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The Road To Letterfract

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CNPLast year I gave a reading at Kenny’s Bookshop in Galway as a guest of Over The Edge. I read Capricorn, a short story I wrote about an elderly Irish exile, Hallisey, who has chosen to live in a remote area of the Pilbara in north-west Australia. An unexpected phone call reminds Hallisey of what happened to him as a child at St. Patrick’s Industrial School (Greenmount) in Cork. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Hallisey has lived in silence and alone with what he suffered at the school for all these years. Now, finally, provoked by the phone call, it appears that he may tell someone about what happened to him; understanding at last why it is essential to talk about what happened long ago.

I knew about Letterfract’s reputation. In part because I was in Galway and in part because I had been writing about the legacy of the industrial schools for a number of years, I felt I should take the opportunity to go there and see what now remains of the infamous institution. The school itself closed in 1974 and I wondered what, if anything, existed now that bore witness to what had happened there. I had heard that the original school building  still existed and I wanted to see that. But what else was there?

STARK

Letterfract - Then and Now(1)It takes about an hour and a half to get to Letterfract from Galway. The trip through Connemara National Park is a highlight. On the day I made the journey, it was cold and overcast. The national park is bleakly beautiful. It was said about Letterfract Industrial School that it was crueller than the norm due to its remote location on the edge of Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard. Even today it still feels like the journey across county Galway to Letterfract is a journey into isolation.

Except that today Letterfract is anything but isolated. It is a busy, tourist-centred locality, a gateway to a multitude of adventure based activities involving  the national park and the nearby coastline. Signposts direct the visitor to pub food, accommodation and to this company and that one offering different tourist experiences. Letterfract has had a modern make-over and in some ways epitomises the reinvention of Ireland’s western coastline. Here, in a place still wracked by emigration, a small community has clung on to assert a new way of using and making a living from the location’s natural beauty and amenities. On the day I visited, although at the end of the tourist season, there was a steady stream of people and activity around the shops and pubs. In the summer period I figured Letterfract got quite busy.

I understood that former industrial school was near the centre of Letterfact so I was surprised when I couldn’t find it. I realised that I had made a very basic error : the old industrial school building was there, dominating one quadrant of the main crossroads that is the centre of Letterfract. My mistake was that I was looking for a building fitted out in monochrome. Now, brightly repainted in red and yellow, the main building looked nothing like its former incarnation. In fact the building complex is now part of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.  A public park and picnic area in the foreground, screened by trees further helped to offset the domineering image that the industrial school once wore as a badge of pride. In the end, still unsure that I was in the correct location, I accepted that I was indeed looking at the former institution by virtue of the building’s position relative to Diamond Hill. Many of the iconic photographs of Letterfract Industrial School (see below) were taken with the austere peak in the background. Today that same vista is easily observed.

UPTON, ARTANE, BESSBOROUGH, TUAM …

It was a disconcerting sight – a place of abuse and a place where cruel punishment was meted out. Despite the passage of time, despite the make-over, it was hard for me not to think about what happened there. I was bothered too by the precise change of use: the former penal institution was now a part of a place for advanced learning. That seemed to me to be a travesty. The Letterfract building – because of what it was – has so much to tell us about ourselves. But that it seems is not of interest to some. I walked over to the main building. Close to where the old entrance was once located there is a plaque under the window with a poem on it: Show Day by Mary O’Malley. The poem, one of a series in the Letterfract Poetry Trail is a moving elegy to location and emigration. It can be listened to here.

Is there anything more, I wondered. There must be. I walked around. Students came and went. A group of young backpackers were picnicking on the grass despite the cold conditions. I wondered what they knew about this place. A casual visitor would not learn anything by walking around. There is nothing to warn anyone about what happened here; on the contrary in fact. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that an effort has been made to obliterate the past but there is doubt that someone is intent on not drawing any attention to what this place once stood for either. I was reminded of a visit I made to St Patrick’s Industrial School at Upton outside Cork a  number of years ago – as part of research I was doing for my novel To Keep A Bird Singing. That complex is now a functioning day care centre in the Bandon area of Cork. I was told when I went there that it was not possible to walk around the main building for ‘health and safety’ reasons. St Patrick’s is another site of abuse where care has been taken to obscure the past.

