A simple question stopped Ireland in its tracks: why were so many children incarcerated?

Journalist Mary Raftery exposed a shocking culture of abuse 25 years ago this month with her three-part documentary series States of Fear

Twenty-five years ago this month, Mary Raftery stopped us hurtling smugly towards the close of the 20th century. The economy was booming, the shackles of historic enmities seemingly lifting, and narratives of Irish confidence abounded, but Raftery, through her three-part States of Fear documentary series, pricked the balloon. The harrowing testimonies of the former child residents of carceral institutions suggested Ireland had much to come to terms with in relation to the lies and abuses it had lived with and compartmentalised.

Raftery, a gifted and dogged journalist, assisted by her co-researcher Sheila Ahern, had begun her excavations with one question: “why were so many children incarcerated in institutions all over Ireland?” During the programmes, many former residents spoke of ritual humiliation and abuse. What was striking was not just the scale but the casualness of the abuse; one interviewee, Barney, said of his abuser: “He didn’t even have the goodness to bugger you in private”. That line resonated with another account of institutional abuse that followed the programmes, when a Christian Brother was quoted telling the boys in Letterfrack industrial school in the 1920s “you will always be identified by your sheepish look”, surely one of the most devastating assertions to appear about such institutionalisation.

Raftery’s work and the broadcasted testimonies prompted outrage and an apology from taoiseach Bertie Ahern in May 1999: “On behalf of the State and all citizens of the State, the government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue.”

States of Fear shifted things decisively. Following the apology came the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse that culminated in the report of Justice Seán Ryan in 2009, standing at 2,600 pages and covering 215 institutions. It concluded: “A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment permeated most of the institutions”, including all those run for boys, with “sexual abuse endemic in boys’ institutions”. Raftery’s series also led to the establishment of the Residential Institutions Redress Board.


And yet, it was difficult to answer Raftery’s fundamental starting question as to why so many were institutionalised. Sociologist Eoin O’Sullivan, co-author with Raftery of the 1999 book Suffer the little Children that emerged from the series, highlighted the limitations of the Ryan Commission’s inquiries due to its terms of reference, which did not ask it to establish why the system took root, but to investigate the abuse, enable victims to give evidence, make recommendations to prevent abuse and propose actions to address the continuing impact of the abuse. As O’Sullivan noted, complications arise for commissions “which aim to serve both investigative and therapeutic functions”.

Raftery referred to the Ryan Report as “a monument to the shameful nature of Irish society throughout most of the decades of the 20th century, and arguably even today”. That conclusion was also prompted by the disgraceful deal struck between the government and the religious orders to indemnify them from legal action in return for transfer of property and assets to the state worth €128 million. The religious orders agreed to increase this by an additional €352.6 million in 2010 but this was still wholly inadequate given an estimated bill of costs and redress of about €1.5 billion. Raftery also pointed out in 2009 that the religious orders that had been the most egregious offenders – the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy – remained the largest providers of boys and girls’ schools in the Republic.

Raftery liked to ask another question: “Do they think we’re eejits”? The acerbity was justified. Delays in compensation, stalling legal actions, retraumatising because of a badly handled redress process, and disputes over access to archival documents were just some of the issues that clouded the fallout from her investigations.

In 2019, Seán Ryan looked back at the commission and said the question that loomed largest for him was “who owns the system”? The state, in theory, had the right to direct, but other vested interests wielded the power. The power alliances were not just relevant to industrial schools, they were, and remain, relevant to other issues including education, health, housing, and now migration. As for access to vital information about historic cruelties, we are continually reminded of the gruelling battles this necessitates and the class dimensions that emerge, whether that relates to the national system of confinement or the fallout from other tragedies such as the Stardust fire in 1981 or the Dublin/Monaghan bombings 50 years ago today.

Raftery’s final documentary, before her cruelly premature death at the age of 54 in 2012, was Behind the Walls (2011), a history of Irish psychiatric hospitals. Far too much remains behind walls, but that we got a look over some of them is testament to Raftery’s combination of steeliness and humanity.