No one refuses a bargain. You might be checking out a funky 1960s coat at Se Si or a well-made pine table in an auction rooms and if you can get it for bottom dollar why say no? Rich as some of us are, everyone knows that if you count the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves. The extra few bob come in handy, especially at this time of year. There is one bargain basement, benefit-in-kind which will not be the subject of a Public Accounts Committee investigation – that of the exploitation of child labour. Before getting into detail, let me acknowledge the debt this column owes to Questions And Answers, and specifically to a remark made there last Monday by journalist Breda O’Brien. Without her shared memories of her rural childhood, the insight she hit on would be consigned to the pages of Suffer The Little Children, by Ms Mary Raftery and Dr Eoin O’Sullivan, a book about which she is somewhat sceptical. And I would be fingering funky coats and pine tables without a second thought. Ms O’Brien has been very busy since she hit the headlines trying to dispute certain facts reported there. Fintan O’Toole noted recently the “extravagant claims she made for her professional capability” in the matter while, of course, respecting her standing as a journalist.
The book is a must-read for every citizen, drawing as it does not only on over two years’ research by the award-winning Ms Raftery, who was accountable to RTE for the original programme’s accuracy, but on close to a decade’s academic scrutiny by Dr O’Sullivan, whose rigour won him a Ph.D. from Trinity College. Nothing it says has been disproved. Unfortunately, Ms O’Brien’s words coincided with the timing of a debate about the Statute of Limitations Bill, a blunt and arguably unfair instrument now passed by the Dail and about to be heard in the Seanad. Doubly unfortunate is their coincidence with Dr Patricia Casey’s public remarks about the condition labelled “false memory syndrome”, along with her earlier opinions about what she perceives as shortcomings in both the social worker and counselling professions. Incidentally, those two professions are the principal routes to uncovering child abuse and helping victims survive it. MS O’Brien shared with us her childhood memories of Artane boys who worked on her father’s farm. It was a touching moment. You glimpsed a family bond which was strong and enduring, close enough for that little girl to ask her daddy if the rumours about Artane were true. He explained that he had also been punished at school.
The unasked question was did everyone have a rough time then? There is a world of difference between being hit with a strap, as my father was also, and being beaten within an inch of your life. We blur that distinction at our peril.
The facts about child labour uncovered by Dr O’Sullivan and Ms Raftery are shocking. So many people gained from the unpaid or underpaid work of industrial and reformatory school children that their sweat, blood and tears are buried deep within this economy. People could, and did, buy their produce for half-nothing. Many of those goods survive today. “Artane’s vast army of 800 boys worked the school’s 290-acre farm of prime land. Well into the 1960s, no labour-saving machinery had been purchased . . . With so much free child labour, Brothers presumably felt there was no need,” according to the book. Meat, eggs and dairy products were sold from Artane at market prices until the 1970s. No available records disprove the assertion that profits were denied to the boys who had helped create them. Individual testimony tells how boys were sometimes hired out to farms and businesses who needed an extra hand. The effect was to offer an invisible layer of subsidy to farms and businesses who would otherwise have to pay considerably higher labour rates.
Older boys often went directly from Artane to be boarded out as farm labourers. Some were never paid, others were paid a low rate directly into an account controlled by the Brothers, with no guarantee that the boys would ever see it. Some were treated badly; others were encouraged and fed well for the first time in their lives. THE demand for both farm labour and domestic servants was such as to encourage some school managers to reduce the children’s formal education on the basis that it would not get them a job. Within the schools, inmates did the heavy work, which saved on the need for paid staff and thus kept fees down in boarding for the day-pupil children from “respectable” families. Trained to be meek, the boys and girls were biddable and vulnerable when they took up employment outside. Dr Mona Hearne’s research on domestic servants revealed that attempts to unionise the sector never succeeded: you couldn’t afford to alienate your employer because only a reference from him or her would secure you another job. For former inmates, the choice otherwise was to be returned to a school or Magdalen laundry.
Even if people didn’t buy the rashers and sausages and eggs they produced for their high-fat Irish breakfasts, or get a “little girl” to do the heavy work, other benefits accrued to those who used their products and services. Tailored clothes rosary beads, hand-finished furniture, souvenirs and ornaments, boots and shoes were made by the schools. Mattresses were stuffed by hand, slip-overs and head-rests painstakingly sewn, tablecloths crocheted, embroidered or laundered according to need. All were sold relatively cheaply, keeping consumer prices down for those items. Everything was made possible by the institutional Catholic Church in Ireland. In the absence of contrary evidence, it still stands accused of pocketing the profits for unspecified purposes, and encouraging people who might otherwise have claimed to be “good Catholics” to exploit their labour with official approval.
Buried in our thriving GNP is the unpaid debt we owe those workers. I’m dedicating my Millennium Candle to them.
Irish Times: Mon 12 Dec 1999