By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Shocking details about the inhuman and brutal conditions in some of the country’s 59 industrial and reform schools run by religious orders are revealed in a series of RTE documentaries that started last night.
Previously unpublished government documents about the state-funded schools — which were not closed until the 1970s — reveal that inspectors found that in some institutions children were starved to only half their body weight and in one case the school’s dairy herd had a better diet than the pupils.
Award-winning producer Mary Rafferty has been working on the documentaries on childcare in Ireland, "States of Fear," for a year and had access to files and documents that the Department of Education has so far not handed over to the National Archives Office.
The schools had more than 1,000 children a year referred to them by the courts — some for minor misdemeanors — and the state paid per head of children held. The more children it had, the more cash the order got from the exchequer.
Rafferty said that for the greater part of the century the Irish system held more children than all the similar institutions in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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The regimen of beatings and ill treatment is described in graphic detail by former inmates like writer/actor Mannix Flynn, musician/actor Don Baker and singer/song writer Sharon Murphy.
When making the programs, Rafferty spoke to more than 100 of at least 30,000 people still alive who passed through the school system.
An official report in 1944 by department inspectors who had visited a number of schools run by the Sisters of Mercy describes some of the boys in their care as being in a state of "semi-starvation"" and that there was "gross malnutrition."
"The boys looked pinched, wizened and lamentably different from normal children," according to the report, which says some had a body weight only half that of a normal child of the same age.
A report on Daingean reformatory in County Offaly in 1955 said the good diet enjoyed by the cattle on the school’s farm was "in marked contrast to the care for the feeding of the boys."
Rafferty says that the files revealed that government officials were also "clearly highly suspicious about a number of aspects about which they were not being properly informed."
"They were particularly concerned that the nuns and brothers were not spending the substantial government grants on the children in their care," Rafferty said.
Baker, who starred in the movie "In the Name of the Father, was sent to Daingean when he was 12 and describes the sheer terror of his two years there.
He had a nervous breakdown after he suffered the "predatory" attentions of an Oblate brother who pursued him every day for a year.
Flynn describes how there was usually blood in the yard of the Christian Brothers-run Letterfrack as a result of children being beaten. He was sent there at the age of 10.
A former inmate of the Christian Brother’s St. Joseph’s School in Tralee described how he was systematically abused from the day he made his Holy Communion until he was 15.
"The only good thing about Christmas was there was no sexual abuse on Christmas Day. We thought we were there for the brothers. We didn’t know any different," he told the program makers.