Abuse, Neglect, and the Catholic Church in Ireland: Letterfrack and its Lost Boys

This small village at the foot of the Connemara National Park was established by Quakers in 1949, the last year of the Great Hunger. James and Mary Ellis came here from England, as part of post-famine relief programs in Connemara.  They Ellises set up workshops for the denizens of this area, hoping to give people skills by which to earn a decent living. At the main crossroads of the town sits the site of the benighted St. Joseph’s Industrial School, where the ghosts of children seem to hover around the cemetery. The young boys of Letterfrack are commemorated by the poems of the Poetry Trail, carved into wooden plaques affixed to the town’s buildings, to stands along the walk, and to trees.  St. Joseph’s Industrial School, in operation from 1887-1974, was a site where hundreds if not thousands of Irish boys suffered harsh conditions, beaten and in some cases, sexually abused by the their teachers and wardens, the Irish Christian Brothers.

The building that warehoused these boys has been repurposed as a school for teenagers who have little interest in an academic secondary education, desiring instead to become skilled woodworkers. We wander through the National Centre of Excellence for Furniture Design and Wood Technology, on a quiet morning after the end of term. Finely hewn chairs, bookshelves, intricate coffee tables, side tables, chess boards and storage boxes sit ready for an exhibition and auction next week.

Nearby, atop a woods of trees with moss covered trunks, winding vines, and wild garlic, sits the small graveyard. Whether from disease–pneumonia, tuberculosis, whopping cough, diphtheria, rheumatic fever–or from malnourishment, or from severe beatings and exposure–the deaths of these young boys marked this ground. Exhaustive reports by the Irish national government relying on interviews, document analysis and forensic evidence, legal proceedings, the dismantling and closure of the old school, formal apologies issued by the Catholic Church and the Irish government under whose watch these things occurred–all these have been intended to achieve truth and reconciliation.

But it is the poets and artists who come closest to the truth about the suffering and loss of these children. Walking the Letterfrack Poetry Trail is more than a literary exercise–and reading the poems aloud in turn, as we did today, makes the past immediate. The heart-shaped grave markers atop old gravestones recite boys’ names, their birth and death date, their age on the day they passed from this life. Age 9, age 11, age 13. Born 1912, 1915, died 1922, 1925.

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The poets record the tiniest, most poignant details: the boy who when they knew “there were in for it,” cried Mammy, Mammy, Mammy” in a low murmur like a prayer. The boy who carried a cardboard suitcase when he came up from Dublin after getting in trouble with the law, perhaps for stealing a bicycle. The dead child whose comrades mourned his broken back and his empty hands.

We walked the poetry trail, swatting away persistent Connemara midges and taking turns reading the poems aloud. The cloud cover gave way in the late afternoon to sun. We wandered into the tables outside the Park’s tearoom, where we sipped tea and talked about Irish poets who lately had died in old age. We talked about our host’s son, a mortgage broker Chicago, and about mackerel fishing in Clifden, nearby. We did not speak about the graves, or even of the poems on wooden plaques that dot the poetry trail. This was the fourth day in a row that the sun was shining brightly in Connemara, and we liked to think we’d brought the fine weather with us from Northern America.

As we neared St Joseph’s Church on our way back down the road, Joe pointed out one last poem—not part of the poetry trail collection per se, but nonetheless an important testimony: “Graveyard,” by the late Irish poet Richard Murphy, who died last January after a long and illustrious career. Murphy’s words, inscribed in white painted script on a black background, call to mind chalk on a school blackboard, what in other contexts would be a benign symbol of the classrooms in past days.

Graveyard- Richard Murphy Poetry trail

Murphy’s words are chilling, and they’ve stuck with me long after we have moved on from Letterfrack up the coast to Achill Island, then double back to Louisburgh, where the good sunny weather of the past ten days turns, and we hear the high wind and steady rain rattling the cottage windows.  Safe and dry in our cottage, we watch the last of the peat fire burn into embers, and call it a night.

Letterfrack Industrial School

Bog-brown glens, mica schist rocks, waterfalls
Gulching down screes, a rain-logged mountain slope
With scrawny pine trees twisted by mad gales,
They see from my ball-yard, and abandon hope.

Wild boys my workshops chasten and subdue
Learn here the force of craft. Few can escape
My rack of metal, wood, thread, hide: my screw
Of brotherhood: the penny stitched in a strap.

Podded in varnished pews, stunted in beds
Of cruciform iron, they bruise with sad, hurt shame
Orphans with felons, bastards at loggerheads
With waifs, branded for life by a bad name.

One, almost hanged in my boot-room, has run free
Dressed as a girl, saved by a thieving gipsy.

 ~Richard Murphy