As stated elsewhere, few accounts of life in Daingean reformatory from the perspective of staff or inmate have been published. One account is that of Sean Bourke (he who sprung George Blake British spy from prison) of Limerick who was sent to Daingean in 1947 when he was 12 years old. His account (published in the Old Limerick Journal, 1982) is very much in line with what has been emerging about many of these places of detention and homes in recent years.
'It was a cold October morning in 1947. Mr. Justice Gleeson gazed down from his lofty perch on the judicial bench at the three cold, hungry and ragged boys standing huddled together in the well of the court. He spoke to the other two first and there seemed to be some confusion about which of us had done what. I hadn't been with the other lads all the time and they sometimes did things on their own but now we were all charged with everything. Finally, the judge turned his attention to me. "Have you anything to say for yourself?" he asked severely. "No, sir", I answered. He turned to the Superintendent. "It seems to me, Superintendent, they've been doing so much mischief in the streets of Limerick for the past few months that they don't know what they've done and what they haven't done".
"I took a bunch of bananas out of the car, sir", I said weakly.
"I agree with you, Your Honour", the Superintendent answered, ignoring me. "They seem to have lost track of what they did". He smiled as he spoke.
The worst part of it was the turmoil within, the conflict of inexplicable feelings. Was it possible for a twelve-year-old boy to stand there and not care what happened to him? Was it natural? The streets outside were so hateful to me I knew deep down I did not want to go back to them. But how could I want to be sent away? Oh God, help me to understand! These are not the thoughts and feelings of a young boy. I cannot want to go away and yet I do. Please, Justice, please don't send me away! If I could only understand. Why do I want to go? Oh God, tell me why I feel this way....
The young boy was standing in the middle of the playground at Sexton Street. It was the mid-morning break and he was surrounded by a hundred other boys laughing and pushing. The tears were streaming down his face hot and large and hurried as if they were impatient to escape till it seemed they must leave river beds behind them. The schoolmaster was also there and he had the boy's left arm gripped tightly with his right hand and his knuckles stood out big and white. He had a long thick round stick in his left hand and was tapping it against the side of his lame leg in time to the rhythm of his words.
"How-many-times-does-nine-go-into-eighty-one?" he shouted. He wasn't angry at all and smiled all the time.
"Eight t..t..times sir", the boy sobbed.
The teacher threw his head back and laughed. "Did ye hear that, lads?" he demanded, looking around at the sea of young faces. "We did, sir", some of them answered. He turned back to the sobbing boy. "I'll teach you to do your homework, boy!" He shifted his weight away from his lame leg. "Hold out your hand!" The boy slowly stretched his hand out and closed his eyes tightly and for the tenth time the teacher, still smiling, brought the heavy stick down on the bruised palm.
Brother Andrews, the Head Brother, was standing over near the wall with three other brothers and two of the schoolmasters were also with them. And they were all laughing at the teacher and the boy. The boy's hand had turned blue and was all swollen up but the teacher kept hitting it with the stick till the boy's knees started bending with the weight and the pain and the shame....
Justice Gleeson's voice sounded far away, as if in a dream. "I don't see what else can I do. Superintendent, I'll have to send them to Daingean".
DAINGEAN! The word was like a sword thrust. DAINGEAN! The times we had talked about it and joked about it. And heard about it from boys who had been there. DAINGEAN! Would he really send us there?
Fully awake now, hanging on to his every word. He shuffled the papers decisively into a neat bundle in front of him. Not Daingean! Oh God, please God, not Daingean!
"I am committing all three of you to Daingean for a period of three years each!"
I looked at the other two. They didn't seem to be distressed. Perhaps it wasn't just me. But surely they couldn't want to be sent away too? It wasn't right. It wasn't natural. Nobody could have thoughts like mine, feel the way I did. It was a curious elation that came over me and completely enveloped me as I walked from the court with the two policemen.
The other two boys would not be leaving for Daingean for another week so I would be making the journey on my own. Four hours in a cell in William Street Barracks to wait for the three o'clock train to Tullamore in Offaly. My mother called at dinner time with a can of tea and I drank it out of the lid as I ate the bread and jam sandwiches. She stood in the middle of the cold, damp cell watching me, and then she cried. "You'll have no mother by the time you get back! Oh God, you'll have no mother!" I didn't cry and I wondered if she was puzzled by my silence. I was glad to be leaving Limerick.
