Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 8 — Letterfrack

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Physical abuse


Br Anatole said that corporal punishment would be administered for a myriad of offences: If you were walking behind somebody and they were talking you could take out your leather strap and sort of give them a swipe on the back of the legs or a smack on the backside.


He would also hit them for failure at lessons: For example, you asked me for an example, maybe in the classroom I was under pressure to get my Department of Education accreditation so I would be short-tempered at times with pupils who didn’t spell words correctly or something. The traditional way at that time was you would give somebody a smack to make sure so they learned it properly.. There was a very crude connection between if you hit somebody they would learn better that way, that was the basic thinking at the time. That was the way I was taught at primary school and I repeated that myself later on as an adult in the Christian Brothers.


He also beat boys who attempted to jump out of the showers to avoid the sudden changes in temperature, which could go from scalding hot to freezing cold in a matter of seconds. He thought that beating boys for a natural reaction to extremes of temperature seemed particularly cruel.


He spoke of collective punishment and recalled one incident where a boy stole a Communion wafer. Nobody owned up and the whole School was punished. Collective punishment could take many forms, such as the deprivation of food or being made to run around the yard.


Yet another occasional punishment was using the fire hose to direct cold water on to boys who had run away.


The knowledge that there was no parental presence made him feel he had carte blanche to punish to a greater extent than he would have done in a national school with active parental involvement. Being able to beat the boys gave him a sense of power. He said, ‘The opportunity for use of corporal punishment was much greater in Letterfrack than it would be in the national school’.


He apologised for his use of corporal punishment in the School: My first duty before the Commission is to put an unreserved apology in the record for anyone who was hurt by me in any way. That was regrettably the state of the art at the time in the 60s that these pupils had to be punished, they had to be made to pay for the damage they did in society, reformed and sent back out as productive citizens.


The Christian Brothers disputed Br Anatole’s recollections of Letterfrack. They submitted that written statements made by him following his arrest were inconsistent and contradictory when compared with a document he produced while he was still working in the Institution. They also contended that these statements were self-serving and coloured by his desire to present himself to the court in a sympathetic light in seeking to avoid imprisonment. It suited his purpose, therefore, to portray Letterfrack in the most hostile light. For his part, Br Anatole said that he was not understating his case in his Garda statements. He described how he co-operated with the Gardaí in the investigation and that he was encouraged to write a full account of everything that he thought might be relevant by way of mitigation. He had been through two years of therapy, and a lot of memories had surfaced in the therapeutic situation, which the therapist had encouraged him to keep in journal form.


Although the Congregation were able to demonstrate inconsistencies between written statements and testimony given by this witness at different times spanning many years, his evidence was generally credible and reliable about life in Letterfrack, and witnesses provided independent confirmation.


Br Iven worked as a teacher in Letterfrack during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He found Letterfrack to be a lonely place with stressful work and little free time. He told the Committee that he carried a strap, as all Brothers did, but did not remember ever getting any training in its use. Punishment was a matter for his discretion and he punished as the need arose and never felt the need to refer matters up the chain of command. He accepted that the use of the strap was unacceptable by today’s standards, but he did not think that it was excessive by the standards of the day. Br Iven, however, qualified this view when he went on to say that Letterfrack was not a normal school and its residents were not normal schoolchildren, implying that normal standards did not apply to them and some excesses were justified.


He was asked whether he had any personal regrets about punishments he meted out to the boys: I have regrets in many ways. I have regrets, first of all that I was sent there inadequately trained for the job. Secondly, I didn’t know how to handle the situation I was put in. Thirdly, I suppose that with corporal punishment, punishment by the strap – yes, I think with better training, with better facilities, better staffing, we would not have had the need to use as much discipline and corporal as we did. I do have regrets yes.


His perception that corporal punishment was not overly excessive was said in the context that the level of discipline that was normal at the time in schools was the appropriate standard to apply throughout the day: You were there 24 hours, seven days a week, so yes, there was a lot more than you would normally have as a teacher at the time, but it wouldn’t have been overly excessive.


He remembered one occasion when a boy attacked him and he just about got the better of him. He felt that it was a test of strength. He was a new Brother and a small man, and the attack was designed to see what the boys could get away with. It left him greatly shaken and showed him that he was not dealing with ordinary 16-year-olds.


This Brother also confirmed what complainants and other Brothers had said about boys being hosed down for absconding. One complainant had described an incident where two boys had absconded at a time when there was heavy snowfall. They were captured and returned to the school and, according to the witness, put up against a wall, hosed down with fire hoses and made to stand in the freezing cold in their underpants as a form of punishment: The incident happened during winter. There was snow on the ground. It was easy then to find the pupil. The pupil was brought back to the school and then one particular Brother decided that this was the way he would wash him down after it.


Br Iven was in his interim period of teacher training during his time in Letterfrack and was due back in Marino to complete his qualification. He said that he did not feel he could report breaches of discipline to the Resident Manager because of a combination of factors, but principally because he was afraid that it could lead to his dismissal from the Congregation which would have meant he could not become a teacher: I am giving you my honest opinion, no, I didn’t feel that I was in a position to report this. It would have been maybe thought as unseemly conduct for me as a Christian Brother to defend myself, maybe turn the other cheek instead, unfortunately, I didn’t feel that confident about saying anything.

  1. Letterfrack Industrial School, Report on archival material held at Cluain Mhuire, by Bernard Dunleavy BL (2001).
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  6. Prior Park was a residential school run by the Christian Brothers near Bath, England.
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  19. This document is undated, although the date ‘6th November 1964’ is crossed out.
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  32. See table at paragraph 3.20 .
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  36. This information is taken from a report compiled for the Christian Brothers by Michael Bruton in relation to Letterfrack in 2001.
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  58. Electricity Supply Board.
  59. See table at paragraph 8.21 .
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  61. Cross-reference to CB General Chapter where notes that this arrangement was with the agreement of the Department of Education.
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  65. Gateways Chapter 3 goes into this in detail.