First among the people

Artist Séamus Nolan proposes that a boy who died in state care be made president for a day, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

First among the people

WILLIAM Delaney was aged 13 when he died, in 1970. He was the son of a tinsmith of no fixed abode, and was sentenced to six years in the notorious St Joseph’s industrial school, Letterfrack, in Galway, in 1967.

In June, 1970, he was knocked unconscious by a blow to the head from an irate Christian Brother wielding a broomstick handle. Delaney spent a few days in the school’s infirmary, before being sent home early for the summer holidays. He had piercing headaches and died two days later. There was no inquest. The doctor said the cause of his death was encephalitis.

In 2001, Delaney’s body was disinterred by the police, but the evidence for foul play was inconclusive. The artist, Séamus Nolan, has asked of President Michael D Higgins that Delaney be president posthumously for a day, to commemorate the victims of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report). Next Monday, May 20, the fourth anniversary of the publication of the Ryan Report, would be ideal.

President Higgins responded to Nolan’s proposal with a letter. He didn’t commit, being limited in his discretionary powers. “He left the door open,” says Nolan.

Delaney’s sister, who lives in Co Kilkenny, supports Nolan. His exhibition of artefacts, documents, and a film, at Temple Bar Gallery + Studio, commemorates the survivors of institutional abuse and those who died in State care. It’s kind of a fictional presidential campaign. Nolan’s project is in opposition to calls for a monument for these victims.

“The idea of a monument for the survivors is a bit uncomfortable for me — that you could articulate all those ideas in a fixed object, that is permanently placed somewhere, and becomes a totem for something that went wrong,” he says.

“I was trying to imagine how those ideas are still prevalent in our society, where they exist, and how they affect people now — the same sort of class system that resulted in all those kids being put into care, and all those women in the laundries, being abandoned to an unresponsive government. Can we spot them now, as opposed to retrospectively identifying where it went wrong in the past?

“William has been made public,” he says. “His situation has been discussed a lot in the media. He’s one of the only children who has been identified and has been put on the radio and in papers. He’s become a public figure. He became this public figure posthumously. He didn’t have any influence or control over this. It was beyond his control, in the same way that, originally, being placed in care for something very small was beyond his control. He’s been instrumentalised by everybody; in some ways, the project is a way to acknowledge that and to honour him for the role that he has played.”

A presidential campaign is about the candidates’ profiles, and their decisions. “It’s about the public persona, because the office of president is a public office. It’s a perfect symbol. William Delaney, without his personality, without the things that made him who he was, has been presented in the public realm as an icon for the children in care.

“I thought that the best thing might be to start with the most contentious child. He was exhumed; there was no conclusive evidence found. He wasn’t actually in care when he died. His classmates’ eye-witness reports are the only evidence that he was injured while he was in care, which brought up issues of memory and how, 30 years later, people could base a case on memories of children, which has been a huge barrier to survivors breaking through to public consciousness.”

Jim Fitzpatrick, the artist renowned for his distinctive Celtic art designs, has collaborated with Nolan, providing him with the artwork for a new presidential seal, which Nolan has sculpted in bronze. “My father abandoned us when I was five,” says Fitzpatrick. “I grew up on two streets, in Drumcondra and Glasnevin. We grew up with different relatives. My mother was a very powerful woman. Social workers were terrified of her. I still remember the greatest crimes were committed by the ISPCC. That’s where ‘the cruelty man’ came from. There were only two or three fathers in the neighbourhood. All the rest had legged it and taken ‘the English divorce’, going to the UK for work.

“There were all these kids, the runts of the litter, who were the ones who the clergy and paedophiles went after. We called them ‘fairy boys’, very dismissively. We were only kids. It was rampant. Parents just kept their heads down. They didn’t know the complexity of what was going on. I have a huge interest in this subject, going back to that period. So when Seamus approached me about his project, I said, ‘absolutely’.” Fitzpatrick’s presidential seal, for Delaney, is based on a feminised harp, a nod to the women, like his own mother, who have protected children in Ireland.

No prosecutions have resulted from the Ryan Report, despite the unspeakable horrors it catalogues. “The main issue that I’ve found from survivors is the need for their stories to be acknowledged, to help move forward,” says Nolan. “That hasn’t been done. The survivors have been treated as an aside. Social care has been addressed, but it hasn’t incorporated the experience those people had when they went through care. They haven’t been asked to assist in informing best practice. That’s a missing link — how survivors can place themselves within our culture.”

*10th President runs until Saturday, Jun 8, at the Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, 5-9 Temple Bar, Dublin 2.

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