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During the first three decades of the 19th century the parish priest of Blarney (north of Cork city) was the affable Fr Mat Horgan. He was the epitome of the traditional scholar-priest. He was a poet and antiquarian, a supporter of Cork university, an advocate for social reform, his hero was Daniel O’Connell, and he spoke Latin and Irish effortlessly. He lived at Ballygibbon (later named Waterloo after a bridge was built there in the month of the famous battle), and built a model of an ancient Round Tower, which can still be seen from the old Limerick to Cork road. But Fr Mat’s great gift was his love and generosity for bringing people of all classes together for dinners, parties and celebrations in a huge barn adjoining his home.
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.