God Was Living Close By But ...There had to be more. Letterfract’s Catholic Church is on an elevation at the rear of the main building complex. A path leads to steps and then to another short path: I arrived at the front of the church. It is literally a stone’s throw away, underscoring for me the role that the Catholic Church played in the regime of abuse at Letterfract: the church was the overseer to the crimes that happened there, but it also very much a witness too.

GOD COULDN’T HEAR ANYTHING … AGAIN

It is not my intention here to trawl through Letterfract’s litany of crimes. One example will suffice to give the reader an idea of what the place was like. Taken from the Child Abuse Commission’s report published in 2009 it concerns a Brother Vernay who in 1940 made a complaint to the regional body overseeing the Christian Brothers regarding serious mis-doings at the institution. By passing his own boss at Letterfrack, Vernay outlined the case of a number of boys who were regularly being punished in public at the school by a few the Brothers. The method of punishment was the problem: the Brother were using horsewhips on the young boys. Yes, that’s correct, horsewhips. Pointing out that (even then in 1940) the ‘instruments used and the punishments inflicted are obsolete even in criminal establishments’, Brother Vernay went on the draw attention to the fact that knowledge of the severe punishments being meted out at the school had permeated to the community living around the industrial school. In his letter to the regional head of the Brothers, he noted that ‘people were talking’ and that this was causing disquiet both inside and outside the industrial school. Worried by the damage to the Order’s reputation, Vernay asked for an intervention. This happened and it appears that Vernay’s complaints were upheld. However little it seems was ever done to any of the assailants or to the superior at Letterfract who it seems ‘wasn’t even reprimanded.’ The Commission also found out that no apology or recompense was made to the victims. That was the sort of place that Letterfract was. Children beaten in public using horsewhips. Just one example. The entire chapter on Letterfract in the 2009 report (The Ryan Report) makes for grim reading, I tell you.

Behind the church there is narrow lane. It is a part of one of the recommended walks in the area. A backpackers hostel is close by. A little further on, on the opposite side of the road, there is a sign on a pillar: Letterfract Industrial School Graveyard.  I walked up to the cemetery. At the entrance there are two more poems from the Letterfract Poetry Trail. By Paula Meehan, these are The Boy From The Gloucester Diamond  and The Cardboard Suitcases and they can be  heard here.

DIED AT A YOUNG AGE

The grave yard is relatively small and compact and is surrounded by tall trees; it is quiet and sheltered. Inside there is a careful arrangement of small headstones in two main plots. Walter Footer died as a young boy. Edward McDermot died aged 8. William Fagen died aged 13. John Kelly died aged 15 … Died Died Diedand so on they go. I figure that there are a lot more buried here than there are names for. The cemetery is really a mass grave and this is underlined by the headstone pictured on the right. At one end, a plinth supporting a cross is draped with a tattered and bleached Irish Tricolour. Fitting. There is also a small memorial to the Letterfract boys erected by Connemara National Park.

I sat down. There was no one else there when I visited. Certainly this was a place to meditate on the wrongdoings that took place at the industrial school. What were these boys’ stories I wondered. How did they come to be sent to Letterfact and how did they die? The graveyards is a peaceful place. Thought has gone into it and it is well maintained. I felt that here at least what happened in the past is both respected and understood. It is good to see that.

LONG REPRESSED, RENDERED INVISIBLE

In a number of location in Ireland right now, a battle is being fought by activists to simply have just this – a proper cemetery such as that that exists at Letterfract. PillarIn Tuam (Galway) and in Cork at the Good Shepard Convent (Sunday’s Well) and at the Bessborough Mother and Baby (Blackrock) efforts are underway to identify the full extent of a series of mass graves that are probably located in those places. The situation at Tuam is particularly heart-wrenching. A large number of babies and children’s bodies were dumped in mass grave at the Tuam site without any care to record who they were or to mark their places of burial in any way. These ‘unwanted’ (by Catholic Ireland’s mores) were unceremoniously dumped. The Irish government has been embarrassed into looking into the matter in more detail but it is now claiming that a full and exhaustive excavation of the site would actually cost too much.  In the two Cork locations, there is also resistance to efforts to identify and mark who is actually buried at those sites. The Catholic orders and institutions are refusing to make records fully available. Even more telling in the two Cork cases, the property and buildings involved are either in the process of or have actually been sold to private developers who wish to turn these former sites of institutional abuse into apartment complexes. For many it is a race against time to extract the information and prove that these sites must by properly excavated and respected. At least at Letterfract, this small precious cemetery has been salvaged from the steamroller of progress and the process of ‘active forgetting’ at least partially stalled.

