who knew?

 
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We never knew? 

Over the past decade, Ireland has constructed a history around the issue of child abuse based on the idea that most people never knew anything about, or even understood child abuse before the notorious Fr Brendan Smyth case in 1994. Comforting as it may be, it is not an accurate picture of Irish society’s relationship with child abuse. While it is true to say most people did not understand the term paedophilia, the word only came into popular parlance in the late 1970s, the existence of child abuse was widely known prior to this. To move forward Ireland must acknowledge to survivors of abuse, that it was by no means completely hidden, while also trying to understand why so many were powerless to act.

Who knew what? 

The Church and State authorities had an in depth understanding of the scale of the problem facing Ireland since the 1920’s.

‘the fondling of boys, the laying of hands on them is contrary to the rules of modesty and is decidedly dangerous.’ 

1920, The Superior General of the Christian brothers Patrick Hennessey in a letter to fellow Christian Brothers.

 

‘The teacher who allows himself any softness in his intercourse with his pupil, who does not repress the tendency to “pet” and who fondles the young or indulges in other weaknesses is not heeding the danger sign and may easily fail’ 

1926,The Christian brothers provincial again writing wrote to its members.

 

There was an alarming amount of sexual crime increasing yearly, a feature of which was the large number of cases of criminal interference with girls and children from 16 years downwards, including many cases of children under 10 year’
‘some practise it habitually on children of tender years of both sexes’

The 1931 suppressed Carrigan Report.

 

‘I noticed a great number of atrocities by the so called Christian Brothers against the boys, i.e. beatings and floggings in the most perverted way as if Christ was not present on the altar as a boy as well as a man. I believe such pagan methods are still used against the boys who get beatings and run away.....I hope that the truth of what I saw during my time as a boy will put an end to this practice of naked beatings.’ 

A 1958letter of complaint to the Department of Education outlining physical and sexual abuse in an industrial school in Tralee in the 1920s and 1930s.

 

Were politicians and the religious elite the only ones to know? Most people were surely oblivious to what child sex abuse even was? 

This is not the case. Abuse was not limited to church or state institutions and the abuse of children in wider society was widely known and reported in the media. While the term paedophile was first used in the Irish press in 1975 the ‘indecent assault’ of minors was commonly reported. 

 Freemans Journal, May 5th,  1922   

Freemans Journal, May 5th,  1922   

 Leitrim Observer April 24, 1937

Leitrim Observer April 24, 1937

 Meath Chronicle July 22nd, 1950

Meath Chronicle July 22nd, 1950

Indeed in the summer of 1946 child abuse became a topic of national debate when the internationally famous priest Mnsr. Edward Flanagan came to Ireland and attacked many of Ireland’s penal institutions for children, notorious for physical abuse.

 

The subject was even debated in the Dáil in this speech by Clann na Poblachta T.D. Peadar Cowan in 1954, when he detailed one case which had been brought to his attention.

 

The boy concerned is aged 14½ years. He has been in Artane Industrial School for one and a half years, and, during his period there, his conduct has been satisfactory. On the 14th of this month he was punished for some boyish altercation with another boy. Apparently, as I am informed, before the punishment was inflicted, the doors were locked, the windows closed and the punishment, which was the normal punishment, was inflicted in the presence of all of his classmates. The punishment, I am informed, consisted of a number of slaps on the hand from the punishment leather that is generally used for that purpose, but on the completion of that punishment the boy was ordered to submit to further punishment with the edge of the strap and he refused to accept that punishment. The Brother in charge sent for another Brother to come in. Apparently the boy who was being punished felt that the Brother was being brought in for the purpose of compelling him to receive this additional punishment to which he objected. Whatever his boyish mind was, he ran from the place in which he was being punished, lifted a sweeping brush, which was apparently standing in a corner, and held it up as a protection. At this stage, the second Brother arrived and seeing the bush in the boy’s hands, snatched it from him, struck him on the head injuring him, struck him on the back injuring him, struck him on the arm and broke his arm. That happened on the 14th and the boy was taken to hospital on the 16th instant when his arm was set in plaster and is still in plaster. 

 

Why did no one act to challenge this behaviour?

