Disjecta Membra

Essay on the Irish 'gulag'; a personal soliloquy

Am presently going through something of a writer’s block, and am still quite unsure of how to remedy it. This is probably just another manifestation of an afflicting state of mind that has plagued me these past few months, making them far less productive than I would have envisioned – or frankly expected. It’s probably just a case of intellectual ‘burnout’; of pushing myself to the point of exhaustion without actually reaching that point, but straddling fairly precariously on its precipice. There were times when I couldn’t read consistently for over three minutes, or bring myself to look at my computer; and there was little point in trying to write, even to the end of articulating or bestowing form upon the monotonous din reverberating through my head, because the page would usually remain blank. I should have gone out to meet with more people, to enjoy myself, and compensate for a dull year of inactivity and excessive introversion. But I always found this more difficult than it needed to be, or in fact was. Socialising has never been my strong-suit (exacerbated, this year, by never meeting any of my MA colleagues, or getting much chance to make friends – ‘texting’, evidently, is little substitute for meeting people); I’ve usually recoiled in the face of some decisive opportunity, thus allowing many to slip by these past few years. In the past year I’ve begun to arrest this tendency, and have met with many positive results, perhaps indicating what the future may hold – but not in my present circumstances. feelings of isolation are common, both physically from living in Kildare Town and away from a community of people I can relate to, and mentally from being removed from intellectual stimulation and like-minded people with whom I can develop ideas and share interests. This is why moving to Oxford or Cambridge is so important, as marking a definite transition and new departure. I’ve steadily grown optimistic in this respect, having received my highest mark hitherto for my MA thesis, with a good and important PhD topic slowly coming together in my head, and while I look forward to tutoring and researching in Maynooth this year. Am confident that things will improve, in time.

Below is a piece I wrote earlier this year about Ireland’s ‘gulag’ system, and social perceptions of same. I like its fervidness, its immediacy – as the controversial report of the state inquest into the homes (or some of them) released in January was at the back of my mind – and I think it might be worth reading.

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Noah Kitterick was a resident of the Letterfrack Industrial School in Connemara from 1924 to 1932. He died from self-immolation in London in 1967, after ten-years of attempting to raise awareness of conditions at Letterfrack by sending letters ‘to the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr McQuaid, and Dr Browne, Bishop of Galway, as well as President de Valera, and to the Superiors of many industrial schools.’[1] In his letters, Kitterick complained of three named brothers at Letterfrack, claiming that they were tyrannical and sadistic, and that his ‘doctors had said that all his troubles were due to the hardship he got whilst in Letterfrack’:

Bros Piperel, Corvax and Perryn … these men were a disgrace to the Christian Brothers. Piperel and Corvax were tyrants. Br Perryn who was in the cook-house and refectory took great pleasure in beating boys for no reason, he was a sadist, for beating us he used a piece of rubber motor tyre. Almost daily we were flogged by one or other of these Bros. Dozens of times I left the dining room with my hands bleeding … On several occasions after a meal, I was taken to the pantry … by Br Perryn. He would lock the door and make me undress … he would then sit on a stool and would put me across his knee and then flog me savagely he would then pinch me until I was unconscious.[2]

Kitternick followed up this letter with several more, each stating that he wished to see Letterfrack closed until conditions improved and the perpetrators of abuse were brought to justice. He was never replied to. Neither church nor state wanted anything to do with him; the former castigated him for being ‘on a blackmail ticket’. This case, however, was not exceptional; ‘white-washing’ was the standard practice of church and state alike, despite what they themselves often implied. In the 1960s, when parents or foster-parents complained about the excessive physical punishment administered to their children in public schools, the Department of Education tended to question the credibility of the complaint, describing them as ‘having a record of troublemaking’ or ‘an irresponsible person’.[3] Kitternick, and many others similarly let-down by Ireland’s gratuitous child welfare system, harboured truths that were best left shrouded from public view; had they attained traction in 1960s Ireland they would have tinted the church’s public image.