A young policeman in civilian clothes with a white belted raincoat collected me from the cell at half past two and told me that he would be escorting me to Daingean.
As we sat in the third-class carriage at Limerick Station I could see my mother making her way along the platform and looking in all the windows of the train to see where I was. When she found me she reached in and handed me two bars of chocolate. The train started to move and she cried again and said something but I couldn't hear her words above the noise of the hissing steam and the chugging engine.
"Would you like a piece of chocolate?" I said to the policeman as we approached Limerick Junction. He smiled, "Thanks very much", he said, "I didn't have time to get anything myself".
That curious feeling of elation came over me again. I was glad to be leaving the claustrophobic poverty of Limerick and the mindless cruelty of Sexton Street. I would hate those Christian Brothers till my dying day.
We got off the train at Tullamore and walked to the police barracks, where my escort made enquiries about how to get to the village of Daingean where St. Conleth's Reformatory School was situated. The station sergeant got us a taxi and we went out on the last lap of our journey. Dusk was falling as we drove through the flat, dull boglands of Offaly. We passed through the village of Ballinagar and finally arrived at Daingean (known as Philipstown in the days of the British) at seven o'clock that night.
The car pulled up near the stone bridge over the Grand Canal and the driver spoke to a passing villager. "Could you tell us where the ... er ... Industrial School is?" he asked, choosing his words out of politeness to me. The villager frowned. "You mean the reformatory?" he said. He pointed to a high stone wall on the other side of the bridge close by the canal. "That's it", he said. We crossed the bridge and drove through the iron gates.
The part of St. Conleth's school visible to the public gaze on the other side of the gates was a two-storey, symmetrical building consisting of three wings that embraced well-tended lawns. The main wing faced the gates and the other two wings were connected to it at right angles and faced each other across the expanse of lawns. so that the entire building resembled a giant letter E with the centre bar missing.
The driveway up to the main door was interrupted by a large marble plinth surmounted by a statute of St. Conleth. The car weaved round to the left of the statute in a semi-circular motion and then straightened out and went on for another twenty yards before coming to a halt.
I got out with the policeman and we stood for a moment on the gravelled driveway. I glanced back towards the gate but it was already hidden by the winter darkness and the bogland mist. Then the policeman nodded at the big solid door, "This is it", he said. "Let's go in".
First Night at Daingean
Daingean Reformatory for boys in Offaly was justly known as the Alcatraz of Ireland. More so than any adult prison could ever be, for there is a limit to the amount of abuse that can be meted out to grown men under the harshest of rules. But young boys of twelve and upwards have no way of hitting back at their tormentors, particularly when those tormentors are officially appointed and encouraged by the State.
I arrived at this inhuman institution on a cold dark Friday night in October 1947. I was just turned twelve years of age and had that morning been sentenced to three years by Justice Gleeson for the crime of stealing a bunch of bananas from the back seat of a motorcar.
The reception procedure was very informal. An elderly Brother with horn-rimmed glasses met us at the door. He invited my escorting policeman to go along to the parlour and told him that he would send along a meal and a pot of tea. The Brother then took me to a small office and made a note of my name and address. He allocated me the number 558 which for the next three years would be used mainly for stamping on my laundry. He then took me along to the kitchen where I was seated at a bare wooden table and given a mug of tea and a couple of slices of bread and butter and a plate of roast beef.
I should explain at this point that the kitchen in question was that which catered for the priests and brothers who ran Daingean Reformatory and not the kitchen which perpetrated the "meals" provided for the inmates. The boys' kitchen was referred to as the "cookhouse". This contrast was to be my first shock. And that plate of beef was to be the last meat I was to taste for a whole year.
Daingean Reformatory was run by a Roman Catholic order known as the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. They are priests and lay brothers and their distinctive insignia is a crucifix attached to a black cord round their neck and then stuck at an angle into the waist belt of the cassock. Their headquarters and training college is at Inchicore in Dublin and they also send missionaries overseas to convert the natives to their own Oblate beliefs.
The Brother in charge of the kitchen was Brother F. and he came from County Clare. As I ate my meal off the bare working table I noticed that there were four other boys with white aprons working at various chores. One was washing-up at the sink and then handing the plates and pots to another boy at a nearby table to dry them. A third boy was scrubbing bigger pots out in the adjoining scullery. The fourth and oldest boy seemed to be in charge. The first three boys seemed to be about fourteen years of age and the boy in charge was probably sixteen. All wore short trousers under their white aprons and black, down-at-heel battered boots with torn grey stockings just barely clear of the upper of the boots.
