentials. What he really wanted was to plan public demonstrations -- a prospect that was next to impossible in the theocratic Republic of the period.

But Tyrrell's story was one to cure deafness. Aged eight, shortly after his arrival at St. Joseph’s, Tyrrell saw for the first time small children being beaten with sticks. The beatings were intense and non-stop, he writes.

“It is now Sunday morning and about 12 of us are lined up to be beaten in the washroom at the end of St. Michael’s dormitory,” he writes.

“We are ordered to take off our pants. Walsh (one of the brothers) now goes to his room and returns with a stick. It’s a new stick, which he cut a few days ago.

“I am at the very end and I see others flogged before me. The Murtaugh boy is now beaten and he is screaming loudly…It’s my turn next, after about six blows I manage to run away, down the stairs and into the bathroom.

“Walsh now follows me down, he is hitting me on the head and the face and back, as I put up my right hand to ward off a blow he hits me a heavy blow on the arm. My arm is broken. I spend two weeks in the infirmary.”

Breaking a child's arm was not seen to be grounds for dismissal in the Ireland of the period. Sexual abuse also went unpunished, with known offenders having all claims against them ignored.

Years later, after he was released, Tyrrell suffered from debilitating post traumatic stress disorder that blighted the rest of his life.

In 1939 he joined the British Army and was taken prisoner by the German Army toward the end of the war. The prison camp reminded him of the Irish industrial school.

“The unhealthy color of the face, prominent cheek bones, sunken eyes and round shoulders. But unlike Letterfrack there is no ill-treatment. I have not seen or even heard of anyone being beaten,” he wrote.

“Life here... during the last months of the war is hard and unpleasant. Yet it is heaven on earth in comparison with life at Letterfrack.”

Tyrrell is bluntly stating that the Nazis treated him better than the Christian Brothers did.

Ireland wasn't ready to listen to what had happened to him. Born in the revolutionary year of 1916 and dead as the Beatles and Flower Power promised love was all you need, the Ireland of 1967 wasn't prepared to give him a hearing.

In many places it still is not. The statistics speak for themselves, however.

One hundred and forty seven children died at Letterfrack while in the care of the Christian Brothers, mainly from physical abuse and neglect. The school was closed in 1974.