The actual probability of this, however, was minor; most parents were in favour of corporal punishment, and carried the same devotionalism, interest in religious topics, and reverence for the Catholic clergy in the secularising world of the 1960s as maintained by their grandparents sixty-years previously.[4] It was still true that ‘the doings of bishops and priests commonly attracted more attention, argument, humour, and occasional resentment than those of politicians or film-stars.’[5] They had yet to become ‘ordinary’; their words and deeds had yet to be scrutinised for what they were as opposed to how they appeared; and their moral failings could not be articulated in social discourse because there was hitherto no standardised lexicon by which to convey them.

 Survivors could not openly discuss their experiences of industrial schools or Magdalen laundries, for Irish society would neither listen to nor acknowledge them, for it could not do so. Survivors were drowned out by silence, by an impenetrable shroud of Catholic moral rectitude that was only starting to show signs of strain by the late-1960s. The ‘hidden Ireland’ given life through the proliferation of critical discourses in the 1990s, as spurred on by the willingness of survivors to tell their stories, did not exist in the 1960s, for there was no language through which to articulate it, to bring it into being and sustain it.

In response to the revelations of the Ferns Report (2005) into allegations of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Diocese of Ferns, Co. Wexford, Catriona Crowe sought to make sense of the seemingly unsatiable appetite in Ireland for memories of childhood. As she wrote in 2006, ‘The whole business of untold stories is at the heart of our fascination with these revelations. The private domain of personal experience has also been at odds with the official stories which were sanctioned, permitted and encouraged by the state and the Catholic Church.’[6] Both survivors and the general public were constrained at the points of language and, therefore, thought. Those who transgressed the implicit moral rules of Irish society, or those who sought to demonstrate their tragic hypocrisy by presenting their own experiences as illustrations, were enveloped by a popular inertia that tolerated no exception, until the hollowness of their assumptions became clear.[7]

‘The Ryan report is the stuff of nightmares,’ reported The Guardian on its publication in 2009. ‘It’s the adjectives which chill: systematic, pervasive, chronic, arbitrary, endemic. They tell the story of the violence and sexual abuse suffered by a generation of some of the most vulnerable children in Ireland over several decades of the middle of the twentieth – century.’[8] The fact that the Irish state consistently, if not systematically failed its most vulnerable citizens, women and children, is a given that nullifies argumentation.[9]

 For most of the twentieth – century, Irish society was a ‘cruel, timid place that was hard on its weakest and too much in thrall to those who preached right from wrong’ to realise what was happening before their eyes.[10]  After giving birth in the 1940s, Agnes’s mother had to be ‘churched’, or blessed by the priest before she could take the sacrament again, as if she were unclean. She remembers another woman, when she asked a priest for advice (for there was nowhere else to turn) about how to stop having so many children, being told to ‘do her womanly duty’. ‘They said jump and you said how high,’ Agnes said.[11] According to Mary Norris, a former industrial school ‘inmate’: ‘They didn’t care about our bodies. Just as long as our little souls were safe.’[12]

The question should lie with why? Why was Irish society so passively oblivious to the horrors now scratched indelibly into its national psyche?  Was the public blind to them?  Was it just ‘a few bad apples’ operating behind the scenes?  As reported to a national readership in the 1960s: ‘The girls in St. Mary’s [Magdalene laundry, High Park, Dublin] don’t pay anything for their keep but the nuns, apart from giving them pocket money and cigarettes, don’t pay for [sic] the girls the work they do in the laundry.’[13] The fact that this article appeared on the front page of WomenFirst, which carried the name of Mary Maher, a torchbearer of second-wave feminism in Ireland, suggests a tacit acceptance and acquiescence that spread far beyond the Catholic Hierarchy. Knowledge of these institutions, what they did and how they did it, and by extension the ideology that facilitated them, pervaded Irish society. The state and Catholic Hierarchy were immediately responsible for the failings of the twentieth – century, the callous abuses and robust efforts of their behalf to obscure or lessen them, but the blame should not end here. In facilitating and tolerating these ‘moral failings,’ Irish society was also complicit. But the situation was more complicated than this may initially imply.

