Remembering Peter Tyrrell

Dr Paul Michael Garrett, of the NUI Galway School of Political Science and Sociology last week spoke about the forgotten campaigner Peter Tyrrell, as part of the Culture Night in Galway.

Peter Tyrrell pictured with his brother and nephew.

Peter Tyrrell pictured with his brother and nephew.

On April 26 1967 the body of a man was found on Hampstead Heath. It was charred and burnt beyond recognition. Initial investigation found that the man had deliberately set fire to himself. Who was this man?

It took a year to establish his identity. He was Peter Tyrrell and his early years were spent on the family’s small farm four and a half miles from Ballinasloe. Tyrrell was born, symbolically, in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising. There were ten children in the family and life was characterised by intense poverty. He recalls ‘six of us slept on the kitchen floor on an old mattress…There were no windows in the house and the floor was cobblestone because it was intended to be a stable’ Six of the children were taken ‘into care’ in 1924. Eight year-old Peter went along with three older brothers to St. Joseph’s Industrial School, Letterfrack where he remained until 1932 Within the pages of the Ryan Commission report Tyrrell is given the pseudonym Noah Kitterick.

Founded on Fear

Founded on Fear, the book which he wrote is an evocative account of Tyrrell’s life in ‘Letterfrack’: it would seem to have been written between August 1958 and February 1959. In the foreword he observed that it was with ‘deep regret that I find it necessary to tell my story’. Yet his unpublished manuscript remained hidden for many years, among the papers of the late Irish Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington, until it was discovered by Diarmuid Whelan, an academic based at UCC, who subsequently edited Tyrrell’s memoir for publication and it was eventually published in 2006.

In a letter to Sheehy Skeffington, in March 1964, three years before his death, Tyrrell maintained that ‘the real purpose’ of his book was to ‘to provide the necessary documentary proof, before I launch a campaign in this country. What I am planning is public demonstrations’.

Life in the Industrial School in Letterfrack

In his unpublished manuscript, Tyrrell was apt to confuse commas and full stops and he also tended to begin every second word with a capital letter. Nevertheless, once these stylistic distractions had been painstakingly eliminated by Whelan, it is clear that Tyrrell writes well: for example, ‘when we are lined up to be beaten’, he recalls, ‘I can smell the sweat of others, everyone a little different’. More generally, his terse and urgent recollections, always written in the immediate and present tense, are lucid and frequently harrowing. This is especially so, in terms of his descriptions of the violence: for example, his first sight – shortly after arrival at St. Joseph’s – of children being beaten. During his second year, he recalls:

It is now Sunday morning and about twelve of us are lined up to be beaten in the washroom at the end of St. Michael’s dormitory. We are ordered to take off our pants. Walsh [one of the Brothers] now goes to his room and returns with a stick. It’s a new stick, which he cut a few days ago. I am at the very end and I see others flogged before me. The Murtaugh boy is now beaten and he is screaming loudly…It’s my turn next, after about six blows I manage to run away, down the stairs and into the bathroom. Walsh now follows me down, he is hitting me on the head and the face and back, as I put up my right hand to ward off a blow he hits me a heavy blow on the arm. My arm is broken. I spend two weeks in the infirmary.

It is only on rare occasions that the world beyond the institution impinges on the early part of the narrative: for example, the boys and the Brothers cluster around wireless sets to listen to the world heavyweight boxing championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in September 1927. In the account which Tyrrell provides, he is careful not to castigate the all of the Brothers and remains only intent on unmasking those responsible for violence. Indeed, he acknowledges that some of the Brothers, and associated members of staff, were good to the boys.

Nonetheless, these kindly characters were in a minority because most of the dominating adults at ‘Letterfrack’ were relentlessly violent and abusive. The institution appears, in fact, to have been saturated in male cruelty and violence. Tyrrell reveals, for example, that tensions and animosity amongst the adults were even apt to be resolved by recourse to violence. Meanwhile, Mr Moran, the blacksmith, is ‘cruel to horses. I have seen him many times hitting a horse with a heavy hammer’.

Child neglect was also a major factor impacting the lives of the young residents. A boy called Con Murphy, for example is described as follows:

I look at his face, he is smiling and I can see his gums. They are in a sickly condition, his teeth are discoloured and decayed, his gums are full of mucus and I advise him to go and see the nurse, but I know he won’t go, because I told him before. Many of the children have this complaint or disease, others have running ears. Many suffer from sores on the head and face and in the ears, the legs and the hands. Many walk with their heads down, and some are round shouldered.

Although child sexual abuse was referred to in Tyrrell’s correspondence with Sheehy Skeffington it is not explicitly named in the book, but it is frequently implied and there often seems a fairly clear sexual component attached to many of the punishments which the boys suffered. Widespread sexual abuse was, of course, subsequently confirmed by the report of the Ryan Commission.

After Letterfrack

Tyrrell’s time in ‘Letterfrack’ irredeemably blighted the rest of his life. Having been confined in an industrial school was associated with a sense of shame because an ‘industrial schoolboy is considered low class, within the same category as a pauper or a prisoner’. His incarceration left him psychologically scarred and wary of the company of others. On his release and return home he was unable to relax:

‘The other morning as my mother was passing she happened to brush against me from behind and I jumped and almost screamed. I am terribly worried lest I should be noticed. Even in the workshop when there is anyone behind me I am very uncomfortable’.

He was entirely unable to settle down in the tailoring job he took after leaving ‘Letterfrack. ’He therefore left home, in the second week in June 1935 when just nineteen. In 1939 he enrolled in the British Army and toward the end of the Second World War he was taken prisoner by a retreating German Army. For him the prison camp had ‘much in common with the industrial school. The unhealthy colour of the face, prominent cheek bones, sunken eyes and round shoulders. But unlike Letterfrack there is no ill-treatment. I have not seen or even heard of anyone being beaten’. Elsewhere he maintains: ‘Life here…during the last months of the war is hard and unpleasant. Yet it is Heaven on earth in comparison with life’ at ‘Letterfrack’.

Peter Tyrrell’s message to Ireland today

Tyrrell’s attempt to spark a campaign to highlight child abuse within the Irish industrial schools – despite the support he seems to have received from Sheehy Skeffington – was a dismal failure. Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s was not ready to listen to accounts of the systematic brutality carried out in these places of coercive confinement. Perhaps more fundamentally, the Republic and beyond was unable to hear, and respond to, what are now apt to be referred to as the ‘survivor’ of accounts of harm suffered within state-run, or sponsored, institutions. What remains striking, however, is that none of the allegations, or details, featured in the book was subsequently refuted by the Christian Brothers at the Ryan Commission.

Founded on Fear is a remarkable and tragic testament which – in its actual writing – predates the subsequent narratives and autobiographical accounts of inmates of industrial schools such as Mannix Flynn (1983 ) and Paddy Doyle (1988 ). More generally, such books reveal, once again, the value of autobiographical work for Irish cultural history and for those of us seeking to understand contemporary Ireland.

Peter Tyrrell’s work and political activism illuminates continuities between historical practices and contemporary responses to the economically and social marginalised, such as asylum seekers in quasi-imprisonment in so-called direct provision centres. Undoubtedly a tragic and fragile figure, Peter Tyrrell should also be recognised as a brave, tenacious and determined figure who demanded that the Republic should deliver on its social and political promises. Because of this he should be honoured and celebrated.


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