Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Dying Young in Letterfrack: From the Gloucester Diamond to Diamond Hill

It was a glorious day today in Connemara so I ceased my scribbling early and took myself and Missy out for a walk. I’m only 9 Kms from Letterfrack so I decided to check out the infamous St. Joseph’s Industrial School graveyard. It’s not easy to find – the honest burghers of Letterfrack have not deigned to signpost their best known feature. History suggests that the town’s people often returned escaping children to their captors. I ended up in Toorena Graveyard near Renvyle – a perfectly good spot with gorgeous views but not what I was looking for. I succumbed to Google Maps and typed in GMIT. I knew GMIT had a college in Letterfrack (specializing in furniture design) that had taken over the space occupied by the old industrial school.  I could have headed for St. Joseph’s church – had I known it existed as Google retook me straight to the church car park. I parked and walked the few yards up the hill to the graveyard, with Missy in tow. A stark notice on a pillar informed me I was there: Letterfrack Industrial School Graveyard. An uneven path through a very scraggly, misshapen wood led to an area enclosed with a low wall. By the gate there were a couple of poems by Paula Meehan etched on wood: The Boys from the Gloucester Diamond and the Cardboard Suitcase - fine moving pieces (“We cursed those cold, black-robed men”).. The Gloucester Diamond was a slum area near Summerhill in Dublin from where many of the boys would have come. I’m sure many of the boys would have looked through the windows of their prison at Diamond Hill (a shapely peak looming over Letterfrack) and wished they were instead looking out their tenement windows at the Gloucester Diamond.

The graveyard covers a small area bisected by a path – less than half the size of a soccer pitch. Initially the boys buried there had only a small stone slab marking the spot but the Joseph Pike Research Group (a group seeking justice for victims of abuse in industrial schools) has affixed a rather kitschy heart-shaped slab to each with the name, date of death and age of the boy. There are Kellys and Dunnes, a Gill and two Hastings. The ages range from 8 to 18. A cross, erected at one end by the Christian Brothers in 1969 contains the rather mealy-mouthed message: “You are all remembered by the brothers, lay staff and pupils of St. Joseph’s.”  No hint of remorse there - but I suppose 1969 was before the floodgates opened. I notice the slab on the base of the cross has a large diagonal crack. Perhaps some past pupil was affronted by the blandness of the message and took violent action. Around the cross and elsewhere in the graveyard there are scattered toys that we’d associate with boys: footballs, racing cars, tractors and even a small helicopter. There are also an inordinate number of small sneakers hanging off railings and scattered about generally.

It’s a poignant, understated memorial to a particularly horrific episode in Irish history. Our brave new state, mostly fronted by the priest-loving De Valera handed responsibility for our children’s education and for dealing with young miscreants to a collection of sex-starved celibates who when they weren’t sublimating their urges in violence were satisfying it perversely on children. I only encountered the more genteel Christian Brothers in CBC in Cork (apparently Letterfrack was where  they sent the more abusive brethren)  and was never sexually abused. However myself and many of my classmates were beaten daily. Those were brutish times.

Myself and Missy returned to our car much chastened. I’ll have to bring her chasing rabbits on Omey Island tomorrow. If you’re touring Connemara this summer drop in and pay your respects.