I was still wearing my dark blue Confirmation suit (also with short trousers) and, although a little the worse for wear, it made me look quite smart by comparison with the other boys who kept staring at me as they worked. At one stage, when Brother F. had left the kitchen for a moment to go to the refectory, the boy who was washing-up came across to me and whispered: "You'll be alright. You'll be working here in the kitchen with us and so you won't be on an outside job for the winter". "How do you know that?" I asked surprised. "Because you're good looking", he replied, and went back to his washing-up.
Dormitory time was at eight o'clock and as I had arrived at seven I did not have long to wait to get away to bed. The other boys took off their aprons to get ready to go. "These lads will show you the way to the dormitory", Brother F. told me. Then, after a very brief pause, he added: "You can work here in the kitchen with us - you'd like that wouldn't you?" "I don't mind, sir", I replied. "Good", he smiled. "You can come in with the others tomorrow morning".
The dormitory was the ground floor of the wing to the right of the main building. It had bare floorboards and small single iron beds along each wall about three feet apart. The green paint was peeling off the walls and from the ceiling hung bare forty-watt bulbs suspended on long lengths of worn flex.
"There is no talking allowed once you step inside the dormitory", one of the kitchen boys whispered to me. And the silence was very noticeable indeed, as a cassocked Brother paced up and down the centre aisle glowering at the occupant of each bed. This brother was called Brother S. and he was from Kerry. He pointed to a bed about half-way down on the left hand side and told me it was mine.
"Thank you, sir", I said. "There is no talking allowed in the dormitory!" he growled. "You won't be told again!"
I went down to the bed allocated to me and took off my jacket and shirt. I began to fumble with the fly buttons of my trousers and noticed the other boys all staring at me and grinning. Then the boy in the next bed (who turned out to be from the "Bombing Field" in Limerick) whispered: "You have to take your trousers off in bed". "In bed?" I started at him incredulously. "Yes. Between the sheets". He glanced furtively up the dormitory to the far end where Brother S. was just about to turn around for his return journey. "If you take them off standing there, you'll be flogged for impurity".
I climbed in between the dirty sheets and with considerable difficulty removed my trousers and placed them on the floor with my jacket and shirt. There were no lockers.
There was no library at Daingean but the boys were allowed to read any comics they might have till ten o'clock. Then half the lights were switched off and everybody was required to go to sleep and a civilian night-watchman took over from Brother S. and continued the pacing and the vigilance for the rest of the night.
Witness to Obscenity
If only the night-watchman hadn't been late coming on duty in the dormitory that night, it might never have happened. But he was late, a whole hour late. There had been some breakdown in communications and Brother S. had left the dormitory at half past eight, expecting Mr. D., a local villager, to arrive at any minute and take over his vigil for the night.
We had said our night prayers in the chapel at eight and had then been marched across the dark, wintry quadrangle towards the junior boys' dormitory where the junior boys, from twelve to fifteen, slept in two long rows of iron beds spaced evenly along the full length of the green-painted walls. The senior boys, from sixteen to twenty, had their dormitory at the opposite end of the school, and were watched over for the night by yet another civilian nightwatchman. There was no supper at Daingean. The last meal of the day was tea at five o'clock, which consisted of a plate of porridge and two slices of bread and dripping, washed down by lukewarm, unsweetened tea contained in a rusty tin mug. The porridge and tea were poured out on all the tables about ten minutes before the boys were marched into the refectory and so were barely lukewarm when the boys finally set down after a prolonged grace-before-meals. The grace itself might have to be repeated three or four times until the Brother on duty was satisfied that it had been said in perfect unison by the ravenously hungry mob.
Iron discipline was the rule at Daingean, and God help any boy who stepped out of line. The school was run by a religious order called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate whose headquarters in Ireland are at Inchicore, Dublin. The order is made up of both priests and lay brothers. It is not a teaching order and the brothers are "workers" without any formal qualifications. The only rules at Daingean were the Ten Commandments. A boy who did wrong did not commit a breach of discipline: he committed a sin. And sin had to be punished far more severely than purely temporal misdeeds. To remove a crust of bread from the swill-bin, as many of the starving boys were wont to do, was to break the Seventh Commandment. This merited a flogging. To say "Christ" or "Jesus" unless you happened to be on your bended knees in the chapel, was to break the Second Commandment. A boy who was rash enough not to comply instantly with an order given by a Brother broke the Fourth Commandment.
