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Fintan O’Toole: Giving Christian Brothers ownership of their sordid history adds insult to injury

State courts committed children to these hellholes. Religious orders should not have control of files

Tom Wall’s early life reads like something from a novel by Charles Dickens. Until it starts to read like something from a novel by Stephen King.

Wall, who is now 74, was born in the workhouse in Limerick. It had been renamed as St Ita’s, putting a nice Catholic gloss on it. But it was still the workhouse.

In March 1949, Josephine Wall, a 22-year-old unmarried domestic servant in Newcastle West, ill, destitute and pregnant, was admitted to St Ita’s. The following morning she gave birth, prematurely, to Tom.

For the first three years of his life, Tom lived in the workhouse while Josephine slaved in its laundry to earn their keep. Tom’s main memory of those years was of the sound of women crying.


In July 1952, when he was not yet 3½, Tom was hauled before the District Court in Newcastle West. A Judge Kenny decreed that he be taken from there and incarcerated in St Joseph’s industrial school in Glin, on the Shannon estuary

Tom was given a number: 2656.

The State was punctilious about one thing: Josephine was ordered by the same court to pay 5 shillings a week towards the upkeep of child 2656. The money was to be delivered every week to the Garda station in Newcastle West.

Our republic kept a sharp eye out for this. In his memoir The Boy from Glin Industrial School, Wall reproduces a letter sent from the Department of Education in Dublin to the Garda superintendent in Newcastle West. It shows a deep concern for the keeping of proper public records: “It will be necessary to obtain a copy of the (court) order and have same served on her. Such serving will be noted on this file, which is to be returned as soon as the case has been entered on the records.”

We will return to why this acute interest in record-keeping is so ironic in Tom Wall’s current circumstances. For the moment, it is merely worth noting that extracting money from his destitute mother was vastly more important to the State than the welfare of her little son.

These boys were subjected to systematic physical, psychological and sexual violence by the Brothers

The department in Dublin continued to monitor Josephine’s compliance with the order to stump up her weekly 5 shillings. It even considered the question of whether she ought to be prosecuted for nonpayment until the Garda superintendent said that she had no money

Tom Wall, barely out of infancy, was unusually young to be snatched from his mother and given into the complete power of the Christian Brothers, who ran Glin and five other industrial schools. But not that unusual: according to the Ryan Report, the average age of the boys in Glin was nine.

These boys were subjected to systematic physical, psychological and sexual violence by the Brothers. In Glin the children called the order the Christian Butchers.

We know that the Department of Education was well aware that boys in Glin were not merely beaten but flogged. In 1945, Martin McGuire, a local councillor in Limerick city, wrote to the department about a boy who had managed to flee from the school. He had himself seen the “numerous dark stripes” on the child’s back from the flogging.

Yet, in this case, the diligence shown by the department in seeking documentary proof of whether Josephine Wall was paying her 5 shillings a week was strangely absent. All records of the correspondence with McGuire about this case were expunged from the department’s files.

The Christian Brothers also unleashed two known child sexual abusers on the boys in Glin. One of them was so bad that the order had expressed fears internally that he might murder a child after abusing him. They sent him to Glin regardless.

Tom Wall was sexually abused from the age of eight. The assaults escalated into repeated and brutal rapes by one of the brothers. Known as “fair game”, he was also raped by older boys.

When the industrial school in Glin closed in 1966, Wall was kept on as a labourer on the farm. In 1973, when the land and buildings were sold by the Brothers, he was asked to help with destroying the school’s records.

As Wall recalls in his memoir, the superior, a Brother Murray, “ordered that all the files that held all the details about every boy that entered the school had to be burnt as soon as possible. I asked where to burn them and he said outside on the lawn. We piled them out on the lawn and set them on fire.”

Wall, however, saved two boxes of documents and subsequently stored them in an attic, where he later worked as a gardener. He insists that he did this with the permission of Brother Murray.

The records Wall saved include indentures showing that boys in the school were hired out by the Brothers, essentially as slave labour, to farmers, traders and merchants. The Brothers were paid for this labour; the boys were not. Essentially, the Brothers were engaged in trafficking of children.

The documents also include letters sent by parents and family members to children incarcerated in the school and, apparently, withheld from the boys by the Brothers. They included letters from Wall’s own mother that he never received.

These documents were not known about when Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan did their ground-breaking work on the industrial schools and were not seen by the Ryan commission of inquiry. They are an important part of the history of the State.

In 2015 Tom Wall retrieved the records and decided to give them to the University of Limerick’s Glucksman Library archives. But the Christian Brothers instituted legal action, claiming that they owned the documents and demanding that Wall hand them over.

In 2017, Fianna Fáil TD Niall Collins raised this action in the Dáil and asked if the State should take control of the records. Richard Bruton, then minister for education, washed his hands of the whole problem. Bruton said: “My department has never sought to take ownership of such records...the State is not a party to these proceedings...They are private records as far as my department is concerned.”

The State that failed in its legal duty to supervise and regulate these institutions

Last month, Limerick District Court ordered Tom Wall to hand the documents over to the Brothers within four weeks. Wall is appealing this ruling.

This situation is, frankly, grotesque. First, It is an absolute principle that the records of systematic human rights abuses should not be controlled by the institutions that inflicted those abuses. The traces of what happened in the industrial schools belongs morally to the victims, not to the perpetrators.

It is all the more outrageous to hand records over to the people who tried to burn them and to give personal letters to the order that stole them from their intended recipients.

And, second, it is utterly absurd to claim, as Richard Bruton did, that these are “private records”. They are not.

It was the State’s courts that committed children to these hellholes. It was the State that paid the salaries of the Brothers who worked in them. It was the State that failed in its legal duty to supervise and regulate these institutions.

Giving the Christian Brothers ownership of their sordid history is adding insult to injury. The Government should act now to stop this affront to the memory of those who were preyed on so ruthlessly. All the records of all these church-run institutions should be nationalised now.