When it came to discipline his own five children, violence was all Sweeney knew.
“My parents never touched me, I had a very happy childhood until I entered that place,” he said.
“When my kids were growing up, and one of them was bold at school, I’d drag them up the stairs and whip him. That’s the kind of discipline I learned.”
Between the 1920s and 1980s, an estimated 150,000 children like Sweeney were sent to Ireland’s notorious residential institutions, where many suffered horrific abuse and neglect at the hands of the Catholic clergy. Hard manual labor replaced education and substantial numbers of children left the institutions unable to read or write.
In the late 1990s, two RTE documentaries, “States of Fear,” and “Dear Daughter,” revealed the shocking truth about residential institutions in Ireland, forcing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to apologize publicly for the State’s failure to intervene and leading to the establishment in 2000 of the Residential Institutions Redress Board in an attempt to compensate survivors of institutional abuse.
However, as the deadline for applications to the Redress Board approaches this December, awareness of its existence remains low. To date, the Redress board has processed just over 5,000 applications. It is estimated that up to 100,000 survivors fled abroad following their experiences at these institutions and yet 94 percent of applications come from within Ireland. Last year, just two percent of applications were from the U.S.
In the weeks following its setup, the Redress Board launched a television and radio campaign in Ireland and a print campaign in the UK to advertise its services. To date there has been no publicity to alert survivors in the U.S. or elsewhere.
“The redress board doesn’t appear to be making a genuine effort to inform people abroad,” according to Christine Buckley, who suffered years of abuse at the hands of the Sisters of Mercy in Goldenbridge Industrial School. Her story was the subject of the “Dear Daughter,” documentary.
Survivor groups like the Aislinn Center, founded by Buckley, have criticized the Redress Board as a deeply flawed system that is re-traumatizing rather than compensating victims.
Many of those who apply for compensation have complained of facing an adversarial and disbelieving audience as they tell their most harrowing stories. Applicants must appear before the board alone; even family members are not allowed to accompany them. Once they have accepted a compensation offer (which can be no more than