The Irish society in which Tom Ingles grew up in was, he insists, one ‘of guilt, secrecy, darkness and oppression [in which] the body was a source of awkwardness, guilt, shame and embarrassment and where individual difference and initiative were strangled.’[14]  As Sir Horace Plunkett wrote in 1904: ’In no other country probably is religion so dominant an element in the daily life of the people as in Ireland.’[15] This remained so until the end of the twentieth – century, partly due to Ireland’s chronic under-development, the resulting persistence of rural-social structures (ensured by the predominance of small-farms), and the Republic’s religious homogeneity. Things slowly began to change in the 1960s; but even then Ireland was still the ‘Atlantic Tibet,’ where its national culture was infused with Catholicism and the latter’s moral code defined what it was to be ‘Irish’.[16] In short, each individual had to maintain their moral or ‘spiritual’ purity through abstention from pre-marital/non-reproductive sex and rigid adherence to the patriarchal social model (with its implications for how the family is conceptualised, and gender roles, etc.), which all contributed to the maintenance of a moral community in the age of ‘decedent materialism’, as progressive modernity was so often characterised.

Those who did not conform to this fabricated moral order, either out of their own ‘will’ (a difficult question) or because of circumstances beyond their control (rape; poverty), were cast out not because of who they were, but because of what they represented to a community uniformly conditioned by a culture founded on Catholicism: someone who was ‘impure,’ therefore constituting a threat to society at large. The son of an impoverished widower, who could afford to feed him, was ‘impure’, as the product of a ‘troublesome’ household. Likewise, it did not matter that a sixteen year-old girl was pregnant because she had been raped, what mattered was what she represented, or embodied: ‘impurity.’

These pre-conceptions were duly enshrined in the institutions designed to ‘rectify their purity,’ the industrial schools and the Magdalen laundries.  These were, indeed, run by the holy orders and defended by the state, who should bear primary responsibly for the horrors that unfolded in each. But this in itself would be to simplify the situation. Modern, centralised states are confluences of disparate and diverging social relations, as Foucault emphasised.[17] It was not the case that the state and Catholic Hierarchy ‘dominated’ or ‘oppressed’ Irish society in this period, as so often stated. That would be to misunderstand the concept of ‘modern’ power, whichimplies a seamless and necessary reciprocity between both civil and social domains. State and society effectively existed as one, for each was contingent upon the other, and should carry responsibility as such.    

Bibliography

‘Letterfrack Industrial School (‘Letterfrack’), 1885 - 1974,’ Commission to inquire into child abuse: investigation committee report, (Ryan report), vol. I, 2009,pp. 302 – 4. Online at: http://www.childabusecommission.ie/rpt/pdfs/CICA-VOL1-08.PDF (9 Feb. 2021).

Diarmaid Ferriter, Report by Dr. Diarmaid Ferriter, St. Patrick’s College, DCU,’ Commission to inquire into child abuse (Ryan report), vol. III, 2009, p. 3. Online at: http://www.childabusecommission.ie/rpt/pdfs/CICA-VOL5-07A.pdf  (9 Feb. 2021).

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Bruce Arnold, The Irish gulag: how the state betrayed its innocent children (Dublin, 2009).

Terence Brown, Ireland: a social and cultural history (London, 1985).

Lindsey Earner – Byrne, ‘The family in Ireland, 1880 – 2015,’ The Cambridge history of Ireland: vol. IV, 1800 to the present, Thomas Bartlett (ed.) (Cambridge, 2018),pp. 641 – 72.

Mary E. Daly, Sixties Ireland: reshaping the economy, state and society, 1957 – 1973 (Cambridge, 2016).

Anne Dolan, ‘Politics, economy and society in the Irish Free State, 1922 – 1939,’ The Cambridge history of Ireland: vol. IV, pp. 323 – 48.

Diarmaid Ferriter, Occasions of sin: sex and society in modern Ireland (London, 2009).

