Radio letter and abuse in Ireland

I think it is safe to say that it will be a long time before the dust settles on the human wreckage wrought by the culture of abuse inflicted so savagly by some of the religious on the many unfortunate, poor defenceless children of this country over many years.

The drip feed of revelations has been on-going for years, and continues day after day to shock us. The Murphy and other reports point to an Irish Church more concerned with preserving its own image than in coming to the aid of young and vulnerable victims of men and women of the cloth. Cover up is perhaps the most accurate description.

Priests and brothers have been sent to prison. Bishops have resigned. Cardinal Brady is considering his position. The demand for a full and complete  investigation into abuse in all of the dioceses seems unstoppable. Brave people like Michael O’Brien (a victim himself of sexual abuse) of Tipperary, and our own Fr Kevin Hegarty* in the Diocese of Killala- an honest, courageous man villified by the Church for airing his concerns many years ago- are amongst those who have stood up and been counted when it comes to demanding  accountability.

The Pope in his pastoral letter on sexual abuse  fell well short of  accountability?  Blaming the Irish church is, of course, spot on, but what about the Vatican. Are its hands clean? Surely Rome has known of the many charges of abuse levelled against its clergy in Ireland over many years. Surely, Rome has been at the very heart of the cover up? Surely, it has been complicit with the Church here in protecting its power base and moral authority first and foremost! How can Rome argue with any credibility that it did not know?

And can the Government here be far behind in accepting its considerable share of the blame? Yes, there have been apologies in the Dail, but has anyone really ever demanded that government over the years really own up to and take full responsibiity for its blind, convenient, dishonest neglect.

Government paid a bounty to institutions – manned by brothers, priests and nuns, many of whom were ill-equipped, ill-suited and ill-trained- to look after vulnerable children, many of whom were yanked off their parent(s) by so called ‘concerned catholics’ who felt the parent(s) could not cope, or could not guarantee that their children were brought up in a fitting manner. Off they were packed to Artane, or Letterfrack or wherever, where many of them were set upon by depraved savages who beat, thrashed, raped and starved them.

And as all this went on, the governments our parents or grandparents elected doled out the money to the institutions, ignored reports of abuse and washed their hands of their responsibility. Politicians of all parties, in failing to exercise their duty of care to children supposedly ‘cherised equally’, presided blindly over the brutality. The ‘problem’ was behind high walls…and there were higher priorities.

Doctors called in to ‘fix’ the broken bones of the brutalised children knew of the physical and mental abuse; gardai knew, industrial school inspectors knew, nuns knew. Politicians knew. The Church knew. Probably, others knew. And even as kids, we knew that industrial schools were not nice places, to put it mildly.

Last week (March 18th, 2010), on his popular show, Tommy Marren of Mid West Radio read out a compelling letter from a victim of that institutionalised savagery, written by a man of 84 years, living and born in the West of Ireland.Simply but tellingly written, the letter stunned listeners glued to their radios. The response was enormous.

Here is the letter, as read by Tommy Marren:

“I was listening to your programme recently when you were discussing the bishops’ requests for the laity to pay for the sins of the clergy. During the programme some said that the nuns were just as bad and the memories of 72 years past came flooding back.

I came from a large, happy family who played and roamed the green fields of our farm. Sadly, my parents split up and parted and I found myself and my brother being sent to a home for destitute children run by nuns in the West of Ireland. The year was 1937. I would have been 12 years old on my next birthday and my younger brother was 6.

What a contrast to the green fields of home with the nuns marching up and down the corridor wearing long rosary beads, virtually down to the ground and on the righ hand side, clipped to the waist, was a leather strap. The strap was three feet long, three inches wide and about a quarter of an inch thick. I was so naïve. I thought it part of their uniform but to my horror a few short weeks in the home soon made me realise what it was for.

After school all the senior boys (including me) were made wax and polish the recreation hall which was about 60 feet by 20 feet. There were 6 boys in front on waxing duties and 6 following on to polish the wax floor. There was a nun standing over you in case you would raise your head. If you did raise your head you got a smash of the belt across the back and after two nights polishing my knees were in terrible pain.

