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Chapter 8 — Letterfrack

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The Children Act, 1908 specified that children committed to an industrial school remained up to the age of 18 under the supervision of the managers of the School. Children who were returned to parents or relatives no longer remained the responsibility of the Resident Manager. In the case of Letterfrack, therefore, over a 34-year period, the numbers for whom aftercare was required were relatively small – they averaged out at between nine and 10 per year. While in Artane and Glin a Brother undertook the work of visiting former pupils on a regular basis, in Letterfrack the position appears to have been that the Superior assumed the responsibility for aftercare, as there was no particular member of staff assigned to this task. The system was that application was made to the School by tradesmen or farmers who, if deemed suitable, would be assigned a boy for employment. The School did not actively seek employment for the boys. This would explain why the vast majority of boys ended up as farm workers, houseboys, or hotel staff. This was confirmed by ex-staff members in their interviews with Mr Bernard Dunleavy, who identified the lack of a dedicated staff member to look after past pupils as a serious flaw in the system.


The Congregation acknowledged that ‘without the allocation of a Brother to look after this aspect of the Institution’s duties, Letterfrack could not have been as effective in this area as other schools were’.


The boys of Letterfrack were especially vulnerable because they had been uprooted from their backgrounds and had spent years in a remote, inhospitable part of Ireland. Many were then returned to a city environment and were left without any support to help them make the adjustment.

Emotional abuse


The Congregation accepted that, for much of its existence, the School failed to cater for the emotional development of the child: They (the staff) were doing their best, thinking that this is the best, and in fact it says often there, they did the best they could under the circumstances but didn’t realise all the emotional needs that were there at the time and that they couldn’t fulfill them given the structure.


The Congregation submits that the emphasis of the School was on the physical care and well-being of the children. There was little understanding of the emotional impact of residential care on children, in particular the effect of separation from home and family. Staff did not receive childcare training. Indeed, the Congregation noted that, for much of the period under review, no such training was available. It was not until the late 1960s that the emotional needs of the children began to be understood and catered for. They accepted that the Cussen Report had highlighted the need for appropriate emotional care in the 1930s. However, they stated that this was impossible to achieve in Letterfrack. The high pupil-staff ratio and the necessity of maintaining a high level of discipline to ensure order meant that the individual needs of the children could not be catered for. However, they stressed that this state of affairs was due to a lack of resources and, therefore, was the fault of the State not the Congregation.


The physical location of the School was not conducive to ensuring that the emotional needs of the children were met. In the 1940s and 1950s, travelling to the School was difficult and out of the financial reach of most of the parents whose children were committed to the school. It was understandable, therefore, that small children with little understanding of these difficulties could feel abandoned. One complainant summarised the feeling of isolation well: The only contact we had was a letter and every letter sent home had to be a good letter. Every letter that was sent home you had to be having a great time, they were learning you how to swim, they were learning you how to play football, they were learning you how to play this. Everything had to be good before you got the letter sent out. If you sent a wrong letter, that you were after hurting yourself, they would tell you out straight you wouldn’t be able to send another letter home for two months because you shouldn’t have put that in the letter.


Br Francois, who was present in the late 1950s and early 1960s, described it as an isolating, frightening place with poor facilities for the boys.


Br Telfour said its location was bleak and isolated, and he felt he was transferred there because he had missed some of his early morning calls in another school.


Letterfrack was seen as a tough posting, according to Br Anatole: ... it would be a tough job, a tough station, something you would not particularly choose, on account of what I have said, that it is isolated.


Br Dax said that he suffered isolation and loneliness in Letterfrack, and he claimed that this loneliness was a factor which led to his abuse of the boys.


Br Iven said he felt isolated from the friends he had made in his training of the previous five years, and another said he found it a lonely, isolating place: Then in many ways I suppose that just went with the job, in the sense I was isolated in a room at the end of the dormitory, away from the Community.


In his interview with the Christian Brothers that was dealt with above, Br Ruffe described his reaction on being told that he was being sent to Letterfrack: Well now, when I went to Letterfrack and don’t mind admitting it and when I was told I was going to Letterfrack I shed bitter tears because I had paid a passing visit there when I was on holidays some years previously and when we went into the school that day, the fact that it was so far away from every place it affected me more I’d say than it would affect a boy and the fact that when I go in there at all was an upset in itself but I soon got used to that, after all it was my vocation.


The remote location of Letterfrack was a problem from the first days of the Institution in the 1880s, and it continued to be a problem for the rest of its history. It was identified in the early 1950s by the Department of Education and District Justices, when they cited it as the primary reason against turning Letterfrack into a reformatory-type institution. The Congregation, on the other hand, saw the remoteness and distance as advantages in dealing with so-called ‘delinquents’, because it removed the boys from what they saw as corrupting influences. The importance of family contact was not considered.


The parent or guardian of a child detained in an industrial school had the right to apply to the Minister for Education for the release of the child pursuant to Section 69(3) of the Children Act, 1908 which allowed the Minister to exercise his discretion to release a child or young person committed. Pursuant to the Children (Amendment) Act, 1957 the position with regard to children who were non-offenders or those committed for non-attendance at school was different, in that the release was mandatory if the Minister was satisfied that the circumstances which led to the committal had changed or ceased and the parents were able to support the child.


An examination of the records of the Department of Education reveals that, invariably, applications for early release were initiated by the parents, very often through the offices of a local public representative. There does not appear to have been a system whereby a child’s case or sentence was automatically reviewed to establish if any of the criteria for an early release were present.65

  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.