By Ray O’Hanlon
Tom Cronin was in heaven. It was Christmas and he had been taken in by a family for the holiday.
There was turkey, plum pudding and a Christmas tree. But most of all there was a home and a family.
He dared hope for the few days. Perhaps this would be the way it would always be.
“Then they plucked me from heaven and threw me back into hell,” the Cork City-born Cronin said on a recent visit to New York.
Hell for Cronin was the Greenmount Industrial School, a glorified dungeon that was closed down in 1959 and all but forgotten until a recent rash of investigations and exposures threw new light on a system that mistreated thousands of Irish children over many decades.
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Cronin remembers the last days at Greenmount.
“We were told we were going on a picnic,” he said.
In fact the children were being merely moved to other schools. Cronin ended up in Upton, a school near Bandon, Co. Cork. Others were taken up to the Artane school in Dublin.
Cronin, whose first ride in a car was to his mother’s funeral, considers himself a survivor of the industrial school system. And he means it in a literal sense.
Some kids didn’t survive their childhood years in a system that was frequently as indifferent to the individual in death as it was abusive in life.
Unmarked graves simply followed a life that was itself allowed to leave little mark on the earth.
In recent years, other survivors have been stepping forward to bear witness to a shameful chapter in the history of the Irish state. Terms of compensation have been worked out between the Irish government and the Catholic church in Ireland, which ran the schools.
Those terms, however, are themselves the focus of some debate. Many feel that the church is being allowed off the financial hook in a deal that was finalized just before the outgoing Fianna F_il/Progressive Democrats government was replaced by the incoming administration, one that is composed of the same parties.
The figure compensation figure agreed between church and state is euro 127 million. By some estimates, the cost of settling already existing litigation could be as high as euro 500 million.
Tom Cronin — who married, has had children of his own and displays a surprisingly matter-of-fact attitude despite what he went through as a young boy — wants to make sure that all the survivors, be they in Ireland, Britain the United States or elsewhere, know that they can now at least secure some degree of compensation for what they once went through.
“I want them to know that they are entitled to something and can go to the Irish government, which has not been as helpful to survivors living abroad as those living in Ireland,” Cronin said.
Cronin, who now divides his time between England and his native Cork, understands why some have not publicly revealed the grimmer facts of a childhood that anyone would want to forget.
“There is a stigma to it,” he said. “Some survivors have not even told their spouses.”
But Cronin firmly believes that if there’s a time for survivors to face up to the wrongs of another time, this is it.
During his visit to New York, he divided his time between his past and his future. The former concerned a forgettable childhood, the latter concerned a beloved child, his son, who was getting married in the Big Apple.
Tough starts in life can indeed bear a happier fruit.