I told one of the nuns and she said that by the time we had the job finished I would be “good and hard”. That was the sympathy I got. The younger generation were on their knees polishing the corridors including my 6-year old brother and when the work would be over we were made wash our hands in cold water.

Then all the children were assembled in the recreation hall. There was a row of wooden chairs – I would say about 50 in all – where some of the children would just sit and gaze into space more than likely thinking of the homes they had left behind. I remember my brother and I were just four weeks in the home but to us it seemed like four years.

There is one vivid memory that I will bring to the grave of this awful time. One evening at about 7 pm we were all in little groups. I remember I and about 5 other boys were at one end of the hall and I remember they wanted to know why I was put in the home. There were other boys at the other end of the room just chatting. Seemingly a scuffle broke out amongst two of the younger boys and the remainder of the boys stood around the two fighting boys in a circle cheering on their favourite.

Suddenly, a nun appeared and began to viciously wave her leather strap. She started swinging out from over her shoulder right down on one of the boys involved in the fight. You could hear the screams of the boy 50 metres away. The nun kept screaming “I’ll teach you a lesson. Our little group were the last to arrive. By now the circle was five children wide and I found it difficult to get near the child. When I did I saw a young terrified little child curled up like a baby in its mothers womb with his two little hands covering his face from the shower of belts being administered by the out-of-control nun.

His little back was facing towards me and I edged towards the front. To my horror I saw a mop of curly red hair and realised it was my brother. He was wearing a little vest and short trousers and as the nun rained the leather belt on his little arms and legs you could see the welts it was leaving.

As the nun swung the belt over her shoulder I made for it. Sadly, I only caught the tip and was not able to hold on. The nun had the belt wrapped around her wrist to apply maximum force. She made a grab for me but I ran to the side door and escaped a beating. As I ran outside I can vividly remember looking through the window and seeing the nun continue to beat my brother.

By this time is was about 7.10 pm. We were lost souls. We had no father to take our part and no mother to protect us. In shock I started to wander down the drive of the home with tears streaming down my face. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. The only time I was away from home was to go to mass with my mother. That was 2 miles away so you can see how lost I really felt.

I kept walking until I came to a bridge with a big flow of water down below. Looking down I saw a ledge – about 9 inches wide – and I worked my way onto the ledge and leaned my back against the bridge wall and was facing towards the river. I thought no one would see me and I intended to stay there for the night. Suddenly, I heard a lady’s voice saying “What are you doing down there? Come up right now or you’ll get dizzy and get drowned”. The kind lady waited until I was safe. She patted me on the head and told me to run home immediately to “your mother and father”. Little did the kind lady know I had no home, no mammy or daddy and no future

It was getting dark and I was getting nervous. I had no option but to return to the home. As I walked up the drive I could see the lights were still on in the hall. Peering through the window I could still see my little brother. All the other children were sitting on the wooden chairs around the perimeter of the hall in complete silence and my brother was being paraded around the hall with a cardboard sign around his neck with big capital letters on it saying “BITCH – FEMALE DOG”.

The nun was standing in the middle of the room roaring at my brother to keep walking and waving her leather belt if he slowed down. During the time I watch my brother he fell at least 6 times and each time the nun would scream at him to get up and keep walking. Eventually a senior nun walked in and said to the nun that it was time for wash and bed. I thanked the Lord that my young brothers suffering was over. By now he had been flogged and marched for over two-and-a-half hours.


I entered the hall in shock and as he passed by me his little body was trembling. Although we came from a large family I never say any member of my family being beaten. If we did something wrong we were sat down and told never to do it again so this experience was a terrible shock for my brother.

I went straight to my dormitory. I was in the section that was assigned to the 10-14 year olds. There were 24 single beds – 12 on each side – and immediately inside the dormitory there was a room that was made up of 80% glass where the nun-in-charge slept. Just down the corridor there was a second dormitory where all the 6-9 year olds slept and this included my brother.