Rude and vulgar language, which by its very nature is bound to have some sexual overtones, was only one step short of the ultimate sin in the eyes of the priests and brothers - undue familiarity with another boy. For both these sins the brothers involved the Sixth Commandment. The penalty was a severe flogging followed by a diet of bread-and-water kneeling on the concrete floor of the refectory for a week.
I suppose it was a combination of hunger and the pent-up frustrations of the harsh discipline that made some of the junior boys go a bit wild that night in the hour between Brother S.'s departure and the arrival of Mr. D. at nine-thirty. Not that anything very serious happened. There were a few innocent pillow fights, a certain amount of mock wrestling which, I remember, involved at least two Limerick boys whom I still meet in the street today. There was one boy, Mick H. from Cahirciveen in the County Kerry, who did a little more swearing than the others. If a priest or brother walked in all the Ten Commandments would have been invoked and half the dormitory of a hundred boys would have been flogged.
But, tragically, one brother did see and hear. And that brother was the most savagely sadistic member of the Order in Daingean. Brother F. was from County Clare, and on that dark wintry night in October 1949 he was standing on an upturned box in the grass verge outside the dormitory wall peeping in through one of the uncurtained windows, invisible in his black habit to the unsuspecting boys inside and to the other brothers and priests who might be passing on the outside.
Equally tragic was the fact that Mick H. worked in the priests' and brothers' kitchen with four other boys, including myself. And the man in charge of the kitchen was Brother F.
The principle that an accused be punished only once for his crime did not apply in Daingean. Apart from the punishment meted out by the Prefect of Discipline, there were other beatings administered by the brother in charge of the boy's working party and by any other brother who just happened to be on duty in the exercise yard or the refectory when the accused came in sight. And Brother F. was in charge of Mick H.'s party in the kitchen.
Brother F. had a ritual which he had carefully developed and perfected over the years. A boy must not be punished too quickly; he must be made to suffer the mental torture of knowing that he is going to be beaten without knowing when or for what reason. And so, when the five of us arrived in the kitchen to start work at nine o'clock that morning, exchanged a little cheerful banter, Brother F. carried out the first move of his sadistic ritual. "Keep quiet and get on with yere work!" He looked Mick H. straight in the face and scowled. "And that goes for you too, H. Get on with your washing-up!"
And so the ritual began. It was familiar to all of us. In exactly two hours, as the clock struck eleven, Mick H. would be beaten. And between now and then none of us would utter one word to each other for fear of being made to join our wretched comrade on the sacrificial altar of Brother F.'s sadistic lust.
The soup was made. The roast was in the oven for the priests and brothers. The breakfast pots and pans and cups and saucers were washed and shined. I myself as senior boy had laid out the cutlery and the various items of delph on the crisp white linen in the priests' and brothers' refectory. Brother F. sat on a chair next to the work-table against the kitchen wall opposite the long anthracite range reading his breviary, his pale lips moving silently in an ashen face. Mick H. was over at the sink washing a plate for the tenth time, afraid to look up, visibly trembling. The silence was almost physical in its oppressiveness.
The kitchen clock struck eleven. Brother F. slowing closed his breviary, kissed it, and placed it on the shelf above the table. He got to his feet and walked to the small gap between the table and the dresser. He reached in and pulled out a stick about three feet long and an inch across. Nicholas O. from Kilkenny picked up a sweeping brush and started towards the scullery in a desperate effort to escape what was to follow. "Put that brush down and stay where you are!" Brother F. growled. It was part of the ritual that when a boy was to be beaten the others must watch. The fear in their young faces was something Brother F. seemed to get great satisfaction from.
Mick H. was still washing the same plate, afraid to stop, afraid to be idle and add to his guilt. "Put that plate down and turn round!" He did as he was told.
"You are the dirtiest little scut it has ever been my misfortune to meet. You are dirty and filthy and evil minded. Well, I'm going to teach you a lesson that you will never forget. Hold out your hand!"
Mick H. held out his right hand. He thrust it forward fully and firmly, as if to show Brother F. that whatever he had done wrong he was sorry for it and was prepared to take his punishment like a man and maybe Brother F. in his mercy would take this into account. But this bold and frightened gesture was wasted and Mick H., at fourteen and a half years of age, was to receive the most vicious and sadistic beating I have ever seen inflicted on another human being. Brother F. reduced Mick H.'s right hand to a black and blue pulp of bleeding flesh from the finger-tips to the elbow, and then ordered him to hold out his left hand. He did the same to this, bringing the stick back over his head and then down with all his physical might on the boy's left hand H. was begging for mercy. "Please, sir, oh please sir, I won't do it any more sir. I won't sir. I won't sir...."
