This piece was written by Fergus Finlay many years ago. I did have it on my website but lost it. Fergus was kind enough to send it to me. I’m pleased to publish it on my website again, not because it’s about me but because it reflects on what happened to thousands and thousands of Irish Children.
I can remember a lot of the things that happened when I was eight years old. Times were tough. We had just moved to a new house in Bray, it was a very hard winter, and my father wasn’t finding the going easy in relation to work. I can remember that pocket money was in short supply, and we had to make a lot of our own entertainment.
But it was a happy time. We all got on well in school, and we had friends. I didn’t know Paddy Doyle then – I was only to get to know him, and to come to regard him as a friend, many years later.
While I was complaining about the lack of pocket money, Paddy was standing in the dock in Wexford District Court. According to the Court records, he was the defendant. He was four (not fourteen or twenty four – he was four), utterly lost and utterly alone. And he was guilty – guilty, according to the Court, of being “found having a guardian who does not exercise proper guardianship”.
Because he was guilty, he had to be sentenced. This lonely four year old boy was sentenced to eleven years incarceration in an industrial school in Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. Cappoquin was picked because “the religious persuasion of the said child appears to the Court to be Catholic”, and Cappoquin was “conducted in accordance with the doctrines of the Catholic Church”.
Once the Court had done its business, the detention order was handed over to a Garda for “legal execution”, and that was the last contact Paddy had with the outside world for eleven years. The doctrines of the Catholic Church on which the Court had relied did not save him from eleven years of unspeakable brutality, including a lengthy series of brain operations, some of which were clearly experimental, and have left him coping with severe disabilities.
He has survived – thanks to no-one but himself and his wife. And he has spoken out, regularly and often, to highlight the fact that he, along with countless others, was the victim of a system where there was nowhere to turn. Again and again he has warned that it could happen still.
Maybe, just maybe, Paddy was lucky (if that’s not too grotesque a term) that the Court didn’t send him a little further up the road to the Clonmel Psychiatric Hospital. At the same time as Paddy was standing in the dock, and I was playing with my toys, patients there were being treated as if the age of Dickens had yet to happen.
According to an official inspection carried out in the hospital, but never published until now, “… the only sanitary accommodation for the patients at night is an outside closet which in practice is not used. There is only one bath for these 58 (women) patients. Formerly white but it is now a blackish green colour. I was informed by the Resident Medical Superintendent that it takes approximately fifteen minutes to fill and ten minutes to empty. The result is that patients cannot be bathed in clean water and three or four patients are bathed in the one lot of water …”
“In the kitchen, cabbage is taken out of the boiler by means of an ordinary farm-yard fork. It is then placed in a large iron colander which resembles a night watchman’s brazier … and is then chopped up with a garden edging tool. The potatoes for patients are mashed and distributed in zinc buckets – by the time they are served they are stone cold and blackish in colour. Owing to lack of cooking facilities vegetables were only served twice a week.”
The inspector who discovered all this also recorded that the average space where patients spent their endless days was 17 square foot per patient – about the size of an office desk. “On this basis, the Minister’s room would accommodate 27 patients,” he observed drily.
These details are all from official documents uncovered by Annie Ryan in her researches for a new book called “Walls of Silence”. Annie is the mother of an autistic son, Tom, who has spent a lot of his life in St Ita’s Portrane. She herself has spent twenty years campaigning about conditions there, and about the rights of people with learning disabilities generally. “Walls of Silence” makes harrowing but compelling reading (and is published by Red Lion Press at £10).
It’s only forty years ago. It happened in Ireland, in the midst of a community that prided itself on its love of children and deep religious values. It happened because authority turned a blind eye, because authority connived in it happening, and because authority is abused.
Authority is always abused. It’s a law of human nature, and we shouldn’t ever be allowed to forget it. It is being abused today in all sorts of ways, and it always will be. As soon as structures of authority are put in place – the kind that give people power over the lives of others – abuse will follow. The only way of avoiding it is to give people enough power to complain for themselves, to stand up for their own rights, and to ensure that they have a means of redress. Annie Ryan and Paddy Doyle took that power into their own hands – the power to speak out – but it took them years to be heard.
But we’ve learned those lessons now, haven’t we? Civil servants and Ministers believe in transparency now, and empowerment? They wouldn’t allow a situation ever to arise again where defenceless and vulnerable people are kept silent. Would they?
Last Thursday, in Dáil Eireann, the National Disability Authority Bill finally passed all stages. As they had throughout the debate, the opposition tried to press amendments to make the Authority more independent of Government; to ensure that its reports were debated in the Dáil, to ensure that its reports were considered by the whole Cabinet (rather than just the Minister for Justice), and above all to ensure that there was a grievance and redress procedure in the Bill.
The National Disability Authority is – or at least ought to be – the sort of body that ensures that the voiceless have a voice. Without independent investigative bodies like this, States of Fear can happen again. You would imagine that in the light of everything we now know about how institutional care inevitably has the potential for abuse built into it, the Government would be taking a fresh look at the opportunities to ensure empowerment and redress.
Not a chance. Every single amendment was resisted by Mary Wallace, the Junior Minister for Disability, and voted down by the Government. The reasons she gave for her opposition to further strengthening the Bill were so fatuous as to be laughable. You couldn’t impose a condition that reports of the Authority be debated by the Dáil or considered by the Cabinet because the Dáil and Cabinet are busy places. You don’t need a procedure to enable someone who is neglected or abused to have their cases investigated, because such a procedure already exists in the Employment Equality Act (which only deals with people at work, and has no bearing on people in care – and whole sections of that Bill have been amended to exclude people with disabilities anyway).
If Mary Wallace or her Government colleagues watched States of Fear – if they know anything of the stories told by Paddy Doyle, Annie Ryan, and many others – she and they have learned nothing from the experience. Because they haven’t, they’ve allowed the usual bureaucratic responses to dictate how we will behave in the future. They should be ashamed of themselves.