I have taken my title from a wonderful book by an Irish writer, Michael Farrell, which was released in 1963. It was his one and only book, his master work, which he toiled over for years, never satisfied, even after it had been accepted by a publisher. I read it when I was living in Germany, and I have never forgotten the chapters that detail the physical and mental abuse the hero suffered at the hands of the Christian Brothers.
I was reminded of Farrell’s book, when I read some of the horrors contained in the report from the Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which was released earlier this week. I’m not going to go into the details here. Wise Web Woman has written about the report, far more movingly than I ever could, in this heart-rending post on her blog. Commenters there, and on other blogs I have visited this week, all ask the same questionâ€”how could something like this happen, right under the noses of so-called responsible adults, to the most vulnerable children? I think the answer to that lies in the kind of world we lived in, those of us who were brought up in Ireland during the 1950s and 60s.
Beatings by teachers, parents, even neighbours were commonplace. There was a general acceptance, promulgated by the Catholic Church which ruled the country with an iron fist, that children were basically evil little bastards who, if they were not severely chastised at every opportunity, would run amok. Although I had many a slap from my mother, that was just because she didn’t like me very much. None of my siblings were ever hit or beaten, by either of my parents, so we were luckier than most. Every kid I knew was routinely beaten by one or both of their parents. I had one friend whose father used to beat her with the flat of a cricket bat, well into her teens. A cricket bat! I can hardly lift one with both hands, they’re so heavy.
The teachers in the national school I attended for the first six years of my education were vicious. We called it “getting biffed,” when a teacher called you out to the front of the class, made you roll up your sleeve, and delivered sharp, stinging blows to the palm of your hand, if you were a girl, or to your backside, if you were a boy. The number of slaps depended on the enormity of your misdeed, and the level of pain depended on the favoured method of the teacher. I remember one nun who used a bamboo cane, which had been carefully shredded on the business end, to deliver the maximum amount of damage. Another teacher, a lay teacher this time, was renowned for using a chair leg to beat the boys in her class. She lived in our village and was much admired by all the parents for her control of said boys. Nobody ever thought to complain to their parents about these beatings. If you were one of the lucky ones, like me, the response was invariably “you probably asked for it.” Most kids lived in terror of their parents finding out they’d been punished by the teacher, as it would earn them another beating at home. Winter beatings were the hardest, as we all suffered from chilblains on our hands, that would bleed after a biffing. Along with the beatings, there were the casual crueltiesâ€”being lifted out of your seat by your plaits, as I was on many occasions; having heavy rulers or blackboard dusters thrown at you; getting smacked on the back of your head, just for the heck of it, as a teacher passed by your desk.
My family lived on a squareâ€”a private park maintained by the residents. I spent my childhood playing in the square, along with all the other children in the area. If anything got out of hand, a fight broke out, or something was broken, any adult who happened to be passing by would wade in, box every kid’s ears and go on his or her way, confident that the kids’ parents would not mind in the slightest that their offspring had been slapped around by a neighbour. “I’ll box your ears” was a favourite euphemism of the time. Sounds so cute, what was in fact a sharp slap to the side of the head that would leave your ears ringing. Any adult could hand one out to any kid, no matter how young, with impunity.
My cousin, Peter, was educated by the Christian Brothers, a religious teaching order that plays a starring role in the Child Abuse report. They were renowned for their brutality. Peter was a harmless kid, sweet-natured, not a mischievous bone in his body. He was beaten so badly by one of his teachers that he permanently lost the hearing in one ear. So we were all shocked when Peter up and joined the Christian Brothers after leaving school. The Brothers paid for him to go to university, and then on to teacher training school. The day after he graduated as a fully-accredited teacher, he left the order. As one of seven kids, he could never have afforded to go to university any other way. Revenge is, indeed, a dish best eaten cold.
Unlike Peter, my only brother was a fiend in human form. My mother once told me that, from the moment “Paddy” was old enough to go and play in the square, the doorbell started ringing as neighbours lined up to complain about him. The nuns and brothers lathered the hell out of him, but they could not beat the mischief out of Paddy. Even my father put on boxing gloves and went a few rounds with him once, but to no avail. When he was about 12 years old, after several visits from the police, Paddy was sent away to boarding school. Or at least that was the story we were told. Many years later, I learned that he had been sent to Daingean Reformatory, one of the institutions described in the Child Abuse report, after an incident involving a stolen car, a midnight joyride and a court appearance. He spent two years there, after which he was banished to an expensive, very tough boarding school in England, that had a reputation for turning around problem kids. But Paddy remained the black sheep of the family for the rest of his life. Although he made and lost several fortunes in England, eventually retiring at age 40 to become a “gentleman farmer” in Ireland, he was always a lost soul. Over the years, we got used to reading about his latest escapade in the tabloids, until he died suddenly, after a massive heart attack when he was only 44. Reading about the abusive atmosphere in Daingean, I wonder if my brother might have eventually found his path had he not been sent there.
In the Ireland I grew up in, I have no doubt that many adults were aware of the physical abuse meted out to orphans and reformatory kids. And I am equally sure that they would not have objected. If the Church said these kids were evil and needed to be punished, for their own good, well that was just how it had to be. The sexual abuse is another matter. Although there were certain priests in our Parish that all the kids knew to stay away from, if only because there was something icky about them, I don’t ever remember any gossip or rumours about teachers and kids. And I have to believe, if there were, then somebody would have intervened. I have to believe that.