Why were so many institutionalised?

Other jurisdictions faced a similar situation

Letters to the Editor. Illustration: Paul Scott

A chara, – Diarmaid Ferriter reminded us of the25th anniversary this month of journalist’s Mary Raftery’s work which brought to public notice how children were treated in institutions (“States of Fear: the broadcast that stopped us in our tracks”, Opinion & Analysis, May 17th). Diarmaid Ferriter wrote: “It was difficult to answer Raftery’s fundamental starting question as to why so many were institutionalised” all over Ireland.

It is impossible to answer that question about “why so many” if we restrict our inquiries just to Ireland. There is the danger that we would conclude that it was a uniquely Irish way of addressing a societal problem, whereas we know that other jurisdictions faced a similar situation. Because of Ireland’s religious demographic, we might also conclude that it was a peculiarly Catholic response. Ireland was (and is) part of a much wider context, both before and after independence.

We today would usually see provision for children from problematic backgrounds as a way of caring for children in need. Barry Coldrey (2006) describes a vastly different world. He wrote in “‘The extreme end of a spectrum of violence’: physical abuse, hegemony and resistance in British residential care”: “When the orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories were established, their first priority was not the welfare of children, though this was important to some, but the protection of respectable society from the depredations of certain classes of children. (EP Smith and LA Merkel-Holguin, A History of Child Welfare, London, 1996). “These children were perceived to require special structures and systematic training because otherwise their chaotic lives were dangerous to society as a whole. The idle, abandoned, illegitimate, poverty-stricken child was viewed as a natural recruit to the ‘seething mass of human misery’, the ‘perishing’ or ‘dangerous’ classes who threatened the stability of the state.”

The interests of the state took absolute priority. This was compounded by a social Darwinism which warned of the danger posed by “deviant” children, including children of unmarried mothers, being inherited by subsequent generations.


This was the wisdom of the times. This, among other factors, lies behind the sad histories of the export of “orphans” from UK to the colonies, the taking of children from aboriginal families in North America and Australia, and similar actions in other jurisdictions.

Only in the wider context can we then begin to answer Mary Raftery’s question about the “so many” children incarcerated in Ireland, and where Ireland stands in relation to the wider world. We need to try to understand why people were led to act in ways which seem so contrary to the values we espouse today. – Is mise,



Dublin 16.

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