Suffer the Little Children – Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan

Suffer the Little Children – The Inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools makes horrifying reading. It is an account of the systematic abuse of underprivileged children incarcerated in Ireland’s industrial school system from the foundation of the State to the mid-1970s.

The book is an outgrowth of the hugely controversial and influential TV documentary series States of Fear made in 1999, which, through the personal testimonies of the survivors of the Industrial School System, built up a totally convincing picture of an institutional childcare system perversely devoted to the incarceration and abuse of children, under the guidance of a Government which did not seem to be aware of, or conveniently failed to recognize, what was going on. States of Fear provided the conclusive evidence in the debate surrounding the abuse of children in institutional care in Ireland, which had opened with Louis Lentin’s documentary Dear Daughter. Made in 1996, that film told the story of the horrific abuse suffered by Christine Buckley in the Goldenbridge Orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy. Dear Daughter raised questions about institutional childcare, and particularly about the Sisters of Mercy who were one of the religious orders most involved in the provision of industrial schools. States of Fear broadened the debate beyond blaming one industrial school, or one religious order, to show that the same patterns resurfaced in all the industrial schools, and that child abuse was simply ingrained in the system. It prompted an apology by the Irish Government to all the children who had been contained in the Industrial Schools for the suffering which had been inflicted on them.

What makes Suffer the Little Children compelling are the vivid personal testimonies of the survivors of the Industrial Schools. The chapters are organized thematically – how the system was set up, funding and conditions within the schools, religious control by the Catholic Church ("saving little souls"), the exploitation of child labor, physical abuse, sexual abuse, the religious orders themselves, how the schools and the children were perceived by the outside world and the indifference of the State.

The same themes arise over and over again in the personal testimonies at the end of each chapter – the injuries inflicted by severe physical beatings; semi-starvation; cold and poor clothing; overwork; lack of access to education, even that prescribed by law; the absence of any understanding of child psychology; emotional abuse; sexual abuse. Corporal punishment was common across all schools for both girls and boys; sexual abuse was more common in boy’s schools, and semi-starvation, filth and rags more confined to the most extreme boy’s schools–for example Baltimore Fishing School in Cork.

The power of this institutional system was strong. All of the victims remember good and kind nuns and brothers in the schools, but these people never dared speak out against their more violent colleagues, and the system went on. The nuns in particular could exercise power over the girls for the rest of their lives. One of the overwhelming themes is the self-perpetuating nature of the whole system. Little girls, born of unmarried mothers, were placed in industrial schools. The nuns, frantic to preserve their purity, gave them no sexual education. They were released, became pregnant, were placed in Magdalen Laundries (run by nuns as homes/sweatshops for unmarried mothers) and their babies went into the industrial schools. Often, as in the case of the Good Shepherd nuns, the Magdalen Laundry and the Industrial School were located in the same complex, and the child grew up alongside its mother, but with never any contact between them.

It seems incredible that this Dickensian scenario could have gone on unchecked and financially supported by the State for such a long time. Suffer the Little Children is particularly strong in explaining this. The book does not merely sensationalize through the personal testimonies of the victims, but matches the personal side with an analysis of the system. The industrial schools were the bottom rung of the ladder in the institutional childcare system, catering to underprivileged children – those placed in care by the courts because their families could not care for them. The book argues that one of the system’s primary purposes was to keep the children at the bottom of the social ladder, and preserve the rigid class system. Girls were destined for domestic service; boys for laboring jobs. In this manner, the system was able to keep what they perceived to be society’s undesirable elements out of sight and in their place. Because these children were poor or illegitimate, they were deemed to have fewer rights than other children. In the tiered system of institutional care, orphanages catering to middle class children were not run on the same lines as the industrial schools.

Another element was the relationship between the Catholic Church and the State in Ireland. The Industrial Schools were run by the religious orders, although funded by the State. And, as in many other areas of Irish life, the State was not prepared to challenge the Church’s authority. They largely left the business of caring for the children up to the religious orders, and the religious orders did not tolerate interference. With this vast system operated for them by the Church, it was not in the State’s interest to question. Certainly, there were inspections, and occasional incidents which the State sought to investigate (the book shows evidence that the Department of Education were often aware that all was not as it should be), but ultimately there was little action taken.

What was the prevailing ideology that kept all this in place? It wasn’t possible for this system to exist in a vacuum – it had to fit into the larger society. Suffer the Little Children points out that the childcare system in Ireland took a step backwards on the formation of the State. While Britain was moving away from institutional care, Ireland turned its back firmly on progress. And it could be argued that this firm denial of progress of any kind was the central ideology of DeValera’s Catholic Ireland. A society which attempted to define itself in terms of self-sufficiency, protectionist economic policies, rigid Catholic morality, careful preservation from the pollution of outside influences, despite, ironically, the constant flow of emigration to the UK and the US. This was a society which unquestioningly accepted the power and authority of the Church in the Industrial Schools and elsewhere. It was also a country where the film Casablanca was cut to remove any reference to an adulterous relationship between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. This may seem like a trivial comparison but it is telling. The context of the Industrial Schools is of an Ireland which jealously guarded its national identity against any outside influences which would challenge its rigid social mores.

Suffer the Little Children is a product of a changed and more open Ireland. Finally, many of the interviewees in this book are able to tell their stories and, at last, to be believed.

– Anne Sheridan