The Industrial Schools: flaws in the liberal narrative by Dave Alvey


Donogh O’Malley 1968

There are flaws in mainstream Irish liberalism. One such is that, holding an aversion to the Fianna Fail political tradition, liberals tend to downplay its achievements. This can be seen in the way the story of the Industrial Schools is told. In the 1960s various Fianna Fail Ministers collaborated to expose the system of institutional child detention run by religious orders of the Catholic Church, and their efforts led to the closure of the main Industrial Schools in the 1970s. You get a skewed sense of this from the acclaimed book on the subject published in 1999—Suffer the Little Children by Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan—a radical journalistic analysis written from a liberal perspective.

(Mary Raftery died of ovarian cancer in 2012. With the title, Do They Think We’re Eejits, a selection of her columns for the Irish Times between 2003 and 2009 was published in book form by that paper in 2013. Eoin O’Sullivan was a lecturer in Social Policy when the Suffer the Little Children was published and is now Professor of Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin)

In a previous article I referred to a timeline on the Industrial Schools published on the Internet by Paddy Doyle, a survivor of the system. I wrote that the timeline distorted the historical record by making a reference to Charles Haughey that made it appear as though he was complicit in protecting the system, when he had in fact initiated an official investigation of it in 1962. On re-reading Suffer the Little Children I discovered that it was the source of Paddy Doyle’s assertion regarding Haughey; his timeline reference was taken directly from the book. It is therefore necessary to take a closer look at Raftery and O’Sullivan’s treatment of the subject.

In retrospect it is at least plausible to adjudge that as Minister for Health Charles Haughey erred in failing to initiate a public inquiry into children’s homes following the murder of a child by a child care worker from Madonna House, Dublin in 1978. Raftery and O’Sullivan describe the incident as follows:

Donogh O’Malley 1968

It later transpired that the management of Madonna House under the Sisters of Charity was marked by “incompetence and pervasive dysfunction”. The House catered for 50 children and was funded by the State. It was considered to be a major improvement on the Industrial School model in that it was “a family orientated centre”. A paedophile, Frank Griffin, was employed as a maintenance man in 1984, six years after the murder. His activities were reported by members of the staff but the Manager, Sr Anna Purcell, according to Raftery and O’Sullivan, failed to take appropriate action. Griffin was eventually arrested and sentenced to four years imprisonment for sexually abusing children resident there during the 1980s and early 1990s.

In retrospect it is easy to blame the responsible Minister for failing to inquire into the new child care institutions after a child care worker kidnapped and murdered a child in his care, but Haughey probably considered the tragedy to have been an isolated incident. He can hardly be blamed for failing to foresee the future. However, Raftery and O’Sullivan are within their rights as documentary investigators in informing their readers that Minister Haughey decided not to entertain requests that a public inquiry be held and that it subsequently transpired that an inquiry into the new children’s homes would have been the better decision.

Where an inadequacy in the characterisation of Haughey by the authors of Suffer the Little Children arises is in their description of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Crime Prevention and Treatment of Offenders which was set up in 1962. Raftery and O’Sullivan make a number of detailed references to this Committee without mentioning that it was Haughey who was its instigator. This is a significant omission. The Inter-Departmental Committee was the second official investigation into the Industrial Schools (the first was that of the Cussen Committee in the late thirties) and it marked the beginning of a process that led to the closure of the Schools. The formation of the Committee arose from a political decision by Haughey in his capacity as Minister for Justice in a Government headed by Sean Lemass; it is disingenuous to represent it as a routine development initiated by officials. Here is how the Committee is described in the book:

“During 1962, the Department of Education had been involved in a more general Inter-Departmental Committee on Crime Prevention and Treatment of Offenders. This had been established in September under the chairmanship of Peter Berry, Secretary of the Department of Justice. As part of its remit, it explained the treatment of young offenders, and consequently it turned its attention to the industrial and reformatory schools.

Despite meeting on several occasions, this Committee never published a report, and most of its recommendations on the schools were never acted on. Some of these were identical to those of the Kennedy Report, seven years later. However, the deliberations of the Inter-Departmental Committee were strangely never referred to by the Kennedy Report.” (p. 358)

Raftery and O’Sullivan then provide a bulleted list of the Committee’s main recommendations, the most important of which refer to needs for visiting committees, more frequent inspections, the appointment of matrons/nurses, and regulations to ensure proper bedding and clothing for the inmates. They recount how the Committee interviewed the Chaplain of Artane Industrial School, Fr Henry Moore who had been appointed by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid to give him an honest account of the School; his report had been scathing. Moore gave the same report to the Committee. This represented an indictment of the Department of Education as well as of the Artane School and by way of response three officials of that Department duly visited Artane, producing a report that rejected the criticisms.

