Colourful life with the ‘blue legs’ boys

AT the end of a beautiful West Cork peninsula, a simple plaque marks the site of a former industrial school that housed inmates known locally as ‘blue legs.’

Their unsuitably light winter clothing, even in the unusual cold of 1947, showed the lack of care at Baltimore Industrial School, a reformatory for orphans and young offenders for 44 years.

The head priest, a Kerryman, Fr McCarthy, spent two days incinerating the institution’s records before the building was abandoned in 1950. Alfie O’Mahony, now 80, survived that last bitter winter at Baltimore before he was farmed out to work as a labourer with a local family. His book, The Way We Were, is an account of his six years at the former fisheries school, which began taking in orphans in 1906.

Alfie’s aim was not to drag the reader through a ‘car crash’ of violent abuse, but to elaborate on a society that abandoned its duty to care for the vulnerable.

“Each time I rewrote it, I found I was less involved in my writing because I was striving to be truthful and fair. I don’t think I could withdraw one sentence from the book,” Alfie said.

Now resident in Skibbereen, Alfie is bright and animated. During his years as a ‘blue leg’, after school he mended fishing nets, a spin-off business linked to the institution’s foundation in 1887 as the first fisheries school in the British Isles.

A local priest, Fr Charles Davis, secured a meeting with Queen Victoria to ask for sponsorship for boats for his parishioners. He and three fishermen from Cape Clear attended, telling the Queen, ‘The fish are knocking at our doors but we haven’t bucket to take them from the water.’

By the 1880s, the industry had grown to 1,000 fishermen from the Mizen to Galley Head, prompting Fr Davis to establish a vocational school to teach boat-building, navigation, net- and sail-making and fish-curing. Fr Davis secured the extension of the railway line from Skibbereen to Baltimore, before he died from exhaustion in 1892.

The old Victorian train carriage gave three whistle toots to herald its arrival in Baltimore, three times a week. It rounded the harbour before stopping at a wooden platform, next to the play field attached to the industrial school.

Fifty orphans were resident in the fisheries school to fill the empty spaces left by a slump in the industry in 1906. Local parents withdrew their children in protest at the prospect of ‘educating their children with bastards’ and the building became an institution-cum-reform school for young boys.

Alfie places his story within the social context of the day to encourage understanding. “These (attitudes) are not understood today, because, as social climates change, so much slips into oblivion. In 20 years’ time, the book will be there on some shelf.

“What I have done is to put our lives into the frame of the social and religious morays of the time, because I was living then. I know, to the younger generation, my summary wouldn’t mean a thing,” he says.

Great understanding has helped Alfie lead a life untainted by anger at the cruelty he was subjected to in his youth. The book has a chapter on ‘Nuns Throughout History.’ “In anger, you are slightly intellectually blind. So I was able to analyse. I looked into the lives of nuns, how they left their families,” he said.

Having started out in a Kilkenny orphanage, Alfie says he watched an “ill-clad nun there, who fed the fowl and the pigs, and who served God in humility and loyalty.” This nun was at the bottom of the status pile.

Alfie describes a world where elitism among the sisters was rife, the status of each nun determined by the dowry payment that accompanied her entrance to the convent. Alfie writes of a tough life in rat-infested dormitories where the boys used hurleys and hobnailed boots in a war against vermin. Their filthy clothes were never changed and they rarely bathed, but enjoyed Sunday walks through the village hills, where they gorged on berries and apples to supplement paltry diets that consisted of mouldy bread and cocoa.

When the blackberry season was over, and Hackett’s Orchard, at the Glebe House, had been pillaged, the boys turned their attention to the school’s vegetable patch on the far side of the railway tracks. They slithered through grass to grab whatever was growing and then lay low, chewing at speed for fear of discovery.

Brighter moments include trips with the school’s 36-piece band to locations all over West Cork. The band’s uniform was a copy of the royal navy’s ratings uniform and the instruments bore the logo of the former fisheries school. The musicians were crammed into three cars and ferried to Schull and Castletownshend to perform during summer regattas.

“The novelty of travelling by car thrilled the band boys as they were taken to faraway venues. But the primary attraction on any outing was the opportunity to dine on tea, tomatoes, lettuce, eggs, ham and soda bread — items, including the tea, that never graced our refectory tables,” Alfie writes.

The bandmaster was popular with the boys. Alfie recalls the three-car convoy passing through Dunmanway, when one of the boys fainted. The boy sang all the way home after he was given a glass of whiskey by a publican from whom the master had requested a glass of water.

The whiskey could have been useful during another of the boys’ escapades, this time to remove the tooth of a boy who complained of chronic toothache.

“After mighty pulls and loud screams, the tooth was extracted, but at a terrible cost ... we sensed something awful had happened,” he said.

The school housed a mix of orphans and teens sent to reform school by local magistrates.

By the time the institution closed, in 1950, the only trace of the hundreds of boys that passed through its doors was a sheet of paper containing a list of names, from 1930 to 1950.

* Alfie’s book is available from Inspire Books in Skibbereen and can be ordered from the website Proceeds are donated to Barnardos.

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