"Shut up your whimpering, you cowardly little wretch!" Brother F.'s face was by now a sickly white in colour and his lips trembled visibly. He looked almost epileptic. "You are filthy and disgusting. You have a foul mouth. You have a dirty mind. You are totally obscene. You are a dirty little coward who cannot take his punishment. And you are a robber and a Daingean boy. That is the testimonial you will take out into the world with you when you go. And I hope you are proud of it, you filthy wretch!"
"Oh please sir, please, sir, I won't do it anymore sir. It was a slip of the tongue, sir..." By this time Mick H.'s knees were giving way under the sheer agony of his ordeal, and his torrential tears were forming a small pool at his feet. "Please sir, please sir..." He looked like he was on the point of fainting. Surely Brother F. must stop now.
"Roll up your sleeves now to your shoulders".
Mick H. looked at him in horror. "Oh, please, sir, please".
Brother F. delivered three rapid blows to the boy's upper left arm, then three more to the right causing the shirt sleeves to sink into the sweat-soaked flesh with the force. "When I tell you to do something you do it!"
"Yes, sir, yes, sir....." Mick H.'s fingers were by now twice their normal size and he could not bend them at the joints. His hands and forearms looked like joints of raw meat that had been left hanging in a butcher's shop too long and had putrefied. He made a feeble gesture at forcing his sleeves up past the elbows but could not do so. His elbow joints, as well as his fingers, were beyond use. "I c-c-can't, sir, I c-c-can't..." The sweat was pouring down his forehead in large beads. "I'm sorry, sir, I'm sorry sir..."
"You filthy dirty wretch!" Brother F. leaned the stick against the wall and grabbed hold of the boy. He forced both his sleeves up to the shoulders and picked up the stick once more. The contrast between the lower half of Mick H.'s arms and the upper was quite frightening and sickening. The broken black and blue flesh gave way at the elbows to the smooth, white skin of the upper arms and biceps so characteristic of the Daingean boy deprived at the sun. I felt myself trembling with fear and impotent rage and a deep loving compassion for my comrade in his terrible agony. The other three boys, from Longford, Wicklow and Cork, stood, terrified to make a sound or a movement.
Realising that the boy was no longer physically capable of actively cooperating in the obscene ritual, Brother F. no longer told him to extend his hands. Instead he proceeded to lash him on the upper arms with all his force and continued for at least another five minutes until Mick's entire arms, from the fingers to the shoulders, were no longer recognisable as human limbs.
"Oh, God, oh, God! Please, Brother F., please, sir, please...."
Mick H. fell to his knees at last, his young boy's strength and endurance finally spent. Sitting on his haunches, he eased his body forward and rested his forehead on the ground, his chin touching his knees. His arms hung loosely by his side, completely out of control, and the blood, trickling down his broken flesh, paused for a second at the finger-tips and then fell to the floor to mingle with his sweat. He had finished pleading and he just moaned softly to himself. "Dirty cowardly filthy wretch!" With all his might, Brother F. delivered three final blows to the boy's quivering back. The stick made a sickening thud as it fell and Mick H. eased over on his side and lay still.
Brother F. looked across at me and then at the other three boys in turn. His face was contorted almost beyond recognition and he seemed to be shaking all over. When he spoke, his breath came in short gasps.
"Let that be a lesson to all of ye. There is enough filth and dirt in this world without ye people starting. Even to think an impure thought is a mortal sin. If ye haven't got the strength to avoid temptation and sin, then by God I'll give ye that strength - with this!" He held the stick tightly in his right hand until the knuckles were white and jabbed it rhythmically at each of us in turn. "With this", he repeated, "with this!"
He looked down at Mick H. again with hatred in his eyes. "Get up, you devil incarnate, get up, before I give you the same again. Get up, you filthy, foul-mouthed wretch! And for the rest of the week you will wash up all the greasy plates in cold water! Do you hear me! - you filthy, cowardly little wretch!"
