Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 8 — Letterfrack

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In his report on Letterfrack for the Congregation, Mr Bernard Dunleavy was very critical of the practice of taking very young children into the School. He quoted a Christian Brothers’ document: The official capacity of the school was 172 pupils. Children who were committed to the school were age 6 to 16 years. That continued to be the case until 1950 when it was perceived by the Christian Brothers that falling numbers in those being admitted to the school would eventually lead to a diminution in the total numbers at the school. In the light of this the Brother Superior, Br Nicolas,56 decided to accept a group of children below the minimum age level, the youngest being a mere 4 and a half years old.


Mr Dunleavy went on to say: These children were accepted from a County Home, though there is no record of which Home they were accepted from. It is clear that not only was the admission of pupils to Letterfrack not properly monitored, but also that in an effort to maintain the numbers at the school the Christian Brothers were prepared to accept pupils who were far too young to be properly cared for by an institution such as Letterfrack.


This matter was again raised in 1951, when the Visitor noted: Some of the children are extremely young when admitted to the institution and Br Sorel has frequently to perform duties which properly speaking should be done by the Matron ... I was given to understand that the Matron was unwilling to look after the very young children.


Br Sorel who had charge of these infants spoke to the Committee of the strain he was under in caring for them, which he described as ‘over-challenging and over-frustrating’. He said that ‘There was many a night I went into bed and cried my heart out inside in bed for various reasons’.


He went on to explain: In the training college I was trained to teach. When I went to Letterfrack I found out that I had to perform the function of a father, mother, nurse and teacher. I found it impossible.


Br Sorel said that, when he told the Manager about the difficulty he was having, the Manager said: ‘we can’t do anything about it, do the best you can. That’s what I was told, “just do the best you can.” That was as much sympathy as I got’.


The smaller boys were occupied repairing mattresses or darning and, according to Br Sorel, they were ‘happy doing anything’.


The biggest problem faced was bed-wetting and soiling: 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 ... 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 ... 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.


Br Sorel received no training or guidance for the task allotted to him in Letterfrack. It was not possible for one young, untrained Brother to care for over 20 very small boys and a further 30 or so boys aged between six and 10 years. The despair and frustration experienced by Br Sorel is indicative of the systemic failure of Letterfrack to deliver even a rudimentary level of care to the small children placed there.


In 1955 the matter was resolved: There are now no boys in the establishment under seven years of age. Until last year there were boys of four and three, and there was one of two years six months! The nurse refused to take over their management and she was within her rights in refusing. The departure of the infants to junior orphanages is a great relief to the Brothers and to the infants.


In a series of interviews conducted by the Christian Brothers in 2001 with Brothers who had served in a number of industrial schools, Br Ruffe57 who served as Resident Manager in Letterfrack from 1953 to 1959 described much more starkly the impact the decision to introduce ‘segregation’ had on Letterfrack.


He described the reasoning behind the decision by the new Provincial to segregate different categories of boys. He confirmed that the Department of Education and the Justices were not in favour, but the Provincial eventually prevailed upon them that this was to be the future of the industrial schools: So the Provincial sent me word that in due course I should send off any boys in the school who were not guilty of indictable offences and I should receive only into the school those boys who were indicted. So, on the 4th September, 1954 (‘twas I think) I sent off 99 boys from Letterfrack out of the 184. We were left with 85. Now, that immediately left us in a crippling position because the finances in ordinary circumstances were miserably small and we had at least 12 employees. We had a carpenter, a shoemaker, a tailor, a baker, a knitter. We had a laundress. We had three at least, if not four men working on the farm and all of these had to be paid a weekly wage. Now, where it was to come from was your guess as well as mine, but I had to face it. I was promised that the end of the year, Christmas, that I’d get a subvention from the other schools to help out of the difficulty. When I applied for a subvention at Christmas, I was told it was impossible, there was nothing doing. So you can see the position was worrying. It was either close all the shops, dismiss all the employees, but what were we going to do. The boys had no occupation, boys that had no trade, nothing to recommend them when they left the schools. Nothing to help them for a future life when they left school, nothing. So we had to make some attempt to struggle on.


He went on to describe how a predecessor of his had come up with a ‘brainwave’ to get extra cash for the School, by chartering a ship and getting a cargo of coal delivered to a small bay near the School, and he sold some of this to the locals and used the rest to run the furnaces. Later, the furnaces were converted to oil but Br Ruffe had to re-convert them back to coal ‘... and that gave us some form of subsistence. That was the only way we got a little alleviation’. He said the money from the Department was miserably low and it was not possible to keep a living, pay 12 employees, feed, clothe and educate the boys, and provide a trade for them, including purchasing materials and maintaining machinery.


Br Ruffe did not get the promised help from the Congregation to support the school after the 1954 decision. The Congregation had sufficient funds to meet the needs of the boys in Letterfrack but it did not make them available.


As outlined in the general chapter on the Christian Brothers, the Christian Brothers’ Building Fund accounts for 1954 showed a £300,000 credit balance for the year ending 31st December 1954. There was a balance of £30,000 from Artane and £16,000 from Carriglea, as well as smaller amounts from other industrial schools. According to the Congregation, this represented ‘excess funds’ from these Communities.

  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.