Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 8 — Letterfrack

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Physical abuse


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.


Br Anatole recalled that this incident came to the attention of the Superior, Br Malleville, who severely reprimanded him and the other Brothers who took part: It was around supper time. He brought us into the parlour, he was very angry and he said that such a thing was never to happen again ... That any boy was to be beaten on the backside over a chair, on the stage in the hall ... I think it was the sheer brutality of it and the excessive nature of it, it was way outside the boundaries of what Br Malleville considered legitimate corporal punishment. It was there in the collective consciousness of us as Brothers in Letterfrack that these methods that you are putting to me one after the other, that these were handed down progressively from one year to the next. When new Brothers came on the scene that’s how we found out that this was the way things were done here. We never discussed them in any way it was just here we go, run around the yard, give somebody a kick in the backside or whatever. It was just done like that depending on how you felt at that particular time.


There was no record in the Christian Brothers’ discovery of this reprimand or of the circumstances that gave rise to it.


Another former resident remembered the occasion when this boy was beaten: ...[he] was called up for his punishment on the stage, and he was battered and beaten by Br Iven in front of – we all had to sit in these chairs as if you were watching a play on the stage and Br Iven battered him, beat him, lashed him, punched him and kicked him and because he wasn’t getting any satisfaction, he couldn’t make him cry, he started to take off his collar and take his habit down or whatever you call them, and he started to lash him, you know, with his fists and stuff. It seemed like it went on for a long, long time and we had to sit there and watch this.


The Brother who was identified as having given this extreme beating denied involvement. He said, ‘Not only do I not remember it but that certainly wouldn’t have happened’.


Notwithstanding the disapproving attitude of the Superior, there were other public beatings. One witness said: There was different Brothers that used to do it. It was a sort of – it wasn’t always on the stage it could be just up in a corner and made to, everybody silent while somebody was getting punished and you would be just staring ... We used to have a little TV up the front and there was a stage, you know, there was chairs where we would just sit around. If it was raining you would hang about here or if it was cold. This is where things used to happen ... Sometimes they would have a list of people who had done things and the punishment time was in the evening. Or, like, in the dormitory they’d have names, you would be called out, so and so, come up here. At the end of the dormitory where a room was they would carry out punishments there. It could be in the yard, there was a big yard with four walls, you know. You were lined up like soldiers and your name was called out ... There was other Brothers who done a lot of punishments too, but this is a guy I have in my mind who I seen doing things and has done things to me. There was another guy Telfour, I seen him using the special branches or sticks that bend.


Although boys might not always be formally assembled, the public nature of beatings administered where all the boys were assembled had a similar effect. This was particularly true at night time, when boys were punished in the washroom adjacent to the dormitories. One witness described a severe beating he received for absconding. The Manager turned off the radio that was playing in the dormitory and invited the rest of the boys who were in their beds to ‘now listen to some music’ as he brought the boy out to be beaten. His screams were heard throughout the dormitory.


It was disturbing to hear other boys being beaten. As one witness said, ‘you nearly preferred to get it yourself because listening to somebody getting bashed, in a sense it is worse than getting it yourself’.


Public punishment increased the ordeal for the person being punished and had a frightening impact on the boys watching or listening. Such spectacles should have had no place in a facility dedicated to the care of children.


On one occasion, a boy trying to escape was caught in one of the fields belonging to the School and brought back. He was given a severe beating and was then subjected to two extra punishments that required considerable ingenuity. He first described the beating: I was told to take down my pants and bend over. Well, I didn’t actually get to bend over myself, he just grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me down and started to lay into me ... All the rest of the boys had gone off to work in the afternoon and there was just me and him. Now I have a vague recollection of another Brother being around, but I couldn’t swear to it.


He then said that he was brought to the boot-makers and was given extra large boots: At the time I was pretty small. The boots, it was like having two barges on your feet. Then he frog-marched me up to the farmyard where some of the boys were up there. They were piling silage, at the time I thought it was only grass, but I got the technical term later; into this big silo pit and I was made to get into it and walk around in circles with these boots. It would have been bad enough walking around with ordinary boots, because every time you stepped, you would go down, but the big boots, and when the boys had a rest, I had to keep going.

  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.