 

After independence in 1922 those in power sought to protect the new Irish Free State above all else, an attitude that was quickly imbued through wider society. There was no desire among politicians, the church or the media to discuss failings of the idealised newly independent Irish society. The country of De Valera’s comely maidens dancing at crossroads could not have widespread sexual abuse of children, at least it could pretend not to. In this situation people convicted of child abuse received very light sentences from judges, while charges of indecent assault were frequently changed to common assault. This served to undermine the seriousness of the offence in wider society. 

 

Its little surprise in this context that in 1932 one civil servant recommended the suppression of the Carrigan report which detailed the widespread sexual abuse of children because 

 

    “It is clearly undesirable that such a view of conditions in the Saorstat should be given wide circulation”

 

For those who complained about abuse in institutions they faced the might of the Catholic Church which administered many of these institutions. Through much of the 20th century this church was the spiritual arm of the state recognised in article 44.1.2 of 1937 constitution  

 

‘The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.’ 

 

Protecting the church was seen as protecting the independent Irish Free State. This, combined with the political elites desire to hide their new state’s problems from the world stage, created an environment where open constructive conversation around sexual or physical abuse in institutions was impossible. 

This environment was compounded by fear. Post-independence Ireland was a deeply authoritarian society. In the first year of Free State rule the government began a series of extra judicial killings, which saw the Minister for Justice Kevin O Higgins sanction the execution of therepublican Rory O Connor who had been O Higgins’ best man the previous year. Brutal events like this execution combined with physical attacks on strikes in 1922 and 1923 laid down a marker that questioning the new Irish Free State would not be tolerated. Indeed the leader of the Labour Party Thomas Johnson proclaimed in 1922 after O Connor’s execution:

 

    ‘I am almost forced to say you have killed the new State at its birth’.

 

These factors created a society where silence soon became the catch cry where victims were the ones on trial, illustrated in this 1968 correspondence from the Fine Gael T.D Stephen Barrett, to the department of Education. (He had received a complaint from the father of a boy who had been severely abused in Tralee Industrial school, a institution at the centre of numerous complaints)

    ‘the parents are obviously intent on ventilating the matter and I told     them I would make every effort to have it privately investigated...... I  hope you appreciated my view that it would be a bad thing to let this     story be propagated without at least taking some steps to discover  the real situation’

 

Indicative of a society void of any debate, the Communist party was one of the few groups able to voice the concerns of those abused in Institutions. In 1935 they called for an open inquiry into Artane Industrial School . They could do this as they were beyond the influence of the political and religious elite, but sadly they were ignored.

(source: www.dublinopinion.com)

 

Finally it appears the room for debating these topics has openedup in Ireland however we must not create new myths about not knowing but move forward with the truth no matter how discomforting it maybe.

Fin Dwyer
http://irishhistorypodcast.ie


1920, The Superior General of the Christian brothers Patrick Hennessey in a letter to fellow Christian Brothers.

Pge 322 Ferriter, D (2010) The Transformation Of Ireland 1900-2000


1926,The Christian brothers provincial again writing wrote to its members.
Pge 322 Ferriter, D (2010) The Transformation Of Ireland 1900-2000
 

The 1931 suppressed Carrigan Report. Is this asking for a reference that it was suppressed? If so this is it.

pge 354 Kennedy, F. The Suppression of the Carrigan Report: A Historical Perspective on Child Abuse An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 89, No. 356 (Winter, 2000), pp. 354-363

 

A 1958 letter of complaint to the Department of Education outlining physical and sexual abuse in an industrial school in Tralee in the 1920s and 1930s.

Pge 322 Ferriter, D (2010) The Transformation Of Ireland 1900-2000


The subject was even debated in the Dáil in this speech by Clann n a Poblachta T.D. Peadar Cowan Dail Eireann 23 April, 1954 http://historical-debates.oireachtas.ie/D/0145/D.0145.195404230005.html


1932 one civil servant recommended the suppression of the Carrigan report which detailed the widespread sexual abuse of children because

pge 527 Finnane, M. The Carrigan Committee of 1930-31 and the 'Moral Condition of the Saorstát' Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 32, No. 128 (Nov., 2001), pp. 519-536
 

Thomas Johnson proclaimed in 1922 after O Connor's execution:

Dail Eireann Friday, 8 December 1922 http://debates.oireachtas.ie/dail/1922/12/08/00007.asp
 

1968 correspondence from the Fine Gael T.D Stephen Barrett, to the department of Education.

page 225 Raftery, M. & O'Sullivan, E. (2002) Suffer the children: the inside story of Ireland's industrial schools

 
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