Right across the street from Old Monastery Hostel in Letterfrack is a memorial to a horrendous chapter in this town’s and Ireland’s history.

The Letterfrack Industrial School (1887-1974) was a kind of concentration camp for boys. There were several of these institutions around the country where orphans and unwanted children were sent. At Letterfrack, we now know the boys were systematically beaten, raped, and murdered by the sadistic Catholic brothers who ran the place. Approximately 150 boys died here, most of them around 10-13 years old. They were buried anonymously in the forest behind the school.

The Catholic church takes a lot of heat (rightly) for the seemingly unending abuse scandals in Ireland. But a deeper and more uncomfortable truth lurks. It’s more than just the church. Because there are examples in other countries where the Catholic church was a relatively positive, progressive force in society, often enmeshed in national liberation movements. Poland and Central America come to mind.

But in Ireland the church was a punishing, regressive, unfathomably damaging power. Why? There must have been deep undercurrents of violence and social and sexual deprivation already there in Irish society that help explain the abuse more than anything about the Catholic church. Why was torturing children so widespread in Ireland? What was this need to punish? There’s a conversation opener for the next time you’re over visiting.

The inscription on the entrance to a small memorial graveyard gives you some idea of the level of denial still operating when it comes to this subject:

What they suffered
They told but few
They did not deserve
What they went through
Tired and weary
They made no fuss
They tried so hard
To stay with us

Letterfrack closed down in 1974. But the damage done is much larger than the numbers of children killed. Because most who went to industrial schools survived. And today there are thousands and thousands of these survivors still out there moving through society, keeping quiet. The legacy of abuse and its interaction with an out of control alcohol culture may have more to do with a lot of present day Ireland’s woes than we think.

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