Saturday, May 27, 2006

Industrial School Scandal

In her Irish Times Opinion piece of 27th May, Breda O'Brien has raised an important aspect of the child abuse scandal. She writes: "I feel shame that Irish society dumped so many children in industrial schools and could not have cared less what happened to them."

The abject failure of governments, State agencies and the extended families of inmates to monitor and protect those inmates should be opened up for discussion. The power of the church is used as a cloak of invisibility for all the secular bodies and private citizens who failed in their duty to these children. These include the media - what exactly were Radio √Čireann and the newspapers doing?

Tonight with Vincent Browne on RTE Radio 1, apart from demonstrating the risk involved in seeking to defend or mitigate the role of the Christian Brothers, last week illustrated the unusual form of false memory syndrome suffered by most commentators and many of the public.

A former inmate of an industrial school described being fed "goody", a mix of warm milk, bread and sugar. His interviewer expressed horrified disbelief that such a mixture could be fed to a child. Yet in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, this same dish was well known in ordinary households throughout the country. It was fed to children who were ill and perhaps had difficulty in keeping food down or, indeed, as an occasional treat. In our nouveau riche society, we seem to be living in denial of just how shallow are the roots of our prosperity and how differently ordinary people lived in earlier, less affluent decades.

This type of interview, by commentators who look through the prism of 21st-century experience without any apparent knowledge of the wider societal norms of the time, serves only to increase the sense of injustice of people who were indeed victims of a system which lacked humanity - but in a country which was poor and also had very different attitudes to how children should be reared and disciplined. It wasn't always so rosy beyond the industrial school wall either.

The sexual abuse of children was totally inexcusable. But the automatic categorisation as "abuse" of spartan living conditions, tough disciplinary regimes and an absence of affection might benefit from a comparison with conditions outside the institutions at that time.

We might also follow Breda O'Brien's example and accept our share of the collective shame for what was done and what was not done, rather than dumping all the blame on the convenient whipping-boy that is the Catholic Church.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times.

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