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Chapter 8 — Letterfrack

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Br Francois described it as pretty poor: The standard of education? It was pretty poor compared to a group on the outside that were of the same age would have been much more advanced.


Br Michel confirmed that teaching in the school was very difficult: Well progress was very slow. The boys came to us and they were assessed for a class that best suited and then they went up as they progressed. I assure you it was a slog in the classroom, they didn’t want to learn most of them, they weren’t used to being in school they weren’t used to sitting at a desk all day long.


He also felt that the curriculum was not appropriate. He said that one aspect was that the Department Inspector: made no effort to give us a little programme for these boys who were educationally neglected in the past. We had to slog at the full programme of a primary school even so far as getting the boys to say the words in Irish as they would in the western dialect.


Br Telfour, who was there from the mid to late 1960s, also stressed the low educational standard of the boys upon entry into the school. He said that, over time, some of the boys would improve and progress through the classes, eventually ending up at secondary school in Clifden. Other boys might make little or no progress.


Br Rainger, who was there around the same time, said that he found teaching in the school quite frustrating as he was unable to apply the methods he had been taught in training college because of the low standard of education possessed by the boys: Probably one of my frustrations in Letterfrack was frustration in the classroom, that I couldn’t apply the teaching methods that would have been applied, if you don’t mind me using the phrase, to normal children, because a lot of these people would have been educationally deprived, lack of reading ability and so on and so forth, and I found teaching in Letterfrack challenging, to say the least.


He said that many of the boys made little progress: I would personally describe it as minimal. It was a real slog and a real challenge just to get across even the basic concepts. Now having said that, that is across the board. There could have been exceptions.


Br Dondre described the disturbed nature of the boys: The boys in Letterfrack were disturbed. How will I say this? If they weren’t disturbed before they got to Letterfrack, they were disturbed when they got there. The fact of taking a boy from his home and sending him to an industrial school in some cases, and dragging him through criminal proceedings, through court, and being sentenced by a Justice to four/five/six, in some cases seven years, away from their home, was enough to disturb anybody. Some of them were disturbed, they came from disturbed backgrounds and they were there because they were disturbed. They were there because they were in trouble. Some of them were no trouble at all. The very fact of sending them there, they did become disturbed, they became sort of unhappy and quiet – not quiet – into themselves, introverted. Generally unhappy.


Br Blaise64 said that teaching in the school was difficult, as the constant arrival and departure of boys all the year round made it difficult to teach the curriculum.


The Congregation was cognisant of the difficulties faced in teaching children in the school, and the documentary material was replete with examples of this. However, this is not to totally exculpate the Congregation. The Congregation did not send its best teachers to the school. Many of the teachers came straight from teacher training college with little experience of teaching in a normal school, not to mention a school like that in Letterfrack. It is interesting to compare two documents from the discovered material, one from the start of the period of investigation and one from near the end.


In 1938, the Congregation Visitor noted that the: poor children of our institutions have first claim on our really good teachers, as their school time is short indeed, and we are founded mainly to look after the education of poor boys.


The Congregational response to this plea was poor. The 1963 Report on education noted that: The Brothers had not made the best possible staff available in Letterfrack. They lacked experience. There was a very high turnover of teaching staff. Many Brothers seemed not to care to work in Letterfrack.


The submission by the Congregation, that it was not to be faulted for any shortcoming in respect of educating the boys in its care, was not supported by the evidence. Smaller class sizes and grading according to ability should have formed the basis for real educational opportunity for boys who had missed out on schooling in their early years. However, the poor quality of the staff sent to Letterfrack, particularly in the later years, made progress in this area virtually impossible. The reports from the 1960s and 1970s, indicate how far thinking had developed in the care of these children, but similar advances were not made in the training or guidance offered to young Christian Brothers. Children who are badly fed, badly clothed, cold and lonely cannot thrive in any school environment. The ‘overcompensation’ mentioned in the 1970 Department of Education report was never applied in Letterfrack. The assertion by some ex-Brothers, that most of the residents in Letterfrack were of impaired mental capacity, was not borne out by the complainants who attended the Investigation Committee. They were capable men for the most part who could have progressed in the right environment. The resentment and regret felt by many of them at the loss of opportunity were palpable even 50 years later. Teachers tended to confuse poor education with mental incapacity and that had a negative impact on the education provided in Letterfrack.


The Congregation accepted that the level of industrial training provided was not sufficient: It would be fair to say that the training in the various trades was not really satisfactory for a number of reasons. Because of the remoteness of the institution, it was almost impossible to attract trade teachers to work there ... Then many of the trades were not accessible to boys who had not come through the normal apprenticeship. In addition, vacancies for the various trades were not readily available in the local area, and Dublin probably had its own supply of tradesmen. Moreover many of the techniques for the trades were outdated and consequently did not prepare the young people adequately to enter into a trade ... and finally, in response to the criticism that the workshops and the farm did not give adequate instruction in the trade as well as giving practical experience, it should be stated that the normal practice in the training of any trade was to have the young people do the most simple of tasks initially and then to learn by “doing the job”.


It continued: By far the largest percentage of the boys who over 14 years of age, worked on the farm, seasonally augmented after school hours by a large number of senior school boys ... The reason given for this labour intensiveness was the nature of the land (mostly mountain), which is poor and can be tilled only with the spade ... in a report on the occupational training provided ... it was pointed out that farming was “the most natural and suitable employment for the boys”... The Report expressed disappointment with most of the residential school farms because they generally failed to teach farm management to the boys. They did not train the boys in farming but simply considered them as “juvenile labourers”. It would seem that the reason for this was the lack of people knowledgeable in the theory of farm management.


Trades were determined by the needs of the Institution and, for a small minority of boys who were lucky enough to be employed in an area of the School that offered future job prospects, this was an undoubted benefit. For example, one ex-resident who was in Letterfrack in the late 1950s spoke of the valuable experience he got working in the gardens and looking after the glasshouse. He said it opened up a ‘terrific kind of a job for me’. He had great freedom and he loved the work. Later on, he was put on the poultry farm with Br Dax. He said he learned everything to do with poultry farming, he liked it and he was good at it because he was interested in it.

  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.