By John Kelly
Ireland, the Ireland of the 1950s, has reached out a clammy hand to grab the attention of the present again. A police inquiry into sexual and physical abuse alleged to have been carried out in the former Artane Industrial school in northside Dublin is now concentrating on the activities of no fewer than 40 Irish Christian Brothers who served there, some of them still serving in the order, most dead or retired. Reports indicate that no fewer than three complaints are received in Clontarf police station per day. Thus, it has become the biggest such inquiry of its kind in a country that has already been rocked by several criminal prosecutions, most of them ending with the imprisonment of Catholic clergy entrusted with the care of the young.
Former inmates of Artane, youngsters in their pre-teen years who can hardly be described as having been pupils, attending as they were a school that was a convenient substitute for a prison, have made complaints from all over the world, including the United States. As many as half of the complaints are being made from outside Ireland. Some will be flown to Ireland to swear affidavits against their former mentors. The only good news is that the grim truth, whatever it may have been, is sure to be revealed as the result.
The Irish Christian Brothers are cooperating fully with the inquiry, and the order has urged former pupils who have suffered at the hands of members to file their complaints. Public apologies have already been published in all of the national newspapers.
Sadly, it comes as little surprise. Artane Industrial School was the terror of many a youth who grew in Dublin during those days. It was the specter that hung over all of our young lives. The strongest parental censure in the face of serious childish transgressions was the threat of being sent to Artane.
It was porridge of the most serious kind for the hundreds, if not thousands, of children who passed through its dormitories from the late 1940s to the late ’60s, when it was finally closed down. It closed, not alone because it was no longer deemed to be necessary, but because of the shortage of Christian brothers to staff it. It was a frightening part of the old Ireland that was no longer needed.
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It was an industrial school maintained by Irish Christian Brothers because the Irish government in the early years of independence had neither the will nor the means to provide such care. In fairness to the brothers, by the same token, and to all of the other clerics who provided such services, it must also be said that without their magnificent contribution, many an Irish youngster would hardly have had any formal education at all.
In those years, Artane accomplished its main task very well. It certainly scared the devil out of Dublin children who would otherwise have graduated to spectacular criminal careers. And it also put many fine musicians on stage in Ireland and across the world. One of the school’s greatest achievements as the creation of the Artane Boys Band, the "biggest little band in the world," as it was most commonly described. The band was, and still is, one of the great headliners at major Irish sporting events. It is more at home in a tightly packed Croke Park on all-Ireland days than at any other venue. It has also traveled through the wide world of the Irish Diaspora, frequently appearing at major rallies wherever emigrants gathered in large numbers.
Although the school has long since closed, the band plays on. Now its prestigious members are gathered from all parts of the island. This was certainly not the case in the 1950s, when the boys of Artane were mainly juvenile delinquents, guilty of everything from larceny to violent assaults. The crimes were unbelievably petty in an era when one of the most serious offenses was the theft of a few pennies from gas meters.
District court justices, no more enlightened than they are now, faced with horrendous social problems arising more from poverty and dreadful housing conditions than anything else, often took the easiest option by condemning them to Artane. Even habitual school truants were dispatched.
But the boys of Artane were not all criminals. Some were orphans, a common enough condition when tuberculosis ravaged the country. Parents who just could not cope committed others. In the school, they could learn trades, covering the entire gamut of the crafts. When they finished, they had better chances of getting jobs.
Thus, it has to be admitted that Artane, in common with other industrial schools, served a reasonably useful function. Although it was far from a perfect place, it was probably better than nothing.
The collective social wisdom was almost correct except for horrendous major sins of omission. The schools were allowed to operate without any serious state intervention or even examination. Just as now, prisons and prisoners were more often ignored than observed. Having put its social rejects away, the state smugly absolved itself of any responsibility.
Under such circumstances, a dangerous minority of sexual deviants and misfits were allowed to thrive. The children in Artane were just like criminals, irrespective of the reasons for their detentions. The band itself was nothing more than a totally misleading appearance of sweetness and light. Its drums, its cymbals, its blaring brass section, hid a multitude of horrible sins within the bleak confines of Artane.
What a shame it is that such a great religious order as the Irish Christian Brothers should have been sullied forever by so few, so long ago. While the majority of brothers achieved many great, inspiring goals, there were members who should never have been placed in any position of authority over children. They used their misplaced authority to abuse them sexually and physically. It is even possible that one youngster, killed as the result of a fall from a balcony in Artane, may have been trying to escape such an attack when it happened.
The "biggest little band in the world" hid many a great sin.