Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 8 — Letterfrack

Show Contents

Physical abuse


The next occasion involved the same boy, in the dormitory, when he pinned Br Dondre up against a wall and attempted to choke him. He flipped the boy over. Br Anatole came in and asked him if everything was all right.


On a third occasion, he was threatened by a boy wielding a broken chair. He said he was able to handle that situation because the boy was the same height as him and he removed the chair from him.


Br Dondre described a fourth occasion as the most serious and upsetting incident. He was verbally chastising a pupil when the boy attacked him with the leg of a chair. Br Dondre picked up a stick and hit him on the head with it. The boy’s head was grazed from the blow. The boy dropped and he caught him in a headlock. He got control of the boy and brought him to the nurse who disinfected the wound on his head. He reported the matter to Br Malleville, who criticised Br Dondre for his inability to keep control and letting the incident occur. He was asked whether he understood Br Malleville’s criticism to relate to his loss of temper and he said: No it wasn’t that. It was the fact that the incident happened at all. That I let him get out of control.


He was never given any guidance or direction from Br Malleville or anyone else as to how that control might be maintained. Br Dondre said that he deeply regretted his conduct on that day.


He was not issued with a strap on arrival, but he went to the cobbler and asked him to make one for him because he thought he would need it. He received no guidance as to its use and so would have used his own discretion. He was aware, however, of the Christian Brothers’ rules regarding the administration of corporal punishment.


He explained the circumstances in which corporal punishment could be administered in the classroom. The rulebook prohibited the administration of punishment for failure at lessons, but Br Dondre drew a distinction between two types of failure at lessons: the first was failure due to a lack of knowledge, the second was failure due to not having prepared the subject properly. In the former, he would not administer punishment; in the latter, he would. There was a grey area in which the second kind of failure could be regarded as a breach of discipline.


Br Dondre said that he often gave boys ‘a clatter’ for serious offences. He admitted to kicking boys, beating them with a stick or with his open palm. He said that he regretted using corporal punishment but stressed that it was essential for maintaining order. He felt that the boys had no respect for teachers who did not use it.


Br Dondre agreed with other Brothers that absconding was regarded as a particularly serious offence, and recalled an incident where absconders were punished with a fire hose. It was also punishable by the withdrawal of home leave, head shaving and by being beaten with the strap. It was usually dealt with directly by the Resident Manager.


Br Karel worked in Letterfrack in the early 1970s and had been sent there because the school was experiencing problems. Discipline was poor as a result of low staff levels, and the small number of staff that was there was overworked. Shortly after he arrived, the boys staged a sit-down protest and were only persuaded to go to bed with difficulty. The other Brothers working there told him they were barely able to keep control and there had been assaults on two of them. Bullying was a big problem, with bigger boys regularly trying to impose their will on smaller boys and even on Brothers. He administered corporal punishment with a leather strap which was carried by all of the Brothers and he also used his fists. He confirmed that there was no punishment book in which punishments administered were recorded. He told the Committee that he used the threat of three slaps on the buttocks to deter boys from absconding.


He instituted a number of schemes to try and control the boys and create a positive atmosphere in the School. As a result, he was able to discontinue gradually the use of the leather strap: The atmosphere changed gradually. Punishment was still there in the normal way, corporal punishment didn’t go out until 1982 or 1983. I was able to discard that leather which was the normal way of administering punishment in Letterfrack in that, somewhere in the middle of that period I was there and I never again used it.


Br Karel worked in Letterfrack for the last two years of the Institution, during which time the numbers reduced dramatically. When he arrived, there were 41 boys in the Institution, and when he left in 1974, there were only 11 boys and the School was in the process of closing.32 Even though numbers were that small, violence was still a serious problem in the School.


Main points arising from respondent evidence These witnesses confirmed that violence was a regular feature of life in Letterfrack. It was a means of communication and was a way of gaining status and power. Fear affected the way boys related to Brothers and impaired relationships among the boys themselves. • Many Brothers considered that the practice of carrying a leather all the time and using it as and when required was normal for the times. They defended this level of corporal punishment by saying that it was no more than was present in many national schools. The crucial point was that Letterfrack was more than just a national school; it was home to the boys who were there. Parents did not carry around leathers or sticks as a matter of course, and that is the standard by which the Brothers should be judged. The Brothers were trained, or were in the course of training, as teachers and it is as teachers that they speak of levels of corporal punishment, not as carers in loco parentis to these children. Even today, many of them are not able to see that subjecting children to the constant threat of corporal punishment at the level it was administered in Letterfrack was excessive and unreasonable. Brothers gave examples of corporal punishment that were clearly beyond what was acceptable in national schools. Punishment was not confined to slapping on the hand. Brothers used the strap on the buttocks and the bare buttocks. Some Brothers admitted hitting boys with their hands or fists. Implements such as sticks were used. Punishments included marching around the yard, isolation, head shaving and hosing down with cold water. Brothers differed as to their knowledge of the rules on corporal punishment, in that some recalled being aware of them whilst others did not. In reality, these Rules were irrelevant in Letterfrack because they were breached so often and without any fear of censure. All Brothers who spoke to the Committee confirmed that corporal punishment was a matter of individual discretion and that they received no formal guidance or training on its administration. They administered the punishment themselves and generally did not involve the Resident Manager. Trainee Brothers who did so much of the day-to-day running of the School had a strong incentive to maintain the status quo, because taking problems to the Resident Manager might have had repercussions for gaining their qualifications. If they used excessive punishment, the Resident Manager did no more than warn them to avoid recurrences. Losing control of the boys, however, was seen as a serious failing by the Brothers. In the absence of accountability or control, either through supervision or the punishment book, excessive and unfair corporal punishment was administered. Letterfrack was seen as a challenging and difficult posting by the Brothers and ex-Brothers who testified. Some Brothers admitted that they took out their frustrations on the boys in their care and punished excessively as a result. The system that placed inexperienced or unsuitable Brothers in an environment that was so fundamentally flawed was fraught with danger.


