Letterfrack is a village situated in Connemara, Co Galway, more than 84 kilometres from Galway city. A wealthy Quaker couple moved to Letterfrack from England in 1849 and bought a large tract of land that they developed. Amongst the various improvements they made were the construction of a large residence and a school for the children from the locality. In 1884 the property was sold to the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr John McEvilly, who applied the proceeds of a legacy bequeathed for charitable purposes.
The Archbishop wrote to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Earl Spencer, shortly after the purchase, suggesting that the property was ‘admirably suited for a boys’ industrial school so sadly needed in that district’.
The Lord Lieutenant sought advice from his officials on the matter and the feedback was universally against the proposal. The general view can be summed up in the following extract from a memorandum from one of his officials: In a wild remote district like Letterfrack it is very improbable that there would be any genuine cases for committal, the children there do not beg. There is no one to beg from. They all have settled places of abode – they live with their parents; are not found wandering, and though no doubt very poor, are not destitute: they do not frequent the company of thieves – there are no thieves in districts like Letterfrack in Ireland – the people are very poor but very honest.
Furthermore, the Lord Lieutenant was advised that the number of national schools in the area amply provided for the educational needs of the children.
Despite support from the Inspector of Industrial Schools, Sir John Lentaigne, the Archbishop’s application for the establishment of an industrial school in Letterfrack was refused by the Lord Lieutenant.
However, the Archbishop was not to be dissuaded and he continued to lobby the Lord Lieutenant. His efforts eventually bore fruit, and a letter from the Vice Regal Lodge dated 11th August 1885 stated: There are no doubt technical objections to the establishment of an Industrial School at Letterfrack: but after reading the papers through carefully I am satisfied that the general and moral reasons far outweigh the objections.
On 14th November 1885 the Chief Secretary’s Office confirmed its sanction for the establishment of an industrial school in Letterfrack certified for the reception of 75 boys to open ‘so soon after the 1st April next as the promoters of the school are in a position to satisfy the Inspector that the buildings intended for the purpose are fit for the reception of children within the meaning of the Industrial School Act’. With Sir John Lentaigne already on board, this latter stipulation did not prove to be a stumbling block.
The Archbishop entered into negotiations with the Christian Brothers regarding the management of the School. There were fears that the low certification limit would discourage the Brothers from agreeing to run the School. Incentives were offered to enhance the proposal. A lease of the lands and premises was drawn up for a term of 999 years subject to an annual rent of £82.10 s and included ‘about 45 statute acres of good land in the village of Letterfrack on which the new mansion house, extensive farm buildings, and about 12 or 14 well constructed cottages, large schools, police barracks and dispensary now stand’. A sizeable sum of money had been expended on modernising the buildings, and the new Manager of the School would also be given extensive grazing rights on adjoining land. Funds were also made available from the Archbishop to fund the purchase of furniture, trades appliances and the construction of workshops.
The Christian Brothers agreed to manage the Institution, and extensive plans were made to develop the property into an industrial school. Included in their plans was the purchase of the adjacent land over which the Archbishop had promised grazing rights. The Government was concerned when it became aware of these plans and an internal memorandum dated 24th March 1886 stated that Sir Lentaigne should be officially notified that ‘the Government does not see its way to any future extension to the numbers in the Letterfrack School’ and that the Brothers should therefore be discouraged from expending large sums of money on the School.
Whether or not these concerns were communicated to the Christian Brothers, the proposed developments proceeded. The Chief Secretary signed the certificate for St Joseph’s Industrial School for the reception of 75 boys on 1st April 1886. Building and refurbishment of the Institution was completed in August 1887, and the school opened its doors on 12th October 1887.
In March 1889 the Resident Manager, Br Flood, applied for an increase in the certified number, and any unease the Government previously had regarding the expansion of the School seemed to have dissipated over the intervening three years, as a revised certificate was granted on 1st April 1889 doubling the certified number to 150.
Once again, in 1895, an application was made for an increase in numbers. Br Slattery, the Manager, wrote in support of his application ‘the main building, shops and other accessories were erected to accommodate 200 children to meet the requirements of this large populous district – the poorest in all Ireland’. He was supported in his application by B. McAndrew, P.P., who also wrote to the Chief Secretary: The outlay on the Building for 200 boys, partly made with borrowed money, has much crippled the resources of the Brothers, as they have not as yet been allowed the full number for which they provided accommodation, and which would, in some measure, recoup them.
He went on to say that: the restriction of the number to just 150, bears no adequate proportion to the extent and intensity of the chronic destitution that prevails throughout Connemara. Surely, it will be a matter of great gratification and grateful remembrance if one of your first public acts of well-doing amongst us, will secure the blessing of a safe and salutary home for 50 more of the destitute little ones in the poorest part of Ireland.
The Chief Secretary was not willing to oblige, and refused to increase the certified number.
In November 1912 the accommodation limit was increased to 190, with the certified number remaining at 150 boys. This latter figure was increased in July 1931 to 165, with the accommodation limit remaining at 190.