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Tom DeignanAugust 27, 2001
Suffer the Little Childrenby By Mary Raftery and Eoin O'SullivanContinuum. 424 p $29.95.

Frank McCourt’s impoverished youth in Limerick, recalled so vividly and brutally in Angela’s Ashes, actually could have been much worse, according to the acclaimed author’s cousin. “When we were in Killarney [industrial school],” Pat Sheehan tells the writer and documentary filmmaker Mary Raftery:

We got a big box of chocolates one time from our grandmother, who was also the McCourts’ grandmother. Even though we had to be sent away, she still cared about us. I firmly believe that she was the main reason that the McCourt boys didn’t end up in Glin Industrial School. Because they could very easily have.

As viewers of Raftery’s watershed Irish documentary “States of Fear” know, introducing an industrial schools setting into McCourt’s already squalid recollection could have made for unbearable reading. That may also be the reaction to Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools, by Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan, the duo behind “States of Fear.” The three-part television documentary shook Ireland to its core when it was broadcast in 1999. The Irish Government swiftly issued an apology “to the tens of thousands of children who grew up in Ireland’s extraordinary network of what were called ‘industrial schools’,” as Raftery and O’Sullivan write. This book (previously released in Ireland) includes new material, which documents abuse at industrial schools in even more horrific detail: maggot-ridden food, rape, starvation, savage beatings over bed-wettings, exploitative labor practices.

The authors do not use this American edition to counter critics like Breda O’Brien of The Irish Times, who sought to undermine at least some of their claims. O’Brien wondered why the authors did not publish interviews with accused nuns and priests who proclaimed their innocence, and (using medical documents) questioned the detailed memories of some abuse victims. On the whole, however, Suffer the Little Children (as the authors’ many respected defenders argued) is solidly researched and harrowingly reported.

Industrial schools—run by Catholic orders with state funding—were what Americans might think of as orphanages or reform school, except that the children were rarely wayward. If parents simply lacked a steady income (or if they broke up, or if a birth was out of wedlock), so-called “cruelty men” (abuse inspectors) would come to take the children. Jesus said, “Suffer the little children,” one abuse survivor points out; “he didn’t say beat the fecking hell out of them.”

The book should make for provocative reading in the United States. Many American Catholics have by now heard quite enough about the church’s shortcomings. (Interestingly, though, the book also arrives as even some conservative Catholics are tiring of the U.S. church’s dawdling on sex scandals.) Suffer the Little Children does resemble some of the more lurid anti-Catholic tracts of the 19th century, with their tales of kidnapped children whipped with cat-o’-nine tails. (Such an instrument was, in fact, used on Irish children, according to this book.) But Suffer the Little Children is not about a nation in which Catholics are a tenuous, threatening minority. It is about 20th-century Catholic Ireland, newly independent from the dreaded Brits. “Independence for whom?” the authors ask, given these literally unbearable recollections of abuse.

But O’Sullivan’s and Raftery’s book is not solely a collection of interviews. It contains a fairly extensive history of the industrial schools and their evolution in the young Irish nation. Indeed, while the Celts are said to be so ancient that they “saved civilization,” Ireland, politically, is not yet 100 years old. Entering their second century, the Irish will have to contend seriously with this book, because it reveals the dark side of family, church and political freedom—those things that supposedly made the Irish so great and fierce.

As Suffer the Little Children portrays things, Irish families were needlessly broken up by abusive church officials, while politicians all but encouraged these restrictions on personal liberty.

It is important to note that this book is not tedious and tiresome in its rage against the church and state. (Indeed, one could argue that the Irish government, not the church, is the true target of this book.) An impressive number of abuse victims still have good things to say about priests and nuns. The authors also wisely stress that, for decades, there had been cries for industrial school reform from Catholics themselves. One unlikely hero of this book is the saint of Boys Town, Father Edward Flanagan. The famed crusading priest (on whom the 1939 movie starring Spencer Tracy was based) was born in Ballymoe, Galway. In 1946 he made a trip to Ireland and witnessed some of the industrial school horrors, declaring them, “a disgrace to the nation.”

There is, at times, some confusion in Suffer the Little Children as to whether British or Irish authorities were responsible for various actions prior to Irish independence. Raftery and O’Sullivan certainly could have broached broader philosophical questions about why the Irish nation allowed this to happen to their cherished children. The intensity of Catholicism in Ireland, it could be said, is (or at least was) a product of imperialism. But the authors do soberly argue that it is high time for Ireland to stop blaming the Brits and take responsibility for a system that only worsened following Irish independence.

After all, philosophical questions mean little to abused children who have grown into wounded adults. They are the pained heart and soul of Suffer the Little Children. For decades to come, their dark memories will represent profound growing pains for the Irish nation.

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