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Chapter 1 — Department of Education

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Part 7 The beginnings of change


On 30th January 1961 a play by Richard Johnson, The Evidence I Shall Give, was premiered at the Abbey Theatre. It ran for 42 performances, and then was restaged in July of that year when it ran for a further nine. It returned in August for 21 more, in September for nine, and finally in October for six. Such a run, with a total of 87 performances, was most unusual.


The author was a District Court judge. The play depicted a day in the life of a District Justice and the principal case was an application to have a 13-year-old female inmate of an orphanage transferred to an Industrial School because her alleged disobedience made discipline impossible. The protagonists were the defending solicitor, who was a kind and humane character, and who argued that ‘small children need kissing and caressing’ and the Mother Superior of the home, who was unloving and was driven by the need to enforce severe discipline and through it to bring the children ‘to humility’.


The children had been committed because their father could not afford to engage a woman to look after his six children. The solicitor then calculated that with the capitation fee of £2.10 s per week per child, the Order was being paid £390 for the three sisters, and the other institution was being paid £370 for the other three. ‘Will you agree’, he asked the mother-general, ‘that for £150 a year he could have got somebody to look after all six?’


The play ended with the young girl removing the scarf covering her head to reveal it to be shaven, her punishment for absconding. The solicitor then addressed the court, saying ‘...what a dreadful commentary on our so-called Christian State that the soul of a little child should be thus crucified in order to instil humility’.


Far from being controversial, the message of the play was well received by the audience and its success reflected the readiness of the public to hear the criticisms made by the play.


In retrospect, the establishment of the Kennedy Committee to review Reformatory and Industrial Schools seems more like an obituary than a death warrant for the existing system. In a memorandum prepared by Tarlach O’Raifeartaigh, the Secretary, for the Minister for Education in March 1967, he suggested that it would be ‘well worth considering whether the whole problem of reformatory and industrial schools should not be our next major target’. The Minister, Mr O’Malley, said he had always ‘felt deeply’ that children in care there had ‘a very special claim on society’.


Formally, both the Department and the Minister emphasised that a revision of the existing schools system should not be construed as an adverse reflection upon the management of schools by the religious Orders, which deserved praise for the ‘excellent manner’ in which the schools were conducted. However, there is no doubt that Minister O’Malley privately suspected that harsh conditions were pervasive in the schools as is evident from an informal remark to his Department’s representative on the Kennedy Committee: ‘I’m depending on you to see that this whole area is properly cleaned up. I’m behind you.’


The Committee made a crucial finding in relation to the existing system. Paragraph 4.2 of the Report said that: ...there is, in general, a lack of awareness of the needs of the child in care. By this we do not mean physical needs which are, in the main, adequately if unimaginatively catered for. We are referring to the need for love and security. All children experience these needs from their earliest days; the child who has suffered deprivation has an even greater need for them.


Noting that most of those working in Industrial Schools and Reformatories had little if any qualifications, the Report recommended: proper training, the transfer of administrative responsibility for childcare to the Department of Health, and the system of payment on a capitation basis to be replaced by a system based on agreed budgets so as to encourage improvement in the children’s circumstances. However the Committee’s major recommendation was that: The whole aim of the Child Care system should be geared towards the prevention of family breakdown and the problems consequent on it. The committal or admission of children to Residential Care should be considered only when there is no satisfactory alternative.


Like the Cussen Commission before it, the Kennedy Committee also supported the view that Resident Managers should have detailed knowledge of each child under their care. It was also agreed that a proper system of determining a child’s background and capabilities was essential in preventing an escalation of anti-social behaviour or educational disadvantage. In the Kennedy Report it was concluded that: As the system operates at present, a child is often admitted or committed to the care of the school manager, who knows little, if anything, about the child’s background. This can lead to great difficulties, particularly in the case of delinquent children, or those with delinquent or anti-social tendencies. The child may be retarded, suicidal, homicidal or homosexual, but the school authorities have no way of knowing this and by the time they learn it, much damage may have been done.

Part 8 The Department’s handling of complaints


The chapters in Volumes I and II on the schools recount many instances of complaints that came to the notice of the Department and the manner in which they were handled. Those cases are not repeated here and the following remarks are confined to general issues.


The Department of Education wrote to the Kennedy Committee to explain its procedures for dealing with complaints from the public: Upon receipt of a complaint from a parent or guardian about the treatment of a child in an industrial school, the Manager is furnished with a copy of the complaint and his observations are requested. Depending on the seriousness of the complaint the Inspector of Reformatory and Industrial schools will also interview the child and the school authorities and take appropriate action where necessary.


The Department also told the Committee it had ‘no complete record of all complaints received’ as many were of a ‘trivial nature’. It provided the Committee with nine examples of complaints received in the previous five years, all but two of which were deemed to be baseless. Mr Mac Uaid, an executive officer in the Department, wrote on another occasion: ‘Complaints about the treatment of children in industrial schools are not infrequent but from experience I would say that the majority are exaggerated and some even untrue.’


The Department’s submission to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse summarised the situation: The procedure for dealing with parent’s complaints was to refer them to the Manager of the school for consideration and depending on the response of the Manager and the seriousness of the complaint to determine whether the matter should be pursued with the school management. There does not appear to have been a defined system of assessing the seriousness of a parental complaint and generally the Department did not interview the parent or child concerned... There is no indication that complaints supported by public representatives were taken more seriously than others.


It added: There is also evidence to suggest that in many cases the Department accepted the explanations given by the Resident Manager when complaints were brought to his/her attention and that the Department may have viewed some complaints with a degree of scepticism.