That night I could not sleep wondering whether my little brother would be alive the following morning. There was a clock directly over the entrance of the dormitory. There was always a light on in the corridor which shone on the clock. I watched every second waiting for morning to come. It was 3.00 am when I heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor and rattle of keys and beads which was unusual. As the nun past the entrance to the dormitory I saw a small middle-aged man wearing a hat and carrying a small suitcase. I realised I had seen him once before and I remember hearing on of the boys remark that he was a doctor who always came to see the “sick boys”. My heart sank. Was my little brother dying I wondered

Just after 3.30 am the nun and doctor past down to the main door. I heard the doctor wish the nun a good morning and mutter something about coming back again later in the morning. I was numb with fear and worry. I watched the clock tick slowly and eventually couldn’t bear it any longer. Just before 5.00 am the only sound to be heard was the snoring of the nun in charge. I slid out of my bed and crawled along the passage way between the two rows of beds and headed for the corridor. Thanks God I got past the nun.


Then I crawled down the corridor to the dormitory where my little brother slept. Sadly, the nun in charge there never snored so I didn’t know whither she was awake or not. I had to see my brother and was willing to take any punishment if I were caught. I got down on my tummy and dragged myself along the passageway between the two rows of beds. Finally, I got to my brothers bed and quickly slid under his blanket. I will never ever forget the heat from his body – it would have lit a cigarette. I gently put my hand on him and he jumped about six inches in the bed but did not wake. The welts on his arms were three inches high.

I suddenly noticed a little boy, about three beds down from where my brother lay, raise his head. I was afraid he might start to scream so I crawled down to his bed and whispered that I had come to see my little brother. Even though he was only nine he was better up on how things were in the home and he whispered to me that the doctor had come and put a needle in my brothers arm and that he immediately “went very quite”. The boy told me that before the doctor came my brother was finding it hard to breath.

I noted that my brother had a plaster of paris on his wrist and the 9 year-old boy told me that when the nun was dragging him down the stairway he had held on to the railing with one hand and that the nun snapped the other hand and broke his wrist. I thanked the boy for telling me all that he had and I then crawled back up to my brothers bed. I leaned down and kissed him on the forehead with tears streaming down my face and with a heavy heart crawled back to my own bed again.

I remember wishing it was 7.00 am so that I could get out of bed. Eventually the bells sounded and when I went to the dining area I waited anxiously for my brother to arrive. How naïve I was. I was not to see my brother for 2 whole weeks and when I did see him the only thing I could recognise was his mop of red hair. That beating had scarred him both physically and mentally for the rest of his life.

I asked some of the boys why the nun had placed the placard around his neck and it seems that during the beating my brother said “Stop it you Bitch”. When this happened the nun immediately left the hall and returned with the sign “BITCH – FEMALE DOG” and placed it around my brothers neck before making him walk around the dormitory for over 2 hours.

I often wonder how many young boys who hadn’t even reached the age of 7 were dealt such beatings. I’m finding it very difficult to write this letter. I am being treated for Parkinson’s disease and I also have a heart condition and cancer. I will be 84 years old shortly . My young brother never recovered from that cruel beating and died a young man of heartbreak and mental illness.

I would like you to read this letter on your programme as I think I owe it to my late brother to let people know what went on behind the closed doors of institutions in so called Holy Ireland. I have suffered enough and I am still suffering.”

Will the writer of that letter be happy with the Pope’s pastoral?  We think not. We are all diminished in the light of such an horrific and not uncommon story of dark days in this country. We have a long way to go.

The website for Mid West Radio is

See Pope Benedict’s pastoral on

*Fr Hegarty was moved out of his job as editor of Intercom magazine after commissioning articles on subjects like clerical sexual abuse, women priests and compulsory celibacy. When he was appointed to the job of editor in 1991 he was regarded as one of the young intellectual forces in the Irish Catholic Church.

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