Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 8 — Letterfrack

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The 1954 decision of the Provincial, taken in the face of opposition by both the Department of Education and District Justice McCarthy, was ill-considered and detrimental to the welfare of the boys in Letterfrack. If it was desirable to restrict admission to Letterfrack to a specific category of boys, it was unreasonable and contrary to policy to retain a substantial number of boys from previous intakes who were outside that category. By insisting that increases in grants had to be applied equally to all schools, smaller institutions like Letterfrack were at a serious disadvantage. It required extra funding to compensate for the low numbers after 1954 but no special case was made. It was an indictment of the Congregation that extra funding promised to the Resident Manager to compensate for the removal of up to 100 pupils was refused at a time when funds were available. The deprivation of funds caused hardship to the boys in Letterfrack. The decision to close Carriglea as an industrial school and to keep Letterfrack open was not taken in the interests of the children in Letterfrack. The unsuitability of Letterfrack as an industrial school was apparent from the start and was strongly reiterated by District Justices and by the Department of Education. The will of the Provincial prevailed, however, and it is an example of the power the Christian Brothers had in determining the direction the industrial school system took. From the comments in her Inspection Reports, Dr McCabe believed that low standards were the inevitable consequences of inadequate funding. However, when this issue was raised in public in 1959, neither the Department nor the Congregation acknowledged the difficulties but were at pains to paint a rosy picture of life in Letterfrack. The argument put forward by the Congregation in its Opening Statement, that the care the boys received in Letterfrack was better than they would have received if they had remained in their families, misses the point. The Congregation was paid by the State to care for these boys to a standard set down by law, and failed to do so.


All industrial schools were required to provide a basic national school education for all boys under 14 and an appropriate level of industrial training for the older boys. Letterfrack was recognised as a national school in 1941 and was required to follow the national school curriculum. All boys under 14 attended classes for five hours per day, and those over 14 years old who had completed the 6th class course were put full-time to a trade. Those still in 6th class and who could be expected to benefit from it remained on to complete the year, and the others who were put into a trade received evening classes in the ‘three R’s’.


In their Final Submission the Congregation submitted that the evidence heard by the Investigation Committee confirmed that teaching in Letterfrack was extremely difficult, principally because the boys had received little or no education before arriving in Letterfrack and because they were not interested in education. This difficulty, they submit, was compounded by the State’s failure to recognise this, in not providing extra teaching staff and not allowing the Congregation to pursue a modified curriculum which was more suitable for the boys. The Congregation even provided for one extra teacher from their own resources at one stage. Despite the difficulties, they submit that the Congregation brought a high proportion of boys to Primary Certificate level and, for a period, organised for some boys to attend secondary school.


They accept that some boys did not benefit from an education but submit that part of the reason for this was their own lack of interest in education. They submit that there was no basis for a finding that the Congregation was guilty of any shortcoming in respect of the provision of education to boys within its care.


These assertions can be tested against the documentary evidence, the evidence of former Brothers, and the evidence of former pupils of the School.


The Visitation Reports up to 1954 do not support the contention that the boys were backward or unwilling to receive education. Although some Brothers were criticised from time to time as being poor teachers, on the whole the standard as recorded by the Visitors was good. In 1938 the Visitor made an important observation: poor children of our institutions have first claim on our really good teachers, as their school time is short indeed, and we were founded mainly to look after the education of poor boys.


The School was staffed mainly by Christian Brothers. The size of the teaching staff varied. For much of the 1940s and 1950s, there were three to four teachers in the School. Some of these individuals taught two classes together. As regards qualifications, the Congregation’s teachers were trained in its own teaching college. Some former members of staff complained of the lack of training they received in remedial or special needs teaching. This, they said, was a significant handicap in Letterfrack, as many of the methods that they had learned were designed to be utilised in mainstream schools and were of little use in a school of such mixed ability as Letterfrack.


In 1945, the Visitor criticised the practice of removing weaker students from school to work on the farm. He suggested that the permission of the Superior be secured before this was allowed to happen.


Br Sorel, who taught in Letterfrack for four years from the late 1940s, said that the job was difficult as many of the children suffered from educational disabilities: It was a tremendous experience in one way, but it was very frustrating in another because a lot of the kids in the classes, as pointed out last week, were bordering on the mentally handicapped.


There was no evidence that, during Br Sorel’s time there, Letterfrack had a large number of mentally handicapped children. Educationally deprived they undoubtedly were, and for many the trauma of being locked away from family and friends would have been deeply disturbing, but judging by the complainants who attended the oral hearings, they were not mentally handicapped.


There was not a great deal of evidence about the standard of education in Letterfrack prior to 1954, when the School changed its enrolment policy. The only contemporaneous records, the Visitation Reports, were generally positive about the School.


Complainants to the Committee did not share the Visitor’s views, and described a regime of corporal punishment in the classroom that was harsh and pervasive. Education post-1954


From 1954, Letterfrack was directed by the Provincial of the Congregation to receive only those children who had been found guilty of a criminal offence. The negative impact that this decision had on the care of the boys has already been outlined. It had a considerable impact on the education of the boys in Letterfrack. The position was succinctly put in 1956 by the Resident Manager, who wrote to the Provincial informing him of the low level of educational ability of the students: The change in condition in our school brought about two years ago has altered all that radically. The old hands, if I may call them so, have become the ‘intelligentia’ and the new pupils are in a state of ignorance that has to be experienced to be realised. Of the 41 boys, still here who have been admitted in the last two years, 35 are still in school. This is more than half the number of boys on the rolls (61). These boys, in the main do not even know the letters of the alphabet.


He noted that there were three classes in the school: 3rd, 4th and 5th class. He said that 4th class was divided into three groups: 1. Boys who did not know the letters of the alphabet; 2. Boys who did know the letters of the alphabet; and 3. Boys who had begun to realise the simplest of words. He stated that these groupings were absolutely necessary and that the age groups threw further light on the state of affairs. Those in the so-called 4th class had an average age of 11 years 9 months, and those in 5th, 13 years and 1 month. He stated that it was abundantly clear from the above facts that specialised teaching was an absolute necessity if these boys were to get even the most rudimentary education. He said that the services of the three Brothers with the best of qualifications were therefore vitally needed in the school.


The Congregation presented a table of the number of boys who sat for and passed the Primary Certificate. This table does not tally with the Visitation Reports for a number of years and cannot therefore be relied on.

  1. Letterfrack Industrial School, Report on archival material held at Cluain Mhuire, by Bernard Dunleavy BL (2001).
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  6. Prior Park was a residential school run by the Christian Brothers near Bath, England.
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  19. This document is undated, although the date ‘6th November 1964’ is crossed out.
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  32. See table at paragraph 3.20 .
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  36. This information is taken from a report compiled for the Christian Brothers by Michael Bruton in relation to Letterfrack in 2001.
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  58. Electricity Supply Board.
  59. See table at paragraph 8.21 .
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  61. Cross-reference to CB General Chapter where notes that this arrangement was with the agreement of the Department of Education.
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  65. Gateways Chapter 3 goes into this in detail.