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Chapter 8 — Letterfrack

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Physical abuse


However, during the private hearings, Br Sorel, who was present during the 1940s and 1950s, admitted to punishing boys for bed-wetting. He stated that: That was one of the worst and soiling the bed. This is the thing that used to break my heart in the morning when I came down to the dormitory, they had Macintosh sheets, large ones on the bed, and then they had the ordinary sheets over the Macintosh sheet, you would find three or four of the lads would not alone wet the bed but soil the bed. I was really tearing my hair out at that stage.


He continued: It was a problem every morning and I used to detest it. I felt like running away myself several times, having to face it coming down in the morning. It was terrible, the stench and the smell.


He used to try and deal with the problem himself, but if it was not possible the boys had to take their mattress down to the yard, or take their sheets to the laundry.


As a result of this evidence in its Final Submission the Congregation stated: It is accepted that boys were, on isolated occasions during this period, punished for this problem though it does not appear that such punishment was a regular or routine practice within Letterfrack.


They also accept that bed-wetters could have been dealt with more sensitively and that boys were required to organise the cleaning of their sheets themselves.


Complainants testified that there was a practice of punishing boys who wet their beds. A former resident, who was in Letterfrack in the late 1960s, described how he was slapped for wetting the bed: And if you wet the bed, you got a smack. They would know the bed-wetters from the rest of them. They would check their beds all the time. They would just walk by and they would whip your blankets off, and if the bed was stained you would get a smack.


A number of former residents told the Investigation Committee how they started to wet the bed in Letterfrack. One pupil described how he started to wet the bed in the School, a problem that continued well into adult life. He said that, in the mornings, his sheets and mattress would be thrown on the floor. He recounted how he was sometimes made to wrap the sheets around him in order, as he saw it, to degrade him. He would be made to take the sheets to the yard while all the while the other boys would be laughing at him. Although he received the odd slap for bed-wetting he said there was no punishment as such, and what he feared most was the humiliation.


One former pupil said: lads that wet the bed as well they were made take the mattress down in the morning, carry them around the yard on their back and then put them on the rails in front of the shops they had in the school. There was a row of shops all the way along; the bakers, the cobblers and the tailors, and there was big railings and they had to put the mattresses up there to dry out. It was embarrassing like, you know.


Bed-wetting and soiling showed the extreme emotional disturbance suffered by many children in Letterfrack. Evidence from complainants about this problem was that it developed after they had come to Letterfrack and was not a pre-existing condition. Although much of the complainants’ evidence was confirmed in general terms by respondents’ evidence, the particular cruelty of the punishment emerged in the testimony of individual complainants. Punishments described by Brothers or ex-Brothers, often in exculpatory or limiting terms, failed to reflect the pain, fear, helplessness and vulnerability that resulted.


In its Opening Statement, the Congregation accepted that there had been lapses by individual Brothers and that children had been physically abused in Letterfrack. They pointed out, however, that corporal punishment was an accepted teaching tool during the period under investigation, and that the children who were sent to Letterfrack could not be regarded as a random sample of the school-going population. They stated that many had been confined to the School by the courts for breaches of the criminal law, and others were committed because their parents did not exercise proper care. Many were unaccustomed to parental discipline. In circumstances where there were a large number of children and a small number of staff, the maintenance of discipline was essential.


The Congregation stated that there are no surviving punishment books for the School, although they believe that at one stage they did exist.


The Congregation argued that their records show that the rules governing punishment were adhered to and that physical abusers were removed from the school when they were discovered. They summarised their position as follows: (a)The recommendation given was that each Brother was to reduce corporal punishment to a minimum in his class. (b)It was clearly stated that corporal punishment was not to be used for failure at lessons or during the religious instruction class. (c)Constant emphasis was laid on ensuring that proper comportment, gravity, and propriety were observed in the administration of corporal punishment. (d)Other forms of disapproval, from sarcasm to pushing a child away, were forbidden. (e)The only instrument of punishment authorised was the leather strap, and punishment could only be administered on the hand. (f)The authorized leather strap was to be kept in the teacher’s desk in the classroom.


In its Closing Submission, the Congregation stated: In light of all of the evidence, including the evidence of the respondents, it is accepted by the Congregation that, unfortunately there were incidents of excessive physical punishment. However it would appear that these were isolated incidents and it is submitted that the evidence does not support a finding that excessive severe punishment was routine or prevalent during the relevant period. However it is accepted that the evidence suggested that the regime of physical punishment in the 1940s was somewhat more severe than in the period subsequent to that when there were improvements in the general regime.


The evidence of former residents about the punishment regime in Letterfrack was substantially confirmed by respondent witnesses, and there was little dispute as to the punishments that were administered. There were fewer areas of dispute as between complainant and respondent witnesses than there were between complainants and the Congregation of the Christian Brothers. The Congregation acknowledged that there had been breaches of the rules as to corporal punishment, in respect of which they were apologetic, but adhered to the position that excesses were not the norm and that the regime, when considered in the proper historical context, was not an abusive one. Punishment that was excessive, arbitrary, uncontrolled and pervasive had an impact that was not limited to the particular incident or the particular recipient, but created a climate of fear and distrust throughout the Institution. The Congregation failed to consider the full extent and long-term impact of the corporal punishment regime in Letterfrack when coming to the conclusion outlined in its Final Submission.


1.Corporal punishment in Letterfrack was severe, excessive and pervasive, and created a climate of fear. 2.Corporal punishment was the primary method of control. It was used to express power and status and practically became a means of communication between Brothers and boys, and among the boys themselves. 3.It was impossible to avoid punishment, because it was frequently capricious, unfair and inconsistent. 4.Formal public punishments, and punishments within sight or hearing of others, left a deep and lasting impression on those present. Witnesses were still troubled by memories of seeing and hearing other boys being beaten. 5.The lack of supervision and control allowed Brothers to devise unusual punishments and there were sadistic elements to some of them. 6.The rules on corporal punishment were disregarded and no punishment book was kept, which meant that Brothers were not made accountable for the punishments they administered. 7.The Congregation did not carry out proper investigations of cases of physical abuse. It did not impose sanctions on Brothers who were guilty of brutal assaults. It did not seek to enforce either the Department’s or its own rules that governed corporal punishment. 8.The Department of Education was at fault in failing to ensure that the statutory punishment book was properly maintained and reviewed at every Inspection. 9.The Department was also at fault, in the one documented case that came to its attention, when it accepted an implausible explanation that was contrary to the information the Inspector had been given. 10.In dealing with cases of excessive punishment, protection of the boys was not a priority for the Congregation and, because the Department left supervision and control entirely to local management the children were left without protection.

  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.