Complainant witnesses gave evidence from a perspective that was necessarily different from respondents. Their testimony focused on some major themes as follows: Physical punishment was pervasive; there was no way of avoiding it and it was the response of first resort for any problem that arose. There was an extraordinary variety of methods of inflicting pain and physical discomfort. The circumstances in which punishment was inflicted were many and varied, ranging from serious offences to trivial matters and sometimes for no reason at all. Life in Letterfrack was lived in a climate of fear.


Complainant and respondent witnesses agreed that boys were sometimes punished in public, when other boys were formally assembled to witness the event with the intention that they should learn something from the occasion. Br Francois had a ‘vague recollection’ of one such incident: I remember them being lined up, I don’t know what room, was it the refectory or something, they were lined up in a line and slapped as far as I remember, in front of the rest of the school.


A former resident described the circumstances of a public beating which was acknowledged as having occurred by Br Anatole and which was dealt with in his evidence above: This guy, the fellow I am talking about Alan33 what he done was a guy sitting on the top, he was sitting on the chair and he was having a hair cut. The Brother left the thing for cutting your hair down and when he went the guy went up and he shaved the back of the guy’s head quickly as a joke, and your man had a big lump missing out of his hair. So when the Brother came back he seen this and he was really mad, and he asked who done it. Eventually through a lot of, you know, questions and threatening, battering him, whatever, he said it was so and so that done it. That is how he come to be punished for that ... I can’t remember if he said, “listen I done it”, but the guy said “it was Alan who done it”. So he got done and his punishment was on the stage in front of everyone.

  1. Letterfrack Industrial School, Report on archival material held at Cluain Mhuire, by Bernard Dunleavy BL (2001).
  2. This is a pseudonym.
  3. This is a pseudonym
  4. This is a pseudonym.
  5. This is a pseudonym.
  6. Prior Park was a residential school run by the Christian Brothers near Bath, England.
  7. This is a pseudonym.
  8. This is a pseudonym.
  9. This is a pseudonym.
  10. This is a pseudonym.
  11. This is a pseudonym.
  12. This is a pseudonym. See also the Tralee chapter.
  13. This is a pseudonym
  14. This is a pseudonym.
  15. This is a pseudonym.
  16. This is a pseudonym.
  17. This is a pseudonym.
  18. This is a pseudonym.
  19. This document is undated, although the date ‘6th November 1964’ is crossed out.
  20. This is a pseudonym.
  21. This is a pseudonym.
  22. This is a pseudonym.
  23. This is a pseudonym
  24. This is a pseudonym
  25. This is a pseudonym.
  26. This is a pseudonym.
  27. This is a pseudonym.
  28. This is a pseudonym.
  29. This is a pseudonym.
  30. This is a pseudonym.
  31. This is a pseudonym.
  32. See table at paragraph 3.20 .
  33. This is a pseudonym.
  34. This is a pseudonym.
  35. This is a pseudonym.
  36. This information is taken from a report compiled for the Christian Brothers by Michael Bruton in relation to Letterfrack in 2001.
  37. This is a pseudonym.
  38. This is a pseudonym.
  39. This is a pseudonym.
  40. This is a pseudonym.
  41. This is a pseudonym.
  42. This is a pseudonym.
  43. This is a pseudonym.
  44. This is a pseudonym.
  45. This is a pseudonym.
  46. This is a pseudonym.
  47. This is a pseudonym.
  48. This is a pseudonym.
  49. This is a pseudonym.
  50. This is a pseudonym.
  51. This is a pseudonym.
  52. This is a pseudonym.
  53. This is a pseudonym.
  54. This is a pseudonym.
  55. This is a pseudonym.
  56. This is a pseudonym.
  57. This is a pseudonym.
  58. Electricity Supply Board.
  59. See table at paragraph 8.21 .
  60. This is a pseudonym
  61. Cross-reference to CB General Chapter where notes that this arrangement was with the agreement of the Department of Education.
  62. This is a pseudonym.
  63. This is a pseudonym.
  64. This is a pseudonym.
  65. Gateways Chapter 3 goes into this in detail.