HeroesBut are cemeteries enough? At Letterfract? At Tuam or in Cork? Most definitely not. Cemeteries are needed. Each individual buried in each of these places is also entitled to a proper headstone as a minimum. None of this should be in any dispute – even though it is. But we need a lot more too. We need a museum and a permanent exhibition space which will the tell the story of the industrial schools, the Magdalene Launderies and the Mother and Baby homes.

Such a facility would and could perform a number of functions. Firstly, it would act as repository for all the records related to these institutions of abuse – a place were all the information (print, audio and photographic) can be safely stored and made available for future generations so that they too can learn and understand what happened. Such a place could also facilitate scholarship into what took place and help with explaining how such abuse practices could have taken place. There are still so many aspects to the entire edifice of institutional abuse that we do not fully understand. We need to know a lot more about the perpetrators for example. Who were they, why did the behave as they did, why have they been protected as they have? Thirdly such a facility, if properly structured, could act as a place where we as a society might be able to look at what happened, attempt to understand what happened, and learn more about the legacy of widespread institutional abuse.

Pillar2As I see it there is a conscious effort (by the Catholic Church) and an unconscious effort (by the state) to facilitate us forgetting what happened. The idea is to render almost invisible what happened at these industrial schools, Laundries and Mother and Baby homes. In part the point is to salvage the reputation of the Catholic Church but these efforts are also a societal aversion to acknowledging who we are and what the price was for becoming the Ireland that we are today. Many of us have been raised to be good at looking the other way. Here now, around this matter of institutional abuse, our acquired talents have taken on a societal dimension: turning away from facing up to the truth and the reality of what was done by us and in our name. We have the left the victims to scramble after small crumbs of justice.

We are talking about a shameful period in our history and we need to face up to it. At Letterfract, we can see today what the preferred solution looks like: the past is not hidden away anymore but it is certainly kept at a distance from the public’s eye. It is no longer feasible to say the past didn’t happen – the victims after all have refused to go quietly and won’t be silenced – but Irish society is still happy and comfortable with leaving things largely unseen. At Letterfact you have to search for the past and this is at one of the most infamous of all the abuse institutions in our country.

So if we are to be honest about all of this we need the following:

  • Firstly, full publicly-funded excavations of all the burial sites. Every effort to be made to identify all the those buried in all mass graves. Where there is suspicion about the causes of death, criminal investigations to follow.
  • Secondly, a commitment to the creation of a publicly funded facility to highlight and explain what happened. This facility – a museum – should be located at one of the former institutional sites of abuse. A site should be identified as soon as possible for this facility.
  • Thirdly, we must oppose the sale of any of these former sites of abuse by the religious orders to private developers until full disclosure and recompense is made to all the victims.

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Heroes of 2014 – Do You Agree?

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Chomsky is famous for saying that a lot of people don’t know how the world really works and, more to the point, they don’t even know that they don’t know!

Direct action by Elmvale estate residents in Cork blocked Irish Water from installing water meters in their area.

There’s much truth to this claim, but with time other factors can come into play and these may alter the disturbing equation that he has set out.

This year, in Ireland, we saw the beginnings of a serious fight-back against austerity.  It seemed, at one level, to ‘appear’ from nowhere, but did it really?

Austerity, in case you are in any doubt, has been the occasion for a massive transfer in wealth from the bottom half of society to the top echelons.  Money aside, the so-called “1%” has also concentrated an even greater amount of power in its own hands – exemplified by a raft of discarded workplace agreements and unilaterally imposed pay cuts.  Austerity, make no mistake, has been a good to the (already) wealthy!

