A former resident of a Co Limerick industrial school run by the Christian Brothers is heading to the Circuit Court to appeal a ruling to hand over records he took from the religious order in 1973.
There has been a long-running legal dispute over the ownership of records from St Joseph’s Industrial School, Glin, which include indentures likened to “slave documents” that reveal the licensing out of schoolboys to “masters”. It culminated in a ruling by Judge Deirdre Gearty at Limerick District Court last week ordering Tom Wall to return them to the European province of the Congregation of the Christian Brothers within four weeks.
Mr Wall’s decision to appeal the ruling will allow him to retain the documents, which have been in his possession for half a century, for a little while longer.
In addition to personal records, the documents in his possession include withheld letters to and from family members and photographs of the boys detained in the industrial senior school from 1872 to 1966.
The indentures detail the employment of teenage boys – likely without pay. The records also outline the harsh constraints they lived under that prevented them from marrying, leaving their master’s company without permission and even playing a game of cards.
Mr Wall, who was Glin Castle’s head gardener for more than four decades, told The Irish Times that he acquired the documents as a young man while working as a labourer at St Joseph’s Industrial School after his release.
The school closed in 1966 and the premises was sold in 1973, at which time he was asked to move ledgers from the head office to the superior’s car and to burn any other documents.
“We started to burn the records on the lawn and, at that stage, I said [to the superior] that there could be something there on me,” said Mr Wall, who spent 13 years at the institution after being sent to live in the school’s infirmary aged just three.
He insists that the superior told him to take anything he might want. Mr Wall took two boxes of documents and stored them in an attic in Glin, where they remained untouched for 40 years.
The ensuing ownership battle between Mr Wall and the Christian Brothers began in 2015 when the lifelong Glin resident donated the collection of records to the University of Limerick’s Glucksman Library archives.
In March 2017, the dispute was raised in the Dáil by Limerick TD Niall Collins, who suggested the State might intervene and claim the papers.
Mr Collins received a letter from then Province Leader of the Christian Brothers, Br Edmund Garvey, clarifying that the order sought the records to ensure its archives, which are located in Marino, Dublin, were “as complete as possible”. He noted that the collection contains “important family history helpful in assisting any inquiries from former residents”.
Mr Wall believes the Christian Brothers are eager to put the records “out of the way” and fears they will “never again see the light of day”. He said the indentures prove St Joseph’s schoolboys were signed over to masters and “never got a cent” for the work they did. They were looked upon by local employers as a source of cheap labour.
“The boys would be no good to them after three or four years as they would be entitled to be paid properly so they’d get another lad on,” he said.
The order was approached for comment on the contents of the indentures but no response was received.
Mr Wall was not sued for the documents by the European province of the Congregation of the Christian Brothers but, through a representative member, Br Michael Murray, who has no obvious relation to the former Glin industrial school or the events during which the records changed hands five decades ago.
Nominating an individual member to act as a plaintiff is a controversial legal tactic of the Christian Brothers. A 2017 Supreme Court ruling cleared unincorporated associations (such as religious orders) of any legal responsibility as a collective group, with liability lying instead with the members of such associations.
In legal cases taken against the congregation, however, the Christian Brothers often refuse to nominate a defendant – leaving claimants with little choice but to sue all known members of the order at the time of the alleged offence.
Mr Wall (74), who is outspoken about the physical and sexual abuse he suffered at the notorious Glin industrial school from the age of eight to 15, has no desire to keep the records personally and had planned to donate them to the State or public archives.
“Those of us that have been abused and raped in the industrial schools shouldn’t have to go to the Christian Brothers to get our records,” he said. “Anybody who abuses you and rapes you doesn’t keep your records to help you. Anybody in the right state of mind wouldn’t believe that.”
He also claimed that on a 2015 visit to the Christian Brothers Province Centre in Marino, he viewed the archives and found the collection of industrial school records to comprise just one shelf. Other than those currently in his possession, he is not aware of any similar documents that exist outside the hands of the congregation.
Mr Wall is entitled to retain all Glin documents until the case is reheard in the Circuit Court at a later date.