A determination to expose brutality

“MY story, which is true, should be published in my own name.”

These are the words of a Letterfrack abuse victim, written shortly before he burnt himself to death on Hampstead Heath in 1967.

Despite years spent campaigning, and writing to politicians, priests and presidents, Peter Tyrrell’s cries for justice went unheard until a manuscript chronicling his life was discovered in the private papers of Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington.

Dr Diarmuid Whelan, who found the manuscripts while archiving the Skeffington family papers in the National Library of Ireland, believes by not naming him in its final report, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse has censored his memory and condemned him to “perpetual anonymity”.

According to Dr Whelan, who published Tyrrell’s story in 2006, there is no question but that he wanted the manuscript to be published as many of his letters attest: “I am looking forward to rewriting the story. But should anything happen, ie an accident, or death (my death), I hope it will still be possible to publish the story based on my manuscript… The thing is that it will one day be printed.” Tyrrell’s abuse began when he was just eight years old. He was sent to St Joseph’s Industrial School, Letterfrack, Co Galway, with three of his brothers, because his family, from Ahascragh, Co Galway, could not afford to look after them.

There for seven years, he experienced brutal violence at the hand of the Christian Brothers. Years later, he began his campaign to out the truth. In 1964, he wrote: “During the last ten years I have reported about conditions in Letterfrack, which I have no reason to think have changed very much, to the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr McQuaid, and Dr Browne Bishop of Galway, as well as President de Valera, and to the superiors of many industrial schools. I have yet to receive a reply.”

But one man did reply to him, and it was his seven-year correspondence with Mr Skeffington which yielded the invaluable primary resource from which Dr Whelan finally published Tyrrell’s story. Mr Skeffington encouraged Tyrrell to write an account of his time in Letterfrack, and so he began a 70,000-word manuscript divided into 15 chapters which outlined his life from his earliest days to 1950s London. After every chapter was completed, he would post it off to Mr Skeffington with a brief letter, and continue on exactly where he left off. Chronicling a litany of cruelty, abuse, terror, filth and near starvation, Tyrrell tells how children were flogged repeatedly with a variety of weapons, from hefty sticks and leathers to thick rubber strips reinforced with metal wire.

“When Brother Vale was beating a boy during a meal, I often tried to count the number of blows being struck, but always lost count after seven or eight,” he recalls in his manuscript.

“There was a better chance of keeping count, by looking away from where the beating was taking place, and concentrate on the sound of the rubber as it struck the child’s head and back. Another way was to count the number of screams, as some children – but not all – would scream in terror after each blow. Big Kenny was not beaten again after he had passed a motion of the bowels during a severe beating during breakfast.”

In 1953, Tyrrell wrote two letters to the superior of Letterfrack, in which he complained about three named Brothers. He claimed that they were tyrannical and sadistic.

“These men were a disgrace to the Christian Brothers. Piperel and Corvax were tyrants. Br Perryn who was in the cook-house and refectory took great pleasure in beating boys for no reason, he was a sadist, for beating us he used a piece of rubber motor tyre.

“Almost daily we were flogged by one or other of these Brothers. Dozens of times I left the dining room with my hands bleeding.

“On several occasions after a meal, I was taken to the pantry. He would lock the door and make me undress he would then sit on a stool and would put me across his knee and then flog me savagely he would then pinch me until I was unconscious.”

In its report, the commission states the Christian Brothers knew the principal culprit named by “Mr Kitterick”, as Tyrrell is called, had a history of serious physical and sexual abuse of boys, as recorded in the congregation’s documents.

And another Brother had, to the congregation’s knowledge as recorded in their documents, a history of sexually improper and suggestive behaviour which had necessitated his urgent removal from a day school.

The congregation, however, maintained “complete silence” in the face of Mr Kitterick’s letters, the report states. In 1964, Tyrrell’s frustration was becoming apparent when he wrote he had not received any replies to his complaints, and it seems the lack of any kind of meaningful response, or any justice for what had happened to him ultimately led to his gruesome suicide on Hampstead Heath.

The story, says Dr Whelan is “purgatorial” to read – he points out that Tyrrell’s text shows the extent to which the goings on of Letterfrack were well known in the community, and in some cases were carried out by lay persons.

“What one imagines as a remote, almost cloistered, order was nothing of the kind. The sad thing is, those who knew of the brutality were either complicit or were barely able to utter it themselves,” he said.

Following his death, it took the police over a year to identify Tyrrell’s body and was only possible by the presence of a half-torn letter addressed to Mr Skeffington.

With Skeffington’s death in 1970, the 15 chapters Tyrrell had sent to the politician were destined to lie buried for 40 years. Upon discovering them, Dr Whelan finally gave Tyrrell his dying wish – something the state could not give this brave man, who remained determined to tell his story until his dying breath.

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