FORMER residents of the industrial school where Robert Howard was sent for three years remember arriving at the forbidding square building, with its high ceilings and dark corridors.
“There was only one exit,” said Michael O’Brien, the former Mayor of Clonmel who spent eight years inside St Joseph’s Ferryhouse in Clonmel.
Howard was sent to the industrial school in 1956, aged 12 and he remained for three years. Groups representing survivors have questioned whether the rapist and murderer’s personality was shaped, at least in part, by his time inside St Joseph’s.
Howard was an exception as he was sent to the school after committing a crime. The vast majority committed no crime and ended up in the school after a family break up. In 1950, of 182 boys there, just four were sentenced for breaking the law, the Child Abuse Commission heard last year.
Once inside, children were subjected to physical, sexual and mental abuse, said Mr O’Brien. “This happened during my time and I have no doubt it continued for decades.”
Mr O’Brien, who was sent to the school in 1942 following the death of his mother, believes it is entirely possible that Howard was abused at the school.
He added that a large number of former residents later turned to crime, although he did not know any were convicted of serious sexual offences.
Sean Barry, a former Rosminian brother, was sentenced in 1999 to nine years after admitting buggery, indecent assault and assault occasioning actual bodily harm on four former residents of St Joseph’s and another institution.
Judge Joseph Mathews, speaking at the trial, said his victims were all vulnerable and weak and needed care, but were subjected to appalling acts of human degradation in unit A of Ferryhouse, a school for young offenders and boys from broken homes.
Alan McNeill was one of his victims, raped by Barry in St Joseph’s in 1979, while most of the other residents and staff were attending the Pope’s mass in Limerick.
He told Clonmel Circuit Court that he cut off his penis and applied hundreds of incisions to his body with a razor blade because of the abuse he had suffered.
THE Galway man is also a rapist. He was sentenced to six years for the rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1995 and had a previous conviction for a similar offence in Britain.
Christine Buckley, director of the Aislinn Centre for survivors of institutional abuse, said of Howard: “There’s no condoning what this man has done but the question has to be asked, was he abused and did all this stuff start in Ferryhouse for him?
“He’s in trouble at 13 and people were thrown into these hell holes in those days.
“He goes in for burglary and within a short time of coming out, he’s raping. What does that say about Ferryhouse?” she asked.
“I feel he may have started as young as 13, I wonder what went on in his life before all this started. He didn’t go into St Joseph’s because he had raped anyone, but he wasn’t long out when he started.
“Some people take to drink or violence and if you lift all the layers, you find that person was severely sexually or physically abused.”
John Kelly, co-ordinator of Survivors of Child Abuse (SOCA), said: “One can understand why he might have got into that kind of thing, because he might have been abused himself. But it can never be excusable, and we’ll never condone things like that. People (who have been abused) should know better because of the trauma it can cause. There can not and should not be any excuses for that behaviour whatsoever. They should know what it’s like, it’s deplorable.”
Fr Patrick Pierce, the former head of the Rosminian order who managed the school for 16 years, has described admission as an “absolutely terrifying experience” for “a frightened, trembling child”.
St Joseph’s had a licence to accommodate 150 boys. From the 1930s, numbers exceeded that and there were over 200 in the 1960s.
The majority stayed six years, leaving at 16. At any time there were approximately 10 staff, about half of them priests and half of them brothers, with two prefects responsible for keeping discipline. These slept in a room off each of two dormitories.
In addition there were four or five lay teachers in the school.
About half of the boys came from Dublin, with the rest mainly from Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Tralee.
Most staff, many with little education and none with training in childcare, were from rural backgrounds.
The capitation system, whereby schools were paid grants per boy, forced managers to have greater rather than lesser numbers, and when these dropped, the issue was raised with the Department of Education and with politicians.
“Instead of receiving the hand of compassion, they were given the hurtful fist of degradation,” said Judge Mathews at the trial of Sean Barry.