Michel Foucault, The history of sexuality, vol. I (London, 1976. Tr.).

Tom Garvin, Preventing the future: why was Ireland so poor for so long? (Dublin, 2004).

Caelainn Hogan, Republic of shame: how Ireland punished ‘fallen women’ and their children (London, 2019).

Daithí Ó Corráin, ‘Catholicism in Ireland, 1880 – 2015: rise, ascendancy, and retreat,’ The Cambridge history of Ireland: vol. IV, pp. 726 – 65.

Mary Rafferty & Eoin O’Sullivan, Suffer the little children: the inside story of Ireland’s industrial schools (Dublin, 1999).

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The Guardian, 21 May 2009. Online at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/may/21/catholic-abuse-ireland-ryan  (9 Feb. 2021).

The liberalisation of Ireland: how Ireland stopped being one of the most devout, socially conservative places in Europe’, The Economist, 21 Dec. 2019.

[1] Quoted in ‘Letterfrack Industrial School (‘Letterfrack’), 1885 - 1974,’ Commission to inquire into child abuse: investigation committee report, (Ryan report), vol. I, 2009,pp. 302 – 4. Online at: http://www.childabusecommission.ie/rpt/pdfs/CICA-VOL1-08.PDF (9 Feb. 2021). [2] Quoted Ibid, pp. 202, 203. [3] Quoted in Mary E. Daly, Sixties Ireland: reshaping the economy, state and society, 1957 – 1973 (Cambridge, 2016), pp. 170 – 80 (p. 173). [4] Ibid, p. 180. [5] Tom Garvin, Preventing the future: why was Ireland so poor for so long? (Dublin, 2004), p. 162. [6] Quoted in Diarmaid Ferriter, Report by Dr. Diarmaid Ferriter, St. Patrick’s College, DCU,’ Commission to inquire into child abuse (Ryan report), vol. III, 2009, p. 3. Online at: http://www.childabusecommission.ie/rpt/pdfs/CICA-VOL5-07A.pdf  (9 Feb. 2021). [7] Daithí Ó Corráin, ‘Catholicism in Ireland, 1880 – 2015: rise, ascendancy, and retreat,’ The Cambridge history of Ireland: vol. IV, 1880 to the present, Thomas Bartlett (ed.) (Cambridge, 2018),pp. 726 – 65. [8]The Guardian, 21 May 2009. Online at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/may/21/catholic-abuse-ireland-ryan  (9 Feb. 2021). [9] Lindsey Earner – Byrne, ‘The family in Ireland, 1880 – 2015,’ The Cambridge history of Ireland: vol. IV, pp. 641 – 72 (“‘A moral institution that possesses inalienable and imprescriptible rights’: the family, the state and the churches”, pp. 657 – 63); Mary Rafferty & Eoin O’Sullivan, Suffer the little children: the inside story of Ireland’s industrial schools (Dublin, 1999); Caelainn Hogan, Republic of shame: how Ireland punished ‘fallen women’ and their children (London, 2019); Bruce Arnold, The Irish gulag: how the state betrayed its innocent children (Dublin, 2009). [10] Anne Dolan, ‘Politics, economy and society in the Irish Free State, 1922 – 1939,’ The Cambridge history of Ireland: vol. IV, pp. 323 – 48 (p. 323). [11] ‘The liberalisation of Ireland: how Ireland stopped being one of the most devout, socially conservative places in Europe’, The Economist, 21 Dec. 2019. [12] Quoted in Diarmaid Ferriter, Occasions of sin: sex and society in modern Ireland (London, 2009), p. 325. [13] Quoted in Daly, Sixties Ireland, p. 179. [14] Quoted in Ferriter, Occasions of sin, p. 3. [15] Quoted in Terence Brown, Ireland: a social and cultural history (London, 1985), p. 30. [16] Garvin, Preventing the future, p. 163. [17] See, for example, Michel Foucault, The history of sexuality, vol. I (London, 1976. Tr.), pp. 81 – 91.