With what must have been a superhuman effort, Mick H. slowly got to his feet. He turned back to his sink, and, by raising the right side of his body, as high as he could, and then the left, he managed to get both his dead arms into the by now cold, greasy water, Lowering his head, he pulled at the plug stopper chain with his teeth and then somehow managed to turn on the cold tap in the same manner. He let the water flow over his broken flesh as he sobbed quietly to himself.
Brother F. walked across the gap between the table and the dresser and replaced his blood-stained stick. Then he turned his attention to the four of us once more.
"Let that be a lesson to all of ye, do ye hear?" If I hear any of ye using dirty language, that's what ye'll get. Foul, dirty, sinful language. Evil, that's what it is. Foul and evil. An insult to God. Just one word of foul language out of any of ye and ye won't be able to walk for a month!"
It was then I noticed that the crucifix, which was the badge of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, had worked its way loose from the belt of Brother Fitzpatrick's black habit during the ritualistic torture of Mick H. and now hung loosely from the cord around his neck, swinging gently to and fro as he spoke. The crucifix had the figure of Christ in brass on a black wooden cross. Brother F. seemed to notice it at the same time and hastily tucked it back into his belt. "Alright, get back to yere work, all of ye", he said, dismissing us. "And I repeat for the last time, don't ever let me hear any of ye using a foul word, for if ye do, then may God help ye because I won't".
I made my way across the hall to the priests' and brothers' refectory. I took a bundle of rags from the press and went down on my knees to shine the linoleum floor. I couldn't get the thought of Mick H.'s mutilated young arms out of my mind and the terrible agony and despair of his tortured face. I didn't realise it then, but that day was to be the turning point of my life. It was the day I lost my innocence. Hardly a day was to go by from that day to this without my recalling the obscenity of Mick H.'s desperate sufferings and total degradation.
It was all done for the greater glory of God and with the acquiescence of the Civil Authority. And I have never respected either concept since. And never will as long as I live.
The day began at Daingean Reformatory with the shrill sound of the nightwatchman's hand-bell as he paraded up and down the centre of the dormitory shouting, "Come on, wakey wakey! Get out of those beds and get dressed before Brother S. gets in!"
Brother S. was the Kerryman in charge of the dormitories and the wash-house and his round face was perpetually flushed with anger. He would arrive to take over from the civilian nightwatchman at 7.30 am. By then we would all have our beds made and would be lined up ready for the next phase of the never-changing daily ritual.
It was the middle of October 1947 when I arrived in Daingean and I was twelve-and-a-half years of age. The winter of that year was a particularly bitter one and the snow was heavy and stayed thick on the ground. We left the dormitory in two parallel lines and were marched by Brother S. through the dark, snow-covered grounds of the Reformatory. On the other side of the chapel was a long shed with small windows from which came a very faint light to punctuate the gloom. This shed had a single door at each end and as we, the junior boys, entered at one end, the senior boys (those from sixteen to twenty) were coming in at the other end. This shed was called the wash-house.
Both the senior and the junior boys were divided into sections called after different saints, and these sections were in turn arranged so as to keep the boys together as much as possible within their own age groups. Whenever the senior boys and the junior boys had to be brought together, the youngest section of the senior boys was deliberately positioned closest to the oldest section of the junior boys, and this progression went on so that the oldest boys in the senior sections were at all times farthest from the youngest boys in the junior sections. The significance of all these elaborate arrangements did not dawn on me for many months. The 24 brothers and five priests at Daingean Reformatory seemed to have an obsession with the Sixth Commandment.
The wash-house had a bare concrete floor and unpainted walls from which the plaster was crumbling. Like the dormitory, it had a number of bare 40-watt bulbs suspended on lengths of worn flex from the beams of the tin roof. The only furniture was a long wooden stand stretching from one end of the shed to the other down the middle of the floor. On this stand were positioned two parallel lines of tin basins already filled with water. There was only one tap in the wash-house to which was attached a long rubber hose for filling the basins.
The boys lined up on either side of the stand, facing each other, the junior boys at one end of the wash-house and the senior boys at the other, with the youngest of the senior boys closest to the oldest of the junior boys. Near each basin was a small piece of yellow soap the kind used for scrubbing floors. There was no heating in the wash-house and the ice was about a quarter of an inch thick in the basins. I copied the other boys and broke the ice with a quick jab of the elbow before having a wash in the freezing water.
Absolute silence had to be maintained at all times. The first words of the day could only be spoken at breakfast. Brother S. had departed and Brother A. was supervising the wash-house. He did this by standing on a wooden box at the point where the senior boys met the junior boys and watching every move and listening for the slightest whisper. Brother A. was nicknamed "The Killer". I found out why on that very first morning in Daingean.