But it is in the nature of highway robbery that, inevitably, it goes too far… And this year in Ireland a point was reached when a significant number of people said ‘Enough’.  But the saying of ‘Enough’ didn’t just happen either.

Over the past year and more there have been people out there during long periods of endless protesting and agitating who did the work that made the saying of ‘enough’ possible.  Here in Cork I know some of these people from my involvement in the Anti-Household Tax protest.  Togher/ Ballyphenane are one notable group, for example, that were to the fore.  So also were the activists in Cobh, in lower Cork harbour.  In these areas, small groups of anti-austerity activists survived the defeat that was the Anti-Household Tax campaign and kept going.  They were stalwart in their opposition to austerity and it has paid off for us all – so far.

I could name some names and in times those names should be recorded for the sake of honesty and to acknowledge the vital role these activists played in this fight-back; but not just now.

For the moment I just want to point the finger at the people pictured in the photo above.  When Irish Water set about installing their meters in the estates on the edge of Cork city, it was the Togher and Ballyphane Anti-Water Tax group that stood their ground.  They talked to people in the estates like Elmvale (in the south Cork city area) and the result was the action you see pictured here.  Non-violent.  Determined.  Highly effective!

In the accompanying photo we see something captured that simply wasn’t visible for quite some time here in Ireland: it is austerity being held at bay.

The actions at Elmvale, in Lehenaghmore, in Rushbrook (to name just a few estates) produced a number of small but very highly significant victories that others around the country took hope and confidence from.  The real  heroes of Ireland 2014 are the people who stood up in these estates and said NO.

The Ballyphehane/ Togher activists showed that building the resistance takes effort, time and a lot of work.  But they also showed that it is possible to win against austerity. Organise locally, be determined and spread the word.

Bessborough “In Remembrance …”

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Bessborough (Cork) was the largest of the mother-and-baby homes that operated in Ireland – the others being at Tuam and Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea.

Women who gave birth at the notorious Bessborough mother-and-baby home in Cork were not allowed pain relief during labour or stitches after birth, and when they developed abscesses from breast-feeding they were denied penicillin.

 One nun who ran the labour ward in 1951 also forbid any “moaning or screaming” during childbirth.

 The infant mortality rate at Bessborough in the 1940s was close to 55pc with 100 babies out of 180 dying in the space of just 12 months.

Helen Murphy was also born at Bessborough. “We founded the Bessborough Mother and Baby Support Group as an outlet for all those whose lives were affected by this place,” she said. “The purpose of it is to remember the people who were there and especially the babies who died.”

One campaigner, John Barrett (61), who was born in Bessborough, said he feared that anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 babies could be buried at the Blackrock facility, most in unmarked graves.

Ms Goulding’s book is heartbreaking, revealing how many of the girls cried themselves to sleep every night. Only those from moneyed families who could afford to pay £100 were allowed to leave after 10 days, but many had nowhere to got. June Goulding, The Light in the Window.

  The girls who could not make donations to the Sacred Heart order would have to spend three years after their babies were born cleaning and working on the lands around the home to “make amends” for their pregnancy and their children were usually taken from them and given up for adoption or sent to orphanages.

 

 “Where are they, who are they and why? We gave life and those innocent lives were taken and we don’t know where they are.” [quote from Marion Kelly].

 

Written by Kevin Doyle

June 13, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Eight Photos from Austerity Ireland

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Pensioners mobilise in Cork city against cuts in Medical Cards

[October 2008]

 

The severed head of Irish Taoiseach,  Brian Cowen.  Grand Parade, Cork City

[November 2009]

Not My Debt – Occupation of Anglo-Irish Bank offices in Cork city

[November 2010]

Gardaí protect the Dáil in Dublin

[November 2011]

IMF Orders – Occupy Protest March in Cork City

[December 2012]

Vita Cortex – Let Them Go Home

[Feb 2012]

Cill Eoin ‘Ghost Estate’ in Kenmare, Co. Kerry

[April 2012]

ICTU “Lift The Burden” March in Cork City

[February 2013]

Anti-Household Tax March in Cork 

[March 2013]

Anti-Water Meter Protest in Elmvale Estate, Cork

[April 2014]

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