The Shame of Ireland
From beyond the grave
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.
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