Some boy was heard to whisper to another at the other end of the wash-house. Brother A. went red in the face. "If I catch the fella that's talking he won't be able to talk again for a long time!" he shouted. He had a harsh, grating voice. Then suddenly he seemed to notice something. He jumped down off the box and ran down to where the whisper had come from. He caught hold of a boy of about seventeen and proceeded to beat him methodically with his fists. He punched the boy in the face repeatedly until his lip was split and his nose spurted blood. In his frenzy, Brother A.'s crucifix worked its way loose from the belt of his cassock and, dangling from its neck cord, jumped about in a grotesque dance as he carried out his attack on the terrified boy.
Brother A. then resumed his position on the wooden box and glared up and down the wash-house. "Ye scum of the earth!" he screamed, addressing the inmates in general. "Ye dirty, filthy, good-for-nothing scum of the earth! Ye dirty pack of robbers! Ye will be no loss to anyone when ye go back to the dirty filthy hovels and the ignorant, illiterate fathers and mothers that ye came from!"
From the wash-house we were marched once more through the snow and darkness to the chapel for Mass. The bright lights and the heating were a welcome relief from the squalor we had just left. The youngest of the junior boys were up in the front pews and the older ones about half way down the chapel. One row of pews was then left empty to separate the youngest of the senior boys from the oldest of the junior boys. Further down towards the back of the chapel there was a wide gap separating the boys completely from the special pews for the priests and brothers. The Mass of course was in Latin and went on for about half an hour, being celebrated this morning by a Cork priest named Father C..
After Mass we were marched across the grounds of the Reformatory again to an enclosed, gravelled yard where Brother A. put us through half an hour of P.T. in the snow. Then, at long last, it was time for breakfast. Another march through the gloom to the boys' dining hall. And here another shock awaited me.
The dining hall was part of the main building and comprised the entire ground floor of one of the wings. The floor was scrubbed concrete and the walls were painted dark green. From the peeling white-washed ceiling hung the inevitable 40-watt bulbs. Along each of the two longer walls was a row of tables covered with black and white chequered linoleum like large chess boards. There was eight wooden kitchen chairs with spoked backs at each table. In front of each chair was a rusty tin mug filled with sugarless tea that had been poured out from buckets half an hour before and was now almost cold. Next to the mug was a chipped enamel plate half filled with watery porridge that had also been poured out half an hour before and was also now cold. (The boys working in the dining hall were excused P.T. so that they could do the pouring out well in advance of breakfast time). There was a small cob of bread for every two boys amounting to about two slices each.
The centre aisle of the dining hall was marked off from the table areas by two white lines that stretched the whole length of the hall. The boys, on entering the dining hall, had to stand with their toes just touching these white lines and facing each other in two long single files across the aisle, their backs to the tables. Brother S. was back in charge again. He waited until you could hear a pin drop and, since everyone was starving, he did not have long to wait. Then, very slowly and deliberately, he started to make the sign of the cross and we all followed suit. "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. And may the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen."
But some of the boys, in their impatient hunger, had rushed the grace before meals and Brother S. had noticed it. He made us say the prayer four more times before he was satisfied and by then we had already been ten minutes in the dining hall and the breakfast was stone cold. Finally, he clapped his hands together loudly as a signal for us to sit down.
The porridge was uneatable and the tiny pat of margarine was hardly sufficient for one of the two slices of bread. Everybody forced himself to drink the cold tea. There was nothing else.
Twenty minutes later Brother S. stopped his pacing up and down the centre aisle and, placing himself at the point where the oldest of the junior boys met the youngest of the senior boys, he slapped his hands together again about three or four times. Everybody went silent. He clapped his hands again, once, and we all resumed our positions with our toes to the white lines facing each other across the aisle. Again, slowly, and deliberately: "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen". Another pause whilst he listened for someone talking. "We give Thee thanks to almighty God for all Thy benefits, who livest and reignest world without end. Amen. And may the souls of the faithful departed through the grace of God rest in peace. Amen."
The grace after meals had to be said three times before Brother S. was satisfied that we were really grateful to God for his bounty. Then we were marched off to our various jobs.
I couldn't help reflecting as we left the dining hall that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate seemed to be more concerned with the dead and their sins than with the living and their sufferings. It was going to be a long three years.