This is all described in a chapter entitled, The First Cracks, in which the work of Haughey’s Inter-Departmental Committee is treated as one among “a handful of voices” critical of the Industrial Schools in the early sixties. But this is less than the full picture. A more realistic appraisal has been provided by Dr Fiachra Byrne from the School of History at University College Dublin. An address he gave to the 2017 Parnell Summer School was reported as follows:

“He said the first significant changes to State thinking on the needs of delinquent children and adults included contributions from psychologists and an interdepartmental committee set up by Haughey when he was minister for justice in 1962” (IT, 16 August 2017).

The Inter-Departmental Committee rattled the cage of those elements in the Department of Education inclined to be defensive of the Industrial Schools. Its recommendations put one part of the State machine on notice that the malpractice perpetrated in the Schools was no longer beneath the political radar. The question at issue represented a particularly difficult challenge for the political system, and the social power that the Catholic Church could call on meant that the defenders of the Industrial Schools could easily repulse the initiative that Haughey had inconspicuously launched. But a start had been made.

In Suffer the Little Children Raftery and O’Sullivan are economical with the truth about Haughey’role but they also seem to have very little knowledge of the uneasy relationship that existed between Fianna Fail and the Church especially in the years after the party’s formation. At that time the party viewed itself as the excommunicated party and a pride in that label survived down the decades; Lemass once stated in an interview that a belt of a crozier always helped a candidate being selected by the party.

After the Inter-Departmental Committee other oppositional forces began to close in on the Industrial Schools, as the authors show (p. 356-364). In 1963 the Catholic Bishop of Cork, Dr Cornelius Lucey, pronounced against the inadequacy of institutional child care. Between 1964 and 1969, though for economic rather than moral reasons, the religious orders closed fourteen Industrial Schools (for most of the first half of the twentieth century there were 52 Schools usually accommodating approximately 6,000 children at any one time). As the messages of the Second Vatican Council began to hit home a mindset change was occurring in Irish Catholicism which augured the end of the institutional care model, if such a description is not too charitable. A 1964 file from the Department of Education archive states that “thinking both here and abroad is against long-term detention in institutions” showing that the sea change in attitude was occurring even in that quarter. By 1966 different branches of the media, in a small way, were beginning to take a critical view of the Schools.

Yet the important agents of change continued to be Government Ministers. As Minister for Education, Donogh O’Malley launched the Kennedy Committee of Inquiry into the Industrial Schools in October 1967. Its Report was published in 1970 after the Committee, headed by District Court Justice Eileen Kennedy, had visited all of the Schools, received 56 submissions, sought information from 45 organisations and consulted 113 publications. According to Raftery and O’Sullivan, O’Malley’s initiative “resulted in the effective dismantling of the system [of Industrial Schools] (p. 364), and its Report provided “one of the most damning indictments of the operation of any State system ever produced in this country” (p. 378). O’Malley died in a car accident in March 1968. He was replaced as Minister by Brian Lenihan who ensured that the Kennedy Committee had the secretarial resources it needed to overcome obstructions placed in its way by pro-Church civil servants. It would be wrong, however, to see Lenihan merely as an able inheritor of O’Malley’s initiative. As Minister for Justice in 1966, Lenihan wrote to O’Malley pointing out the desirability of establishing visiting committees for the Industrial Schools and recommending that a “vigorous approach” be taken in dealings with the religious Managers of the Schools (p. 365).

The political story behind the Kennedy Committee is that a well known trio of Fianna Fail politicians—Charles Haughey, Brian Lenihan and Donogh O’Malley—with the support at different times of two Taoisigh—Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch—collaborated to break the stranglehold that the Catholic Church had over the Irish State. In introducing free secondary education and dismantling the Industrial Schools this Fianna Fail grouping achieved a measure of success but every inch of ground had to be fought for. The Catholic lobby quickly regrouped and when Fianna Fail was turned out of office by a Fine Gael-Labour Coalition in 1973 the period of reform was brought to an abrupt end. A staunch upholder of Catholic Church interests, Richard Burke, was appointed as Minister for Education and new structures within the Department designed to facilitate educational planning on a national scale were systematically disassembled; the balance of power in the Department and throughout the State machine swung back to the defenders of Church power.

In placing these events in historical context care needs to be taken so that a simplistic narrative is avoided. The truth about the Industrial Schools was not known or understood in society. Outside of the religious orders involved in managing the Schools, the defenders of the reputation of the Catholic Church acted in good faith.

In the final chapter of Suffer the Little Children Raftery and O’Sullivan chronicle how the new era heralded by the Kennedy Report failed to live up to expectations. They state:

“The stark reality is that while the rhetoric associated with child care had changed, the closed and secretive practices which had allowed so much past abuse to occur were still very much in place.” (p. 382)

During the 1980s and 1990s child care under the authority of the State continued to be controlled by the Catholic religious orders even though the Industrial Schools had closed. Physical and sexual abuse of children was rife in the new institutions and religious Managers, fearful of exposing the Church to scandal, were unable to deal with it. The authors make no reference to the effects of the political change caused by the electoral victory of a pro-Catholic Church Fine Gael-Labour Government.

The three television programmes that made up the documentary, States of Fear, on which Suffer the Little Children was based, performed a job that needed doing. They were broadcast over three weeks in May 1999 and provoked a massive public debate. It was sensible, given that the impact of TV programmes tends to be relatively short, to produce a book based on the programmes. Suffer the Little Children is in many ways worthy of its critically important subject. It is a book that deserves to be on the bookshelves of readers who care about Irish national development. But it has deep flaws and one of its flaws defines much that is wrong with contemporary Irish liberalism.

The first flaw pertains to its treatment of Charles Haughey, as I have shown. Since the subject matter of their investigative work was the exposure of a long-term official cover up, it behoved the authors to be scrupulously objective themselves. Airbrushing Haughey out of the story when he instigated a pivotal investigation and then highlighting his role when he refused to authorise an inquiry regarding Madonna House are hardly examples of impartial description. I can’t see such practice as other than a reflection of political bias.

In the same vein an element of pettiness is evident when, in describing politicians who raised concerns about the Schools over the years, the political affiliations are mentioned of Fine Gael representatives like Deputy Kennifick, a member of Cork City Executive of Fine Gael (p. 132), and Stephen Barrett, another Cork TD (p. 218), while those of Fianna Fail representatives like Cork Mayor and Senator, Gus Healy (p. 132) and Dublin TD Sean Brady (190), are not.

(It is not my intention to portray Fianna Fail as faultless and Fine Gael as exclusively defensive of the Church. As Minister for Justice in the forties Gerry Boland of Fianna Fail was a rabid supporter of the Industrial Schools while the manner in which the Fine Gael TD, Declan Costello, recommended to Donogh O’Malley that he use the experience of a courageous priest, Fr Ken McCabe, in laying the ground for the investigation into the Schools shows that party allegiance was not an automatic indicator of politicians’ views on the issue. See p. 368. I am simply arguing that there is a particular onus on the authors of a work on the Industrial Schools to tell the story objectively without the distraction of political bias, whether petty or otherwise.)

It is difficult to know why Raftery and O’Sullivan are weak in describing the political aspect of the Industrial Schools saga. It may be because they undervalue the importance of politics. Missing from their analysis is any understanding of the risks taken by Haughey, Lenihan and O’Malley when with the backing of their party and party Leaders they moved against Church power. Also missing is any reference to the successful counter attack against them that reached fruition in the seventies. It is possible that the political back story is absent because the authors wished to disparage the political system of independent Ireland. I know that one of the prime movers in crusading journalism in Ireland, Vincent Browne, was firmly of the opinion that achieving independence was a mistake and his viewpoint may have been shared by other radical journalists like Mary Raftery. I know about Browne’s viewpoint because I engaged in a public correspondence with him on the point in Village magazine in the early 2000s.

Raftery and O’Sullivan deserve credit for attempting to place the Industrial Schools in a historical perspective. They devote a few early chapters to explaining how the system came into being under British rule in the nineteenth century. Their account is not as bad as some readers might expect—it recognises the massive re-organisation of Church institutions accompanied by rigid orthodoxy that occurred under the leadership of Cardinal Paul Cullen—but the topic is too large to be dealt with in their journalistic approach. It is perhaps a topic for another day.

In contemporary Irish politics the issue of the Magdalene laundries is being used as a battering ram to discredit the national tradition. It is as though the ideological ground needs to be cleared of past remnants so that new ideologies like liberalism and feminism can become dominant; it’s as though a radical break with the past needs to be engineered to make way for a new dispensation. But the architects of this new dispensation have no understanding of the importance of historical continuity. Their project entails a diminishing of culture. The new ideologies—cosmopolitanism, individualistic liberalism and feminism of the US variety—are superficial and divisive; they fitted well with the scheme of globalised capitalism that came a cropper in 2008. They are not socially or locally rooted in the manner of Irish nationalism.

The authors of Suffer the Little Children followed the same liberal agenda as is currently being played out over the Magdalene laundries. In exposing the horrors of the Industrial Schools it was not their intention to enhance Irish national development. On the contrary they misrepresent the response of the Irish political system in the sixties and seventies and depict independence from Britain in a negative light. As they describe it Irish national politics is not something to be taken seriously.

Alternatively the political approach envisioned in the Proclamation—overcoming social problems through self government with a European dimension—provides a more credible way forward. The excess of power wielded by the Catholic Church had a disfiguring effect on the State and tainted the achievements of the national movement, but that is not a reason for renouncing the entire nationalist tradition, or indeed for writing off the Catholic tradition in its entirety. There are hard lessons to be learned from the experience of the Industrial Schools—for the world of politics and for the Church—and many of the insights provided by Raftery and O’Sullivan are helpful in that regard—but it would be wrong to use those experiences and failures as a pretext for ditching the rich historical legacy of the national tradition in favour of whatever it is that the liberal/feminist lobby has mapped out for our future.

A version of this article was published in the First Quarter, 2019 edition of Church and State magazine

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