Terrible punishments awaited young transgressors in the Ireland of the 1950s. If a boy mitched from school he could end up in Letterfrack, the notorious so called industrial school, run by the Christian Brothers. It was a type of borstal, where, for almost a century, troubled boys were brutally chastened and subdued. Its grim, grey buildings still stand today, and if you pass them on a wet Connemara day, you wonder about the boys who were sent there from cities and towns around Ireland. Despite its change of usage to one of the foremost craft training centres in the country, it still looks a sad place to me. But back in the 50s and 60s its name struck terror in the hearts of most boys and youths. I remember seeing a boy handcuffed to a policeman sitting on the Dublin train. Word was whispered around the carriage that the boy was from Letterfrack. We all stared at him as if the poor fellow was an alien.
In Dick Byrne’s masterful autobiography, Tell ‘Em Who You Are!,* no less than Garda Murphy was the official truant officer for Galway. “ A very tall, square-faced man, something in the region of six-foot two or three, with a high pitched voice, and he spoke in an accent that indicated his southern origins.” In breathless silence, Garda Murphy would stand in front of the class scrutinising the registrar. He’d stop at any name there was a space after. He would question the terrified boy where he was on that day, was he sick, and did his mother write a note? The poor Garda was only doing his duty, but you can imaging the sigh of relief when he left the room**.
But as regards his days in the Bish, our hero Dick was lucky. His teacher for his first four years was the gentle Cyril Mahoney, a man with a wonderful sense of humour, who was an enlightened bookish man who had a passion for teaching, and who actually liked his students. Cyril later became a distinguished actor at An Taibhdhearc. His approach to teaching was encouragement and reward. His classroom was an oasis of learning and fun, where the boys would gasp with relief when they could hear the other masters administer their particular brand of rough justice or torture through the flimsy pine and glass partitions that separated the classes.
Without a stain
Although Dick is a well known architect, stage designer and producer, journalist, author, wine grower and oenologist, he began his colourful career as a draftsman with the Electricity Supply Board in the 1950s, when they were bringing ‘light to the nation.’
He was literally dropped off at the side of the road with a suitcase, and a large spanking-new Raleigh bicycle, about seven miles from Tourmakeady. His job was to plan out the best route for the poles. As he got out of the car, and struggled to unload his gear, the district foreman, Harry Wall, leant over and shouted to Dick that the headquarters was Derrig’s Pub, that he was to write home regularly to his mother, and for the love of God, keep well clear of the women of Mayo.
Dick cycled off and with the aid of a Ordnance Survey map, a theodolite and a couple of ranging rods, he felt destiny had called him to bring the light to Mayo. Most households were delighted to get electricity; but some were not welcoming. A farmer threatened him with a shotgun if he didn’t get off his land; while frequently he had to beat a hasty retreat on his bicycle, with dogs nipping at his heels.
But it wasn’t all hard work in wind and rain in hilly Mayo. There was the weekend dance at the Parish hall, where communication between the sexes was curtailed by the physical presence of the parish priest. The poor man was obsessed with what possible sins could be committed by dancing couples. He would stay out on the dance floor, and if he saw anyone with his or her hand on the other, he would come over and “fix them with a stare”. If they didn’t stop immediately, he would call the girl out and give her a good talking to. The band was not encouraged to play slow dances; and the priest gestured to them to speed things up. A good ceili was thought to be pure. After the dance the priest was still busy following the crowds home. He made sure the boys stayed in their own group, and the girls with their’s.
But even though most young people laughed at the priest behind his back, and met up anyway in the fields and laneways on the way home, he was doing his best to watch out for young women. If a girl became pregnant there was every chance she would have to emigrate or spend her life in a Magdalen Laundry, often exiled by her own family.
The father could remain anonymous, and walk away without a stain on his character.
A loyal family
Even though in my mind Dick Byrne is the quintessential Galwegian, he was in fact born in Castlebar. His father, Richard Joseph Byrne, served his apprentice as an electrician with the privately owned Galway Electrical Company, and then worked with the ESB. He was, however, given better equipment than his son when he journeyed forth to bring light to Westport town. Instead of the Raleigh bike, Dick’s father was given a large Red Indian motorcycle, with a smart side-car for his tools. It wasn’t long before every girl looked up at the sound of his bike, but he was smitten by Jeannie, the charming musician daughter of Harriet and Johnny Clampett. They were married, moved briefly to Castlebar where Dick was born on November 11 1935, the feast of St Martin of Tours. The family moved to Galway six months later, where Jeannie became a renowned music teacher, and organist at the Augustinian church.
Although Richard senior came from an army family (his father, Richard Eugene Byrne, was the last Sergeant major in the Conaught Rangers ), he was a peaceable man interested in technical things and mad about cars. Every Sunday he and his friend Johnno, watched with envy a well-to-do chemist called Wallace, who had a shiny new Model T Ford. Every Sunday Wallace would drive into town, go once around Eyre Square, park outside the Imperial Hotel and walk down to Mass at the Augustinian church.
One Sunday the temptation got too much for the two young men. Once Wallace was round the corner, they jumped on board, yanked the starter handle and shot off out of town. Unfortunately, they got stuck along the way , flooded the engine and had to wait for quite some time before they could drive the car back. As they approached Eyre Square they could see Wallace looking frantically for his car. As they drew up, Wallace, red with fury, grabbed Richard, and began to beat him with his stick.
Richard hobbled home. He told his father, the Sergeant major, what had happened and accepted another hiding from him. Then, followed by every child in the parish, the Sergeant major, ‘strode’ into town and headed for the Imperial Hotel where Wallace was drinking at the bar. Standing at the door, he called him outside. A crowd gathered. Towering over Walllace the Sergeant major agreed that his son had done wrong. But if Wallace EVER laid a hand on him again, they’re would be hell to pay!
That’s the Byrnes. Loyal to the last.
*Tell ‘Em Who you are! - A life in the West of Ireland, by Dick Byrne, published by Ballyhay Books, now on sale €14.95
**The boys had every reason to be afraid. Between the years that it operated, 1888 to 1974, incredibly 100 boys died at Letterfrack. We also know the deep scars that the abuse left on many boys for the rest of their lives, directly leading to at least one well publicised suicide. In effect some boys never ‘left’ Letterfrack.