Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 8 — Letterfrack

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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.


When Br Paget O’Hanlon met the Department he had told the Department that 85 boys was the minimum needed to run Letterfrack. Clearly, this was not the situation and it appears unlikely that the Resident Manager would have told him this.


In his interview, Br Ruffe described the financial difficulties he faced in Letterfrack and the difficulties caused by the Provincial’s decision. The farm rarely made a profit, and everything it produced was put back into the school. Similarly, the shops produced little or no income. They generated their own electricity until the ESB58 came along, and the cost of switching to the ESB was covered by selling the rights back to the ESB.


The drop in numbers from 184 to 85 was a big financial loss to the school. After the changeover, there was a small trickle of boys, very small in the beginning. Justice McCarthy in Dublin stopped sending them altogether and these were the boys that Br Ruffe was relying on getting and they were not being sent. Other Christian Brothers’ industrial schools which were also in financial difficulties, although in his view not as difficult as Letterfrack, were taking in boys that they were not supposed to be taking under the new regime, so he arranged to meet Justice McCarthy. They had a robust discussion in which Justice McCarthy flatly told him he would not send boys so far away from their parents. Br Ruffe explained to the Justice that he thought it could be good for boys to be removed from sources of temptation that landed them in industrial schools in the first place. He felt that Letterfrack had a lot to offer despite its distance, lots of fresh air and country life, giving them an opportunity to re-orientate themselves by means of work, school and education. He pointed out that he himself during his training as a Christian Brother was only allowed one visit per year from his family. He also promised to facilitate parents as much as possible by putting them up overnight or taking the boys into Galway to meet their families when they travelled. He said that the Justice took his views on board and began to send boys to Letterfrack. Unfortunately, Justice McCarthy did not live for too long after this and he had the same problems with his successor. This required another visit to explain the position to him and, following on Justice Ryan visiting Letterfrack to see for himself, he also began to send boys there.


The average number of boys between 1955 and 1969 was 107 and this was not an economically viable number. This number dropped even more dramatically between 1970 and 1973, and there were only 4159 boys in Letterfrack shortly before it closed with Br Karel stating that the number had dropped to 11 by the time he left in 1974.


The impact of the 1954 decision, taken by the Congregation in the face of opposition from all other quarters, was felt throughout the subsequent life of the Institution.


In 1954, the Inspector reported that the food was fairly good but was to be improved. She noted that the boys only received bread and tea at lunch. She reported that she had told that Manager to rectify this